Last November 6, I arrived at the Brooklyn Women’s Shelter, a four-story walk-up building in Brownsville, Brooklyn. At night, you could see a trail of women walking from the Liberty Avenue train station down the deserted blocks to the shelter. There were women there from all nationalities and from all walks of life.
Bed 18, a black woman, turned 58 years old the week she arrived. She was the life of the party. She transferred from a detoxification program and was boasting about being clean and sober for the first time in her career. The next night, she did not arrive for curfew. She returned the following night intoxicated and I noticed her foaming at the mouth—she almost went into a diabetic coma.
Bed 19 was a middle-aged, severely ill black woman. Her frame was very thin and she had no teeth in her mouth. When I entered the room, I detected the rotting odor of her two ulcerated legs. She was wrapping one of her legs with toilet paper. Security was notified, and despite her protests, paramedics escorted her to the hospital.
Bed 22 was a middle-aged black who had a serious heart condition. When she went to the hospital for more medication, they tried to admit her, and she refused. She feared losing her bed. An error in her welfare records caused her to be evicted from her rent-subsidized apartment. It took seven weeks of court procedure before she was allowed to return home.
Bed 24, an African American, arrived two days after I did. She told me how she had been trying to enroll in a hospital detoxification program after 10 years of heroin addiction but had been turned away because no beds were available. The hospital caseworker offered her a MetroCard, and advised her to come back after the weekend. Unfortunately, the brave young lady did not make it through the withdrawal stage. By the second day, she suddenly had a need to run to Harlem to pick up some money from her brother. She never returned.
Bed 27 was an Oriental woman in her early twenties. She spoke no English. She would arrive each night about 9 p.m. and pass out in her bed. At night she would snore so loud you could almost feel the floor shaking.
Bed 29 was a Caucasian woman in her early twenties. She weighed approximately 275 pounds. She moved to New York from West Virginia to be with her fianc