Testimony: The Bridge is Over

I thank you all for taking time to hear my story. But before I begin, I must ask you a question: If you see someone about to jump off a bridge, and it’s within your power to save them, please raise your hand if you would do something to help?

My story begins with me telling you: I wanted to end my homelessness so bad, I was ready to jump off a bridge.

I had the perfect one picked out: the 103rd Street pedestrian bridge, which connects Ward’s Island to Spanish Harlem and overlooks the East River. It was close to the Keener Men’s Shelter, where I resided, which meant less travel time (which meant less chance of changing my mind), and its guardrails were low enough for even me and my bad legs to easily climb over.

I couldn’t take it anymore. And the funny thing about not being able to take it anymore is that it’s always something seemingly minor that breaks you: for me, a 79-cents bag of Peanut M&M’s literally pushed me over the edge. That evening, when I entered the shelter, a security guard confiscated my dinner: the M&M’s on sale at Duane Reade, which I purchased with my last dollar. I felt so belittled, so powerless, so ready to end it all. And that’s what I set out to do. 

What I want to do is bring attention to the housing process, its dismal shortcomings and the tragically tall consequences that derive from them. We need you to improve the housing process—make it easier to navigate, more streamlined to lessen its unnecessary difficulties, and guarantee a positive outcome—so that an individual’s homelessness doesn’t last indefinitely and that it eventually ends with a home, instead of jumping off a bridge.

You can get this done by first increasing the amount of available housing: turn all of these abandoned buildings around the city into homes for people; stop building new shelters and build new homes; the same money the city pays to keep people in shelters, a fraction of that can be used to fund rental assistance programs that allow them to live in their own homes—with dignity, safety and joy.

Agencies and organizations that facilitate the city’s housing process should be better coordinated and limited in the demands they place on homeless individuals: Background checks should be limited to an individual’s now; don’t punish people for the past that led them to be homeless. Homelessness shouldn’t be punitive.

Completely do away with housing application fees. What sense does it make to ask for something–$15 here, $25 there—from people who have nothing? This is an example of an absolutely unneeded and insidious barrier to obtaining housing.

Institute reforms that create a finite housing process; it should work similar to an accelerated version of Section 8: your name goes on a list and when it’s your time, it’s your time—you move out the shelter (with the same string-less ease with which you entered it) and move into your own home. It’s realistic to expect varying time lengths, but no one should be in shelter longer than the time it takes to graduate from a four-year college.

Shelter is survival mode 24/7, a constant fight for your life; it’s not healthy to stay in that frame of mind for prolonged periods of time—it will drive you crazy—even soldiers in highly hostile war zones take leave from the battlefield. It’s time to add a new battle cry to the social justice lexicon: not only is the rent “too damn high,” but getting out the shelter is “too damn hard.”

“Getting out of the shelter system…it’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever seen anyone do.” My therapist told me that; I thought he would’ve used kicking heroin, or defending your doctoral dissertation, as examples of things that are really hard to do. But no, he said, “getting out of the shelter system.”

On television you can spend years living in an unhealthy environment and still be a healthy character, but not in the Twilight Zone known as the shelter, where you: routinely see feces on the floor, on the shower stall wall, in the urinal, everywhere except for in the toilet; wash up in water that’s as cold as the artic; sleep in rooms that feel like a preheated oven. But the most troubling aspect of living in the shelter is the fly-dropping death rate: Bounce, Miller, Shorty, Mustafa, Juan, the new Spanish guy on the third floor, Jimmy, Big Man, Mr. K and Harlem—those are all men (that I know of) who died in the shelter system.

People are dying in shelter because homelessness has become a commodity; business is booming for these privately-owned shelters. Help change this; we can do better. Today, in our country, it’s extremely profitable to be in the business of the bottom-line: building child-size cages; manufacturing aluminum blankets that provide warmth from the cold-heartedness of separating mothers from their babies; warehousing human beings in homeless shelters when it’s completely feasible (and morally imperative) to get them homes. The bottom dropped out a long time ago and as a society we are out of line. Will any of you step up? Are any of you willing to save lives, to save human beings from homelessness and honor their full worth?   

When you’re living in a homeless shelter, “outside the circle of concern,” you become a second-class human being—losing your dignity and having your humanity marginalized—being in constant danger, pain, suffering, misery, filth, violence, despair, hopelessness, dysfunction and oppression. This will test the limits of your sanity—and if you do not have support, if you don’t have allies, if you don’t have anyone willing to help you not jump off a bridge, you will fail.

You will die with a locker full of dirty clothes. Why? Because it’s damn near impossible to get your clothes washed in the shelter: Either the machines don’t work or the staff member who has the key to the laundry room is serving food in the cafeteria. And the only thing worse than dying with dirty clothes, is dying a preventable death; you could be alive with joy in your home, for less than what the city pays for the privately-owned shelter you died in.

It’s truly a matter of life and death. And right now, death is winning. I almost killed myself. There are people in homeless shelters contemplating suicide right now, others are dying slow deaths, and many are already dead. Today, I’ve told you what you can do to save lives and now I’m calling you to action. Make a way for the homeless to obtain housing—an expeditious way—before more people go crazy or attempt suicide.

In closing, you’re probably wondering why I didn’t jump that night. I kid you not, as I approached the railing a racoon, bigger than a 24-bottle pack of Poland Spring water—came racing across the bridge, directly cutting off my path. Now look, jumping off a bridge is one thing but there have always been three worst case death scenarios that I wanted no part of: 3) tangling with a rabid racoon; 2) dying with dirty underwear on; and 1) dying inside a homeless shelter.

When you die in the homeless shelter, they don’t even know you’re dead until the new person they gave your bed to finds you. After they find you, you’ll decompose a little more until they figure out what to do; you’d think with so many opportunities to practice, they would’ve mastered the procedural process by now; then you’re carried out in a black body bag and tossed into the into the back of the Medical Examiner’s van. Oddly enough, the homeless get treated in death with the same disdain and lack of compassion they encounter in life. You can change this; we can do better. It only takes ONE THING to stop ALL this suffering; it only takes ONE THING to stop someone from jumping off a bridge—and that is ensuring they obtain housing—I’m living proof.

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