Friday, August 7, 2009

"Shelter Skelter"

The 30th Street Men's Shelter in lower Manhattan

Homeless Journalist Rips Bloomberg Over Abuse, Drugs & Rape in NYC Shelters

This article will shock and perhaps anger you. I truly hope that it does. I hope people will be so angry that they’ll finally wake up and realize that Mayor Michael Bloomberg, in his attempt to display New York City as “Emerald City”, is not only supporting the idea of one-way tickets for the homeless to get rid of them, he is blatantly ignoring dangerous situations and extremely unhealthy conditions within the city's shelter system. This is not hyperbole. This is a fact based on my decent into homelessness!

When explaining the Beatles classic song 'Helter Skelter', Sir Paul McCartney said he was using the symbol of a helter skelter to restructure the rock and roll sound. “It could be described as a ride from the top to the bottom—the rise and fall of the Roman Empire," said McCartney. Well, my fall began back in March of 2009. I was working a Staff Writer for “Felony Magazine” and as an account manager for a Brooklyn-based marketing and sales company called “Max Advance”. One day, completely out of the blue, both companies shut down without any warning, and I was left absolutely destitute. I didn’t even have time to look for another job before the axes fell. I couldn’t even file for unemployment because I hadn’t worked for either company long enough.

I scrambled to pick up gigs in and outside of journalism just to keep a roof over my head and food on the table, but the economic climate prevented that from ever happening. My family lives in different parts of the country and is having a tough time, too. Thus, living with them, even temporarily, was not an option. Dejected and embarrassed, I was forced onto the streets June 10 with no job prospects, no money and no hope.

I spent most nights walking from one end of uptown Manhattan to the other or riding the “A” or “E” train back and forth. Staying in one location for too long when you’re on the streets is dangerous, so I had to keep moving. I heard stories in the past about the city shelters, so I was a little reluctant to seek them out for assistance. Thus, I attempted to spend a few nights huddled in little, dark corners of buildings, particularly around 34th Street and Penn Station. This is where the hell ride began.... and where I saw the worst in humanity.

In one example, a Port Authority (P.A.) police officer, who was of Asian decent, was cursing and threatening a frail, black woman who was clearly mentally ill and no more than 100 pounds soaking wet. “Get the fuck out of here before I put my foot in your ass”, said the officer, as the woman paced back and forth mumbling incoherently. The woman offered no resistance and continued to mumble as she made her way toward an exit. The officer, apparently not satisfied that she was moving fast enough, began to literally stalk her. The most alarming aspect was the fact that he put on his gloves and punched his palms as he followed her into a secluded section on the station. I have no idea what happened after that.

Another incident involved officers standing over sleeping vagrants and kicking them to wake them up. Some were grabbed, shoved and pushed into walls and told to exit the station. I would repeatedly pass groups of P.A. officers, who probably pegged me for homeless because of my knapsack and travel bags, and they’d glare at me as though I was a piece of shit. No “How are you, sir?” or anything in the way of a cordial response. One of them asked, “What are you looking at, asshole? Keep moving!” I just laughed and walked away. Now, I understand the Port Authority police have a job to do, but I couldn’t understand why people lacking their full mental capacity, or those like myself who were simply minding their own business, were treated so harshly or as though they were less than human.

After several days, I finally decided to go to a shelter because fatigue and hunger began to take a serious toll. I wearily made my way to 41st Street and Ninth Avenue. The facility was called “The Open Door”, and the line of disheveled and displaced people, which consisted of military veterans, very young mothers and people recently released from prison or drug rehabilitation programs, seemed infinite. I was informed that all were waiting to be served dinner and that everyone would have to come back outside to line up and get a bed for the night. There was no guarantee you'd get a bed. The only guarantee was that the “bed line” would be three to four-times longer than the dinner line. That's what most of the veterans told me.

I sat on the ground watching young mothers nurse their children. Old men were nodding off as if in a drug-induced state, while others sold “loosie” cigarettes for fifty cents each. Tattooed gang-bangers brazenly stood in line making drug sales with police cars in close proximity. Watching them sell a myriad of drugs was one thing, but when the dealers and customers started “weeding up” in front of young children, that was more than I could take. I covered my nose, and one of the gang members took offense. “What? You got a problem, bitch? You got a fuckin' problem,” he yelled. “Yeah, I do. You need to smoke that somewhere away from these kids,” I proclaimed.” His homeboy walked over and said “My bad, son!” and they walked away.

There was no security to be found. I asked a man seated next to me about it, who happened to be wearing a U.S. Navy veteran cap, and he indicated there was never any security in front of the building. “They’re always inside. If you want to know the truth about it, they don’t and can’t protect anybody here,” he said. “You see that pregnant woman over there? Someone in the shelter raped her. That kind of thing happens all the time in these damn places. I’ve seen it, and it sickens me. All these young girls getting pregnant because they get raped,” the veteran continued. A 38-year-old woman seated a few feet away from us, who only wanted to be identified as “Cheena”, exhaled cigarette smoke and nodded in disgust and agreement.

“You got some crazy-ass, out of control people here, man. You got convicted murderers, gang members, mental patients, rapists and pedophiles mixed with members of the general population. That is a recipe for disaster,” said the man I dubbed “Old Navy”. “The shelters are the worst place for children because of what they see and what can happen to them. This is why people don’t want to go and would rather take their chances on the streets or subways,” he continued. It was at this point that the gang member returned and began to stare at me. Old Navy whispered in my ear. “Be careful, young man. Someone cut him in the food line two weeks ago, and he picked up one of those metal trashcans and hit the person in the head. Busted him wide open! The man needed 40 stitches to close the wound. I’m telling you, man. The shelters are a dangerous place. People have no idea.” The gang member walked over and deliberately brushed up against me. With 34 years of experience in Chinese martial arts, I confidently stated, “You touch me again and you’re going to the morgue.” He pulled out his cell phone and someone in line said, “Oh shit! It’s on now!” It was then that I realized horrid, tasteless, processed food the size of a “Lean Cuisine” meal wasn’t worth risking my life for, let alone a bed. I left The Open Door and never returned.

I spent several more nights on the trains before I ended up at the 30th Street Men's Shelter on 29th Street and First Avenue. Not surprisingly, the facility once served as Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital. Everything from the registration process to the administrators was in total disarray, and people would often spend 10 to 12 hours, usually crammed into a small room filled with the stench of bad hygiene and urine, just waiting to be processed or to receive what's known as an “overnight bed”. This is where I met “Eric”, a 21-year-old Caucasian and exceptionally gifted sketch artist from upstate New York struggling with substance abuse. “I came from a good family, man. My parents are wealthy as hell and gave me a lot of love. How I ended up on drugs and in a shit-hole like this is beyond me,” he said. In effort to clean himself up, he was making plans to regularly attend Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings.

“Joey”, 43, was an Italian construction worker and respected leader within one of the largest unions in the state. His manner of speaking made him seem as though he was straight out of “The Sopranos”. His wife, whom he always referred to as “the cunt”, had him arrested and banished him from their home after he drank a bottle of vodka and tried to attack her lover, a 23-year veteran of the New York City Police Department, with a machete. “That fuckin' cunt! She and that motherfucker are eating food I bought and having sex in my bed.... in a house that I'm still paying the fuckin' mortgage on. The cunt won't even let me talk to my 16-year-old daughter! It's fuckin' Father's Day, for Christ's sake,” he yelled. He, too, was making plans to go into rehab because he wanted to be able to spend quality time with his daughter and acquire work on a frequent basis.

“Black”, 28, was an electrician transplanted from the island of Jamaica. He was doing amateur porn films on the side to earn extra money after work dried up in his field. “I've made enough money to pay my way into the electrician's union. I did about five films, at $500 to $600 a pop, with some of the hottest female stars in the biz. I didn't fuck those bitches raw, though. I love to fuck, but I'm not stupid,” he said. “I'll be called for electrician's gigs in the coming weeks and I'll leave the porn biz. I just did it to make money to get into the union. Now, I'm out!” Several men inquired as to how they could take advantage of the offer, and Black provided them with an address and contact name for immediate work.

“Jim”, 51, was a former broker who lost everything in the Wall Street meltdown of AIG, Merrill Lynch and Bear-Sterns. Clinging tightly to his bags, he nervously looked around the room repeatedly, which was filled with black and Latino men. Someone broke into his locker during an overnight stay and stole his wallet. His clean-cut, Khaki pant, Bob Costas appearance completely jolted me because he didn't fit the description of those typically associated with homelessness. Then again, neither did I. The director of security indicated that they would do all they could to locate his property. Jim, apparently frustrated beyond words, wheeled his three suitcases through the front entrance and disappeared, while the director and members of his security team repeatedly joked about the situation and made fun of him.

“T-Rex”, 25, was a former member of the “The Bloods”. You could say he was born into it, since his father was a high-profile member and his mother swore allegiance to “The Latin Kings”. He was desperately trying to turn his life around by enrolling in the Doe Fund Inc's “Ready, Willing and Able” training and employment program. The shelter caseworkers provided referrals for the program, if they felt like it. T-Rex left the gang after fathering an infant daughter. He is expecting his second child soon. Thus, he plans to reunite with the mother of his children and provide a loving, safe and stable environment for his family.

I ultimately formed a unique bond with some of the men at the shelter, and it was from them, as well as frustrated and tenured shelter administrators, that I discovered many of the New York City shelters were just as appalling as the 30th Street Men's Shelter: from the moldy, feces-smeared shower curtains and slimy, bacteria-filled shower the callous, rude and judgmental security personnel. To be honest, the security guards were in no position to judge anyone; not when they were openly using the word nigger and having sex with fellow guards and shelter residents! I literally saw male guards touching the breast, ass and vagina of the female guards. Now, let me stress that some of the guards understood that they were only one paycheck away from being in our position and had sympathy for us, but most of the wannabe cops acted like they were superior in every way to each homeless person they encountered, including me. I suspect they'll regret how they treated me and the others after this article goes public. Fuck'em!

Through it all, I constantly battled to keep my sanity. The countless restrictions that were enforced, such as not being able to use electrical outlets or appliances – even small radios or televisions - and 10 pm curfew created a prison-like atmosphere. Hardened criminals, murderers, gang-bangers and the mentally unstable were quick to confront you if you so much as looked at them the wrong way. This combustible cocktail was bad enough, but what made the situation worse was when the inner demons began ripping and devouring pieces of my self-esteem and faith in God. They often appeared at night to torment me. “You’re a sorry, worthless bastard! So what if you’ve helped hundreds of people with your news stories and features! So what if you've received commendations for journalism and community service from some of the most prominent government officials in the country! Look at you now! You’re a fuckin’ loser! Some of your closest friends have abandoned you because they’re embarrassed and ashamed of you. No woman will have your homeless, pathetic, broke ass!” These are some of the things the demons would say, but what kept me focused was the fact that I was going to have a major story to tell that thousands, if not millions, would want to hear once I left Bellevue, or, as I affectionately referred to it, “Hellview”. As I post this article, I pray that will still be the case.

After much procrastination and resistance, I filed for public assistance. They indicated they could find me decent housing through the New York City Housing Authority, but it wasn't guaranteed. There's an exceedingly long waiting list and single, “undomicled” men are not considered priority. I doubt they'll be in a hurry to find me anything after this article hits the Internet. I'll take my chances. I hated filing because I prefer to work, and I pray that I will be given an opportunity to expand my career in the field of journalism or scriptwriting. I don't want to be on public assistance or get caught up in its hellish system. I've been gainfully employed most of my adult life and feel as though I've taking a major step back for a man in his late 40’s. One of the employees at the Jamaica (Queens) Social Services office put everything in perspective for me after discovering I was a journalist and writer.

“This is only temporary, young man. I think God wants you to go through this. Who better to write about all this than a journalist? You’ve gone through the shelter and welfare system and have a mountain of evidence to prove it. The public needs to know these things are happening, and it's happening at facilities that provide these services nationwide. In New York, the Department of Social Services has reached a crisis point and we, as employees, have our hands tied,” she said. “We want to do so much more to help these people, but the system won't allow us to. Abuse is running rampant throughout the shelter system. I hear horror stories every single day. People are not safe! Bloomberg acts like everything is okay, but the fact is he and his people need to step up, stop doing so much for the wealthy and help those in need. Buying homeless people one-way tickets is not the answer,” she strongly proclaimed. “I don't expect him to fix everything in the shelter system, but I expect him to find ways to improve the system so people and families can feel safe and seek them out when they have no place else to go. Just imagine how many young, single mothers with babies are on the street right now because they fear the shelters! God willing, your story will force the mayor to open his damn eyes, set things in motion and implement some serious changes.”

I'm entering my seventh week of this ordeal, and I have no idea what fate awaits me in the coming days, weeks and months. I'm no longer at Hellview, but I'm still in a New York City shelter. The restrictions, as well as the asinine programs you're required to attend in order to qualify and maintain benefits through the Department of Social Services, are greatly affecting my ability to write and meet with people that could help me and my career. All I know is that I'm fighting a lonely battle to regain employment in or outside the profession I love, a place to call my own and a sense of peace. With that said, I would like to direct my closing statement to Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the members of his callous, oblivious and well-heeled administration.

Mr. Mayor, in many respects, you have been good for New York City. You now seek a third term, and while you have managed to gain quite a following in the city and abroad, now is the time to step up your ass up and prove that you are a mayor for all people and not just the wealthy. You cannot claim to be doing great things for the city of New York and all New Yorkers when people – particularly mothers with infant children – are forced to live among crack or heroin addicts....or raped and impregnated in your shelters. Cut the bullshit! You're a tough man, Mr. Mayor, but I seriously doubt you would be able to tolerate the streets, a city shelter or the E train for several nights. In fact, I'm issuing a public challenge for you to try living in a city shelter for three days, without any special treatment or assistance from your staffers, in order to have a complete understanding of what desperation and homelessness are all about. Do you have the billion-dollar balls to do it? It's hell, and it's no damn joke, Mr. Mayor. Take it from someone who has become the latest addition to the homeless population in “Bloom-Town”.

Photo credit: Flickr

Author: edenpictures

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Portrait of a Christian Soldier

Beloved Evangelist Battles Deadly Illness

Evangelist Lynette Jennings, 56, has used her powerful voice to preach the word of God for many years at Mount Olive Word of Life Church, and she has developed a loving and loyal following in the process. Raised in Daytona, Florida, she spent a great deal of time daydreaming about the nursing profession. “As a child, I always wanted to become a nurse,” said Jennings. “Helping people to feel better is what I've always wanted to do, and I eventually focused all my time and effort on pursuing a career in the nursing field.”

Jennings enrolled in Portsmouth Nursing Technical School in Virginia, where she has resided since the age of 15. Several years later, she married and gave birth to four children; three sons and a daughter. After the birth of her youngest son, and while Jennings was still attending nursing school, the company her husband worked for shut down. He opted to become a merchant seaman and was transferred out of the state for six months. “I ended up having to raise my family on my own. I had no one to help me, and I was forced to take all types of odd jobs just to pay bills and feed my family,” stated Jennings. “After I helped my children with their homework, I had to do mine. It was an extremely difficult time, but I had to make sure my children were taken care of. Keeping my home in order, while pursuing my dream, involved a tremendous amount of work. Still, I was able to prevail because of my faith in God and my family.”

Despite her hardships, the proud mother and devout Christian forged ahead and received numerous awards and acknowledgments for her work in nursing and the church. Her accomplishments in the area of religion offered her the opportunity to work with the renowned Bishop Alfred Owens and his wife, Susie, among others. “It was a happy time in my life. Things were going well, and my home and children were intact. Then, I started experiencing health problems in 1995. I had severe stomach pains and would pass out at a moment's notice,” stated Jennings. “After a series of tests, doctors told me I needed a Small Bowel transplant. I'm still waiting for a donor. If I'm not able to have it, I will die.”

When describing how the illness dramatically changed her lifestyle, Jennings did not mince words. “It was extremely difficult for me to eat or socialize, and I suffered through many sleepless nights because I was constantly in pain. The worst part of it all was the fact that I was not able to take care of my children because I was taking so many medications. The side-effects made the situation even worse.”

Now that her health is rapidly declining, Jennings hopes that people in and outside of the Christian community will offer prayers and emotional support for her and her children. “My children still have a hard time dealing with my illness. They have suffered emotional withdrawal, and it hurts me so much to see them in pain,” she tearfully exclaimed. “Every time I go into the hospital, they don't know if it'll be the last time they'll see their mother. It hurts me so. I love my children so much. I want to be there for them, so I ask that people pray for me and for a miracle. The situation is dire, but if this experience has taught me anything, it’s that I’m stronger than I ever thought I could be because I chose to live, love God…and forgive.

A fund has been set up by family and friends of Evangelist Jennings, through the National Transplant Assistance Fund & Catastrophic Injury Program, to help pay for uninsured medical expenses. For more information on how you can contribute, please visit the following link:

Photo credit: Evangelist Lynette Jennings