By: Gligor Tashkovich (United States)
In the months since I wrote about a couple living on the street (A New York Homeless Family Beyond Help?), I’ve continued looking for a way for them to get long-term support. The NYC Office of the Public Advocate seemed like a key place to look. First in line to succeed the mayor, our Public Advocate acts as a watchdog, investigating complaints of ordinary citizens and overseeing public agencies. Although the office did not respond to my initial correspondence, they do welcome walk-in visits all week long. So one Friday in March, I took time off from work in order to accompany Nadine and Jeffrey* there.
On both Wednesday and Thursday, I reminded them of the timing of the visit, urging them to try to be rested when we needed to leave on Friday morning. Nadine took my advice seriously, and was fixing her hair when I came to meet them. Unfortunately, Jeffrey looked the worst I’ve ever seen him. As it turned out, he had made a point of staying awake all night in order to protect Nadine while she slept beside him on the subway. A few weeks ago, she had been attacked while sleeping there and she still had bruises. So Jeffrey decided to make sure that no one would bother her this time. I don’t know what Jeffrey’s night was like, but on Friday morning, he looked as though he had been kicked in the face. When we set off for the Advocate’s office, he had difficulty walking.
Since neither of them had a safe place to leave their belongings, they each wore a heavy backpack. The nearest subway stop is a deep one, with just one narrow stairwell leading to the express train. It is about 80 steps deep, with four landings. When Nadine and I reached the bottom, we realized that Jeffrey, who was behind us, had stumbled on his way down, falling flat on his face. Pinned by the weight of his backpack, he clearly needed help to make it down to the platform. Dozens of commuters, stepping over him in the stairwell, offered no help at all.
I was most shocked when, as I was helping him, a well-dressed woman with a child began frowning at me. Somehow, the image of me in a suit and tie helping an obviously homeless man was not what she wanted her 10-year-old daughter to see. She actually tried to shield us from her child’s view, as she continued to frown at me. Just what was it that so disturbed her? In fairness to New Yorkers, I should note that a few commuters did thank me for helping Jeffrey. But the majority really couldn’t wait to climb past us. When Nadine and I finally had Jeffrey and both backpacks on the express train platform, it became clear that Jeffrey was too weak from the fall to even stand upright without leaning against the wall. So we decided that he would wait there while Nadine and I went on.
The Office of the Public Advocate was exactly where we needed to go. In a city full of constant security checks, it was striking that this important city building requires no identification for entrance, so that people lacking ID documents are not kept out. In addition to having Nadine sign documents, they gave us a second set of documents for Jeffrey to sign. Because the process to sign up for a legal address and receive food stamps is supposed to take about 45 days, they are asking graduate students Columbia University’s School of Social Work to support Nadine and Jeffrey with all the paperwork.
Next, I took Nadine to the Coalition for the Homeless, which also helps people to apply for ID and assistance. We wouldn’t have gotten in the front door without the referral from the Public Advocate because the normal procedure is to line up at 7:30 in hopes of being one of the first 50 people in line. However, once we were admitted we were treated very warmly, and given Metrocards to allow Nadine and Jeffrey to return there on Monday to use their crisis intervention service.
When we returned to midtown where we had left Jeffrey, he had managed to get back up the subway stairs and was resting in their usual spot on the sidewalk. He signed the documents, which I then scanned to submit to the Public Advocate’s Office. In addition, our conversations that Friday led me to think of a private philanthropist who might just be willing to offer them some additional support, at least for a few months.
After that Friday in March, I had to travel out of town. On my return last month, I found Jeffrey alone in their usual spot. Distraught, on the verge of tears, he told me, “Nadine has been in the hospital for three days now, and they won’t even let me see her.” Although they are legally married, he has no ID to prove this. In fact, he did not even know which hospital she had been taken to, only that it was in the Bronx. So I began phoning every hospital in the Bronx, spending about 20 minutes talking to each one to find out whether Nadine might be there. Finally, I spoke to a hospital that said she been admitted to their intensive care unit. Her diagnosis was pancreatitis, and she wasn’t well yet—but in fact about 30 minutes before we finally tracked her down, she had insisted on being discharged, which was her right.
It took Nadine a long time to get all the way back to Manhattan from the Bronx. Although the hospital had paid for a taxi to take her to the subway, she had no money. So, still wearing her hospital intake bracelet, she had to start begging to raise $2.75, the cost of one train fare. Because she was still unwell, I asked why she had not wanted to stay in the hospital. She told me that she spent the entire time shackled to the hospital bed, even while the sheets underneath her were being changed. For years now, she has gone every day to a methadone clinic to be treated for drug addiction. Although her dependency is now down to a very low level, the hospital decided to treat her like someone going through intense withdrawal symptoms. I got her a copy of the patient bill of rights, and began trying to arrange for her to be treated in another hospital, but since she began feeling better she asked me instead to look into fraud by her methadone clinic. When her treatment began, the dosage was 250 units of methadone a day. It was gradually lowered to 60 units—but in fact, the dosage has remained at 60 units for a year now. Every time she requests a lower dosage, she is told that no doctor is available to authorize this. So she remains stuck at 60 units, required to make long trips back to the same clinic every day—while the clinic is able to continue being reimbursed by Medicare for her treatments.
I’ve also checked back with the Public Advocate’s office. It’s been 60 days since our visit there, but they are understaffed so there has been no progress. Columbia University does still intend to help them by sending a social work student—but now that must wait until the next academic year begins. As for the Coalition for the Homeless, they cannot begin trying to help Nadine and Jeffrey until they are among the first 50 people in line at 7:30 one morning—but this timing conflicts with Nadine’s 7:45 daily appointment at the methadone clinic on the other side of town.
Friends have asked me why I’ve been so concerned about this particular couple. In addition to the fact that they have been living right on my block, one reason may be old-fashioned chivalry. I just don’t think any woman should ever have to sleep on the street. But, more than that, I’ve been struck by the words of Nadine herself. Many times in the two years since we met, Nadine has said, “I want my life back. I’m prepared to do anything to get back what I lost. I don’t want to be living on the street.” I’ve been impressed by the inner strength that has helped them survive so far. Now I’m hoping that strength will be reinforced by a support network so that one day they can climb back to the lives they lost.
*I’ve changed their names to protect their privacy.