My First Term at Homeless University

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Photo by: Melanie Lee

I’d actually begun designing the banner. I plucked the triangle from the Shapes menu on MS Word, lengthened it, flipped it on its side, colored it purple, put a white border beneath, and inserted the text HOMELESS UNIVERSITY in green. That would be, I envisioned, the unofficial school colors of Homeless University: light green (for new beginnings), purple (for royal aspirations and for rarity), and white (for a clean slate and for purity of source).

I spent July in Camp Homeless at an assessment shelter. In early August I was moved to Susan’s Place in the Bronx, where I have resided for two months now. I figure, if I spent summer at Camp Homeless, then as the Fall 2014 semester proceeds, now I’m enrolled in Homeless University. I have the shared dorm room, the cafeteria, the classrooms (so to speak), the seminars, and—maybe—the occasional outing or field trip. I even have Hedwig the Owl (actually Spells the Owl from the Ty Beanie Baby collection) perched on my bed, and Scabbers (Tiny the Rat) and Crookshanks (Tabitha the orange Cat) have joined her. Heck, even Harry Potter was homeless for a time.

After all, this is a learning experience. I have to learn to find a new home, learn to save money … maybe even learn to earn enough money … and learn to manage what I have. I’ve even bought the notebooks and the folders–mostly light green. I still have yet to organize them.

The courses are myriad:

Economics: tracking my spending, eventually budgeting my income. As a working homeless person, albeit part-time, I’m supposed to save 60% of my income, with an eye toward affording a new home. This will be the hardest course of all. I’ve been a spendthrift all my life.

Psychology: understanding others and myself, learning to get along with others, coping with the fact that I am sharing shelter space with a tall, thin woman who preaches hellfire at us in the cafeteria, a short woman who was on the phone trying to rally her outside friends to beat up another resident, and many, many women for whom the F word is like the word “is”. And learning many of these women, even the F-sayers, look out for each other, share with each other, and bolster each other. Learning how to extract the best in myself and in my fellow residents.

Sociology: dealing with “the System”. Wondering why an organization that so values work is so slow in handing me my late pass so that I don’t have to leave work an hour early to insure that I get back to the shelter before the 10pm curfew. Hearing the story of how an elderly, disabled woman with Section 8 vouchers was recently evicted from a “luxury” building–her story perhaps typifying why New York City’s homeless shelter population in 2014 is at an all-time high. Wondering if there’s a culturally ethnic reason why some people have called me “Mel” everywhere I go–school, church, work, even the Internet–except at the homeless shelters. (Some call me “Miss Melanie”, which has rarely happened with me before; is that just courtesy, or am I that old?)

Literature: A publication called How…When … Where deals with homelessness issues. And there’s also reading I choose. I read Joanne Harris’ The Girl with No Shadow (sequel to Chocolat) back in July. In August I started reading Alice Walker’s The Same River Twice, her reflections and notes upon the making of the movie The Color Purple; I’m halfway through. Then I picked up and read the novel The Color Purple. While searching the Religion section of the Flushing Library, I found A.J. Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically. With far less access to TV (the other women would rather watch Martin reruns than Jeopardy), I have more time to read.

Writing: I’m keeping a diary. Among my entries: how one of my roommates at night seems to keep snoring the word “Think!”; how another roommate and I went to West 42nd Street looking for a prayer meeting and ended up seeing the Strut Your Mutt dog parade. I belong to Authors in Training, the writers’ group that meets Saturday evenings. I’m still writing song parodies for Amiright.com. I even did a couple of FringeNYC reviews this August for nytheatre.com.

Foreign Language: many Spanish speakers here. Mi español es muy pequeño. How do you turn on la luz in el corridor? ¿Qué hora es? La Universidad sin Hogar.

The Arts: I sing in the shower. My passionate rendition of “Aldonza” from Man of La Mancha got rave reviews … okay, one woman said she liked it. Others sing in the shower, too, though they sing en español las canciones que no las conozco. Some play their radios softly in the cafeteria. A few people knit. I drew a picture of four women playing cards in the living room. One woman took a photo of the picture and—after a month’s waiting—finally posted it on Facebook this week.

Philosophy, Religion, and Spirituality: Yes, there’s room for spiritual questions, impromptu Bible studies, and even the occasional religious argument. And there’s the woman preaching in the cafeteria that we’re going to catch HIV and die.

Phys Ed: Hey, I did manage to go swimming before the pools closed on Labor Day. And at least one other person went into the sprinklers at a local park. I saw flyers at Susan’s Place for a dance exercise class that meets at 9:30am—when I have to hoof it to my job, three bus rides away in Bayside, Queens. I heard that Susan’s Place once had a Nautilus. It doesn’t now.

Science: Is it necessary to keep the rooms (sometimes) at near-freezing temperatures in order to prevent the spread of germs? And if we want to keep good personal hygiene, why do we have such a hard time keeping soap dispensers in the bathrooms? What physics or chemistry is needed to unclog the drain in the shower stall that’s been closed for over a month now? (Don’t panic: we have other shower stalls.)

Extracurricular Activities: There are knitting lessons, the aforementioned writing workshop. There was a museum outing before I arrived, but no official outings since. However, four of us went on our own to a Harvest Festival at a local urban garden one Saturday in September. One woman and I visited Riverdale Temple in the upper Bronx for Rosh Hashanah. And since I’m much closer to the Bronx Zoo now, I’d better attend the Boo at the Zoo in October! And yes, some of us at Susan’s Place are planning a Halloween event.

Hey, we even have a mascot! One resident has a small comfort dog named Sir King.

Actually, Berlin has a Homeless University—a college opening classes to the city’s homeless population. And I recently found out that Bard College is offering the Harlem Clemente Course in the Humanities free to low-income New Yorkers, with college credits given to those students who do outstanding work. (I asked if there’s a similar program in Science and Mathematics.) And there’s University of the Streets, an arts program in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Also, I’ve read recently that some poorly-paid college adjuncts–people who teach classes–are living in homeless shelters.

So, welcome to Homeless University! The lessons have already begun.

And yes—I’ve drawn that banner! Using magic markers and crayons, I’ve created the green, purple, and white banner of Homeless University, plus a purple “varsity” H with a gray pigeon in the middle. I display the banner on my bed next to Hedwig, Scabbers, and Crookshanks.

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