October 26, 2016
NEW YORK, NY
“Do you have a light?” The woman looks up at me, pack of Newports clutched between fingers. Her eyes are lined heavily, her face pierced, her slick hair curled and draped artfully over one shoulder. Large Ankh cross earrings loom on either side of her face- bold ornaments offsetting her petite frame. Yet already straining through the assertive appearance are the hints of vulnerability: her hesitant stance, her masked need. It’s an innocuous question, posed just inside the door to the HELP Women’s Homeless Shelter in Brooklyn, but one that will quickly evolve into the confession of a tragic narrative, riddled with unanswered questions, agonizing circumstances, and pleas for justice.
The woman is Julie Ramirez, 49, and she is a survivor of domestic violence and resident of the Brooklyn shelter since October 14th. Despite being so recent a resident, she already harbors deep impressions of the temporary home, with words like “toxic” and “horrific” spilling out between desperate breaths. The shelter- though designated for women exactly like Julie- has been ineffective, she says, failing to provide the comfort and safety she needs in the wake of her trauma. “It’s just so much and you’re not even equipped,” she says. “I’m not a lowlife, I just need help.”
Julie’s Social Security Income payments of $733 a month provide sustenance, but not enough to live comfortably in New York. After two years of being beaten and mustering the courage to finally leave her abuser, Julie has now been homeless for months. Between a shelter and a hard place, she struggles to regain her footing. Finding adequate refuge, however, has proved difficult.
For many women this is the reality; the epidemic of homelessness in America has snowballed, especially in New York with increasingly unaffordable housing and especially for single adults with limited income and less attention from prevention programs. Domestic violence complicates the situation, which up to 57 percent of women report as the immediate cause of their homelessness, according to studies published by the Department of Health and Human Services. If this percentage is applied to the 4,000 women the Coalition for the Homeless reports sleeping in New York City shelters each night, that’s 2,280 women without homes tonight because of abuse.
Julie inhales four cigarettes as we walk in search of a diner where we can talk comfortably. She has never smoked this much in her life, she says, particularly because it aggravates her severe chronic asthma, but lately her nerves surge with the stress of waiting. For a few months prior to last Friday, she had been living in a shelter in the Bronx. They forced her to leave, however, when a family acquaintance violated the guest and drug policies- just weeks before she was to receive a federal housing voucher, which would allow her to live alone with the help of a subsidy.
“Sign here, you’ll have your own life,” she mimics, a “phony promise” that she says Safe Horizon, a victim assistance program, made to her.
She calls her current shelter a “step-up from prison,” where allegedly, fungus festers in the shower and maintenance paint over layers of dirt, triggering her OCD. She claims the occurrence of prostitution between residents and staff, as well as unchecked drug use. The other women fight so often that sleep becomes difficult, and the workers, she says, simply tell them to “take it three blocks away.” This same shelter, in fact, came under fire in August when a New York Daily News article presented claims of an unsanitary, neglectful atmosphere.
Julie’s eyes slide sideways when she speaks, and tears slip free. She says she has a fever that won’t subside. Accustomed to having psych consultations twice a week, she now just picks up prescriptions. “I don’t want a dependency,” she says. “I want to be able to talk to someone.”
Contrary to Julie’s story, the HELP website describes itself as “a leader in the field of domestic violence services,” providing “much needed support and safety.”
Part of the problem lies in the programmatic and budgetary failures of New York City and State. Policy analyst at the Coalition for the Homeless, Jacqueline Simone, explains that the goal is for the two to work together, with Mayor de Blasio taking action to ensure that all shelters are up to par, and Governor Cuomo allocating the now-stagnant $2 billion budgeted for affordable and supportive housing. Supportive housing, Simone continues, aims to promote wellness and stability with on-site services. Though the focus is on mental illness, it could potentially couple well with domestic abuse victims.
Julie and I eventually locate a nearby diner, nestled just to the side of the tangled subway lines overhead. Even as she cries at the thought of the shelter four blocks away, she keeps a protective hold on me, shielding me from both traffic and leering men. Once there, we order coffees to fight the coming evening chill.
After plopping into a booth and peeling off faux fur gloves, however, Julie snaps at an eager waitress. Seconds later, she is filled with shame. “I’m not liking who I am these days,” she says, recognizing that she’s lashed out. “Being treated like nothing takes you out of who you are and how you were raised.” And her childhood, she tells me, was very fortunate. Growing up in Brooklyn, her family didn’t have much money- especially with one sister and six brothers- but they were tightknit. Her mother, now 84 and living in Brooklyn with Julie’s oldest brother, still calls regularly as one of the few family members who knows the extent of Julie’s situation. Not even Julie’s 21-year-old son, Cody, knows how much she has been suffering. Though she couldn’t afford to send him to anything other than community college, Julie gushes about his intelligence and his new job with UPS. When Julie regrets how she didn’t “make anything of [herself],” as a housewife, she remembers Cody. The thing that scares her most in this world- more than the shelter, more than the abuse she endured for years- is disappointing her son.
Before Julie was with her abuser, she and Robert, the man she refers to as her husband though they never technically married, were together for 23 years. They had a house in Staten Island, where Cody’s friends always slept over and which served as the “romp-around.” On her charging phone, Julie shows me a Facebook “memory” notification she received today of that very house 13 years ago, when Cody was eight. The screen shows Julie, Robert, and Cody, huddled together in the doorway of the Halloween-decorated home, and all of them in costume. She smiles at the memory, but winces when she tells me of Robert’s end-all affair.
After that, she moved back to Brooklyn, and in 2009, began dating Julio. He helped herout of her depression, the wreckage of her failed marriage. “He fixed all that,” she says, “and then took it away from me.” Until about two years ago, they had been living separately. When Julie was evicted from her illegal basement apartment in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, however, she moved in with him. Although she says that’s when the violence started, the signs were always there. “It was adventurous and I was trying to escape the pain of my family, so I wasn’t really paying attention,” Julie says. Once living together, Julio began to beat her, enraged at the fact that her and Robert still maintained a friendship. She claims he would punch her, choke her, and call her names. On one occasion, she says he attacked her with acid, spilling it on her legs.
She would hide letters around the apartment, which said that if anything happened to her, Julio did it and that her body would be in the ocean because he owned a boat. Though sent to jail five times throughout the course of their relationship, Julio is now at the apartment where Julie left, but where her dog, Cookie, remains.
At the diner, Julie pulls out a book called Making Good Habits by Joyce Meyer, one she’s been reading repeatedly. It’s about changing the negative “and making it work for you,” she says with a smile. She tries to educate the younger women around her, helping them “get it togetha” as she puts it, complete with a Brooklyn drawl. “We have enough hatred in the world,” she begins. “Let us women work together. If we’re not getting help from the city, why don’t we help each other?” She wishes to act as an advocate against domestic violence, to help other girls understand that their abuse is not their fault.
It is dark outside when we leave the diner, car horns and track screeches filling the air. Though Julie tries to be positive, her situation remains dire. “I feel like I’m dying slowly here, being completely drained.” She wonders how the government is spending so much and still seeming to neglect people like her. “Where is the money going? And where is the help?” she asks. Currently, the shelter system is more expensive than if its residents just had individual apartments. Julie calls on Governor Cuomo for action and informance. Aside from an investigation into the Human Resources Administration, she hopes for a restructuring of the shelter system, placing women into categorical housing units for domestic violence victims, those with mental illnesses, and those with drugs addictions.
We arrive back at the shelter on Williams Ave, which sits there cloaked in silence. Julie’s face is brighter, her sorrow eclipsed by hope. “I know I’m not giving up,” she says. “If you sit around, you’ll fall through the cracks of the system. You’ll never get out of here.” We embrace and wish each other well. I leave her standing in front of the building, smoking a cigarette.