We Are Family

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Like any forty-something couple on a Sunday afternoon, Anthony Boyce and Patricia Garcia are sitting side by side in matching lounge chairs, alternately napping and watching television. But this isn’t their living room; it’s St. Agnes’ drop-in center in mid-town Manhattan, one of the busiest way stations for homeless people in New York. The chairs they are sitting in, lightweight plastic patio furniture arranged and rearranged throughout the day by the staff, are their one guarantee of another night together.

They’re lucky to have them. Competition can be fierce, and it’s not uncommon for fights to break out, despite the uniformed security guards standing by the metal detector at the entrance. That’s because those who fail to secure a place to sit by five o’clock have no choice but to look elsewhere for the night.

As individuals, Anthony and Patricia do have other options besides St. Agnes within New York City’s shelter system. Anthony could go to a shelter for men, and Patricia could find a spot in a women’s residence. In fact, social workers are quick to suggest that they separate. “They want to send me here, and her there,” Anthony complains. But he and Patricia have been together for over five years, and despite the noise, overcrowding, and danger of life at a drop-in center, they still prefer living in chairs to living apart.

Theoretically, under New York’s right-to-shelter laws, the city must house all families together. The Department of Homeless Services’ official policy, issued in a January 2001 memo, states that any two adults with a demonstrated history of cohabitation who depend on each other physically or financially-whether married, unmarried or same-sex-constitute a family just as much as a couple with children.

In practice, however, the two groups are treated quite differently. Couples with children often end up in Tier II family shelters-well-run nonprofit shelters with private rooms, kitchens and a range of social services, from psychological counseling to child care. Couples without children who choose to stay together, on the other hand, are fortunate to get a short-term stay at a welfare hotel or a substandard city-run facility like the Auburn Shelter in Fort Greene. Unmarried and especially same-sex couples are particularly discriminated against when social workers at the city Emergency Assistance Unit in the Bronx decide who constitutes a family. “Childless couples fall between the cracks,” says Patrick Markee of the Coalition for the Homeless. “The system isn’t designed to accommodate their needs. It’s frustrating, because they miss out on the few good things the system has to offer.”

Even married heterosexual couples have a hard time being housed as a family: In one four-month period, Kenneth Nash and Tanya Jones stayed at the EAU, the Jamaica Assessment Center and three different welfare hotels. One of the hotels threw away all of their possessions, including their marriage license.

There are legitimate reasons for separating some homeless couples. Sexual contact is forbidden at single shelters largely because temporary liaisons-“shelter romances”-can be exploitative, and a genuine handicap to people trying to get off the streets. For those dealing with drugs or alcohol, even committed relationships can cause problems. “In recovery, people don’t think that their relationships are incidental, but in fact they are,” says Roseanne Viglione of Project Renewal’s New Providence House, a Manhattan women’s shelter that treats substance abuse.

But most long-term couples, whether same-sex or heterosexual, married or unmarried, need to stay together for the same reasons other families do: love and security. Besides the obvious emotional support and companionship of an enduring relationship, couples help each other survive economically-a fact even the 1996 welfare reform law recognized when it promoted marriage as a way for people to get off welfare. Anthony and Patricia pool their funds, combining her SSI and his workfare benefits. And Jay Toole, who worked as a dispatcher at a messenger company while she was homeless, managed to get her partner Sheila King a job delivering packages.

In order to really thrive, though, all families ultimately need a home. “If we could get a place together,” says Anthony, “we’d be one step up the ladder.”

Patricia Garcia and Anthony Boyce

Anthony: I met Patricia in Tompkins Square Park. I’d been fighting with my wife; the tension level was so high I just had to leave for the sake of my children. I just stood there–I didn’t know what to do. What did I know about homelessness? Three days later I met Patricia.

Patricia: I’d been burned out of my apartment three months earlier. I’d lived there all my life, and I lost everything–not just material possessions but all of my photographs, things of sentimental value. It was one of the most painful experiences in my life.

Anthony: When I first noticed her, she was sitting on the park bench and some guy was trying to flirt with her. I didn’t say anything. The second time I saw her, she looked at me and said “I’m not messing with you!” But the very next day, she told me “Come here. I need someone to talk to.”

Patricia: That’s what people really need, someone to talk to. We used to have a woman’s group here, where people could talk about their feelings. We’re trying to start it up again. I’ve had problems with depression ever since I lost my apartment. I used to go and sit on the stoop of my old building, just thinking there was some way to get in.

Anthony: I’d go and sit on that old stoop with her, but come on–who wants to sit on some old stoop! My idea of a romantic evening is to go down to the park by the river and watch the boats. Water relaxes me. Eventually I was able to get her away from that stoop. I think I help keep Patricia away from the deep end.

Patricia: I have a hard time expressing my feelings sometimes.

Anthony: And she helps me with my anger. The other day, I was about to get into it with some guy and she just grabbed me around the chest and held on till I calmed down.

Patricia: It’s a problem when people with serious mental health problems are intertwined with so-called normal people. I get so anxious with all this noise and confusion. People fight over chairs here! There are cliques outside selling drugs. The police are there, but they can’t watch everybody. Someone could snap on you.

Anthony: I’m not used to this jailhouse mentality. People sneak weapons past the metal detectors. We need a place where real couples can get back on their feet. Every other weekend we have to pay for a hotel just to beat the stress. It’s not just sex–sometimes you have to lay in a bed. I can’t remember the last time we went to the movies together.

Patricia: I stick with Anthony because he cares a lot about me.

Anthony: We came in here together and we’ll leave together. All I can say is that I hope we stay together until God separates us.

Sheila King and Jay Toole

Jay: I used to live in the subway. You know, down near the PATH train entrance where you see a bunch of people sleeping? I was one of those people. I spent a night at St. Agnes once, but a gang tried to jack me in the bathroom, so I had to leave.

Sheila: We met in the Brooklyn Women’s Shelter.

Jay: We lived in the same dorm. I remember I was hanging out with another butch and she asked me “See any women you like?” I looked over at Sheila and said, “She’s going to be my wife.” So I started hanging out around, borrowing books, talking. We have a lot in common.

Sheila: They say that shelter romances don’t work…but wow!

Jay: And we’ve always stayed in contact, no matter what. We just have that spark. After a while I got sick of the shelter, so I got a job as a dispatcher. But we’d still meet every day at the Burger King near the Port Authority, even when I was on the street and she was in the shelter. It was a job trying to stay together. Sometimes I’d get coffee and sandwiches at St. Francis to give her in case she missed breakfast, and I’d always give her whatever change I could pick up.

Sheila: I used to hate it when she’d go out and pick up cans.

Jay: I remember sometimes we’d go to Bryant Park and I would just put my head in her lap and sleep for hours.

Sheila: She was toughing it out.

Jay: When I was working, we did get an apartment a couple of times–once in Harlem, and once on Hawthorne Street in Brooklyn. But we were both using. I was drinking and smoking crack.

Sheila: I was smoking cocaine, drinking and abusing prescription drugs. I’ve had over 60 detoxes. When we were together and using, it was hard. We’d fight and argue all the time. All I’d do was scream and yell; I wasn’t happy unless we had money for drugs. But we both knew that we weren’t really like that.

Jay: The things we said and did, that was the drugs, not us. I finally decided to sober up after I got my head busted open fighting with a gang of kids outside of Port Authority. I was hospitalized and went through the D.T.s.

Sheila: For me it was about getting older, seeing other people taking care of my babies.

Jay: Thanks to a woman I met in the Project Renewal van, I checked myself into the Jamaica Assessment Center and started going to New Providence House in the evening.

Sheila: But for three months I was still getting high. She could tell by my voice on the phone that I was using.

Jay: It was a lonely time.

Sheila: Now I’m staying at Holland House on 42nd Street. I’m seeing a therapist there, and Jay and I go to couples counseling together. Last year, I had Thanksgiving with my entire family and my three granddaughters for the first time!

Jay: This is the first lease I’ve had in my own name. We alternate between her place and mine. That way we can do all the fun things in Manhattan, go to movies or Liberty games. I’m just glad I got a second chance. We both want people to know it can be done.

Sheila: Twelve years is a long time!

Jay: Too long! Uh oh, I’m going to get a beating when you get out of here!

Kenneth Nash and Tanya Jones

Kenneth: We were at a welfare hotel. Ten o’clock in the morning, the lights go out.

Tanya: They blamed me for the blackout. Said I was cooking in my room. That night they gave us a long orange plug with a light bulb at the end to use for lighting.

Kenneth: I complained to our caseworker at HASA [HIV/AIDS Services Administration], Ms. Romero. She told me to stop acting like a little girl, and 4:15 the next day she told us we had to get out. We had 45 minutes to pack our stuff and get up to the EAU in the Bronx by five.

Tanya: They called the cops because I said we’d been there 45 days and I wasn’t going nowhere. They dragged me outside in my underwear with a sheet wrapped around me. They handcuffed me so tight I had bruises up and down my arm.

Kenneth: She had to go to the hospital! And I had to go spend $90 on a hotel room so I could be near the hospital when she came out. She was drugged up real bad when they released her. The lady at the hotel said we could leave our stuff in the room.

Tanya: We’re supposed to have three days to get our stuff. When I came back to get it, all of my things were ruined. My hygiene things were smashed like somebody had used a hammer.

Kenneth: I bought my wife some perfume–it wasn’t expensive, 65 bucks. That was my anniversary present to her. They took the top off and poured it out in the bag with our clothes!

Tanya: Now we’re staying at Jamaica Assessment. It’s mad nasty up there!

Kenneth: It’s just an abandoned school building with lights and plumbing.

Tanya: There are roaches everywhere!

Kenneth: Roaches eat better than we do.

Tanya: You know, ever since we’ve been having problems, people have been trying to separate us.

Kenneth: People think because I’m 300 pounds I’m going to abuse my wife. But me and my wife, we get along great. We both grew up in foster homes, so we have a lot in common. If we can get along this good when times are bad….I’ve told her I’m never going to walk away from her.

Tanya: What do I want to fight with my husband for? I’m going to be with him the rest of my life. We’ve been together for four years, and we love each other very much.

Kenneth: Tell ’em, baby!

Bob Roberts is a Bronx-based freelance writer.