A campaign from the Safety Net Project & Safety Net Activists
Click on the images to read their stories
I started working at 12-years-old, just like my Dad before me. We worked construction and house framing and concrete work. As a teen, I was told how lucky I was to only have to work part-time and be able to go to school because my grandmother was forced to drop out of school and work full-time, year-round when she was 14-years old to help support her family. After that, for over 20 years, I worked for corporations, including AOL and a high security clearance job in the financial sector. So, I have paid into “the system” since the 1970’s.
But at 49 years old, I had surgery that left me disabled with neurological damage and unable to work. I receive Medicaid and Medicare, assistance with housing, and SNAP benefits. I wish that people knew what it was really like to apply for public benefits - people have to go through a lot to receive benefits they’re entitled to. You would be surprised the range of reasons people have for needing help, it’s never as obvious as people assume. I paid taxes into Social Security and Medicaid for decades to help others, and now when I need help, Congress is trying to take it all away.
My name is Peter, and I am a baby boomer from Queens. My first experience with Public Assistance was actually working for them. After losing my father, however, I became seriously depressed and subsequently became homeless. I gained a purpose for living again after answering questions at church and from there my career path took me through many organizations around the city.
In 2011, the effects of the World Trade Center attacks and my traumatic experience of living on the street caught up to me when I was sexually harassed at the job I was working at. I became a nervous wreck and homeless again.
I am now working with the Safety Net Activists to help fix the mess that is public housing, preventing growth of homelessness, and working towards the original plans to end homelessness and poverty in NYC and beyond.
I’ve lived in New York City most of my life - I was born in Brooklyn and worked in Manhattan for a long time. My family spread out to different states and the people who had the money, land, houses, cars didn’t always want to share. My parents passed away and some of my other relatives too, so I’ve been on my own since I was about 16 or 17.
People can be surprising - that’s why you never can look at a person and say “that person is homeless or that person is this or that.” Poverty and homelessness strike people at all different levels, so it’s never right to stereotype someone or judge them before you hear their story. I am passionate about helping people and trying to improve the quality of life for all humans, but you almost have to be a superhero to make a difference these days. That being said, never forget that many superheroes were just regular people before their circumstances transformed them and made them what they are.
I’m from Brooklyn, born and raised, but I was living in California before my parents passed away some years ago. I came back to New York to settle the estate, but the unemployment benefits I received from the state of California were cut off because they assumed that being in NY meant that I wasn’t looking for employment. As the money was beginning to run out, I was evicted from my family home, then went to a hostel, and then eventually to a shelter. Over all this time, I never had a chance to grieve, so depression made my circumstances harder. Even so, I’ve always been the kind of person who takes lemons and makes lemonade.
Before I was a recipient of public assistance, I probably had some negative stereotypes about the people on it. But I always knew that it wasn’t only people of color getting assistance, which is what popular media often suggests. Everyone has their own safety net, be it friends or family, but if that runs out what you have left is public assistance and other services, and you just have to keep making lemonade.
My husband Allan and I had to ask for a spot in the homeless shelter system together with our daughter Alexis in 2007. It took us a whole year to be found eligible for the shelter because they kept saying we didn’t need the help. In 2008, they finally found us eligible. We were in the shelter for two years before we were able to move into our first apartment in July of 2010 with the help of a new New York housing subsidy called the Advantage Program.
In September of 2012, we were evicted after New York State and City cut the funding for Advantage. For a while, my husband and I split up and were staying with different family and friends. My daughter went to live with her grandmother. We eventually entered the shelter system in November 2012. We were stuck in the system for four years before we were able to get our own place. Now I finally have peace and quiet and am not being told what to do.
When dealing with the shelter and public assistance, you have to have a crisis to actually be listened to. I had to wait until I was in eviction proceedings until I could get help. It’s terrible being in that situation, being one paycheck away from homelessness, which is why I’m involved with the Safety Net Activists and other community organizations to help people who are having problems get the assistance they need.
My name is Sarah, I’m from Brooklyn, I’m 36 years old, and I am residing in a homeless shelter. I’ve had mental health issues and substance abuse issues, which, contrary to the usual stereotypes, were not problems to do with laziness—it’s more about not having the right support, and the right coping skills or coping tools. If you’ve lost your way, which I have, there really needs to be avenues to assist with that, especially for women. In the shelters I see women who went to school for cosmetology—one of them cut my hair. I have a friend in there who was a nurse and she had a car accident and consequently lost one of her limbs. There’s older women in there, people’s grandmothers who don’t have family to take care of them. There are people with learning disabilities who never really had a chance because they never had the appropriate support. They’re not bad people, they just need a little help.
I am a community activist and I work with NY Communities for Change and the Safety Net Activists. My first experience with Public Assistance came after the loss of my significant other to cancer. We spent thousands on drugs to try to save his life, and before we knew it most of the money was gone. I used to think that I would never be on public assistance, so when I found myself there, first I was ashamed. Then I was hurt. And then it was “I can’t believe how I’m being treated.” People on food stamps receive just enough to feed themselves, and some weeks you have to go without food. We are not getting adequate assistance to even feed our families, we’re just not.
I’m a sous-chef by trade, a father of a six-year old boy and I served in the United States Navy. I worked as a culinary sous-chef for sixteen years, but I had to leave my job when my wife got diagnosed with lung cancer. I was her caregiver before she passed away - I took her to the hospital and looked after my son. I used my savings to pay the bills and buy food, but eventually the money ran out. At that time they were going to evict us from our apartment, so I turned to the Veterans Administration for assistance and many other organizations before winding up at the Public Assistance office. They provided us with food stamps and helped pay part of the rent, but it wasn’t an easy pill to swallow, especially for me because I have a lot of pride. But we had to survive somehow. I don’t plan on staying on Public Assistance forever. Right now, I’m back in school studying entrepreneurship and business management to try to get us back to where we were, and move ahead.
I have a degree in Sociology from Geneva College Pennsylvania and I have been homeless for most of the past 17 years. Many people are surprised by this; they look for the usual stereotypes in me—mental illness, disabilities, etc.—but in my case I have been homeless because of sporadic employment. Homeless people regularly endure ridicule and mental and physical abuse. We know what it’s like to be constantly disrespected. It is hard for many of us to accept public assistance and even I refused it for a time, suffering as a result. Even so, I am not afraid to draw from my experiences and from the stories of compassion I learned in the Bible to advocate on behalf of those in need. The challenge before us today is to do good by others, when some people don’t care for goodness. We need that all the more now.