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Because these women receive no consistent support in managing their lives the recividism rate to the shelters is very high. Women return again and again, each time a little worse off. In San Francisco, Boston and New York the brutal reality remains that for the large numbers of women on the streets who need help and a place to stay, there are too few public shelters to accommodate them, and nowhere for them to find the follow-up and ongoing care that would help them maintain themselves off the streets.

I wondered about the families of the women I met in the streets. Where were their relatives, husbands, children and parents who might e expected to help? Many women on the streets have no families. Through illness, death, divorce, family hostilities and resentments, all contact with close relatives has been lost. Familial ties have been broken by long separations in hospitals or by the great distances that easy mobility in this country allows. There is no community of relatives or friends to rely on. Alone and isolated in the world, these women have no one to turn to.

Yet I also met homeless women who had families and even a certain amount of contact with them. In some cases the family was well aware of the plight of the relative, but they were already so overburdened with struggles to maintain a degree of economic and mental stability themselves that there was simply no strength or money to provide for another member who could not carry her full share. But it is not poverty alone that causes a family to cast out a member. Some of the women I met, although no the majority, were from middle-class families. Alcoholism and mental illness place tremendous strains on any family. Often after years of struggling to sustain and support an ill person, relatives have given up. For their own survival they come to the conclusion that they have done all that is humanly possible, and, in order to preserve the stability they salvaged, they stop giving energy and resources to a relative who cannot contribute or will not take care of herself. Other women choose to have no contact with their relatives because they do not want to be a burden to them.

Deinstitutionalization, sometimes referred to as ‘dumping’ has often been cited as the reason for the increasingly large numbers of homeless women and men seen on our city streets. More than fifteen years ago, the government undertook to change the mental health system by releasing long-term patients to halfway houses and treatment in out-patient community centers. Several factors were instrumental in bringing this change about: recognition that long years in psychiatric hospitals rarely benefited anyone and in fact harmed some, the introduction of mew psychoactive drugs, and finally the increasing rise in cost of patient care in large institutions. The initial objective of emptying mental hospitals, although guided more by economic factors than humane intent, was founded in progressive ideas. Patients who had formerly been consigned to long stays in a mental hospital were now given short-term treatment and turned back into the community. Once considered manageable only within the confines of an institution, they could now be maintained with drugs as out-patients. Theoretically, there was to be a discharge plan for every individual. Unfortunately for those without families or other support this usually consisted of carfare to the nearest welfare office.

These policies contributed to a situation of chaos and neglect in the management of ex-patients. Only a few of the proposed system of small metal health centers ever materialized to meet the needs of the large numbers being turned out from the hospitals- medication clutched in hand. The worsening economy reduced available funding. Neighborhoods objected to mental patients housed in their midst and the results of drugs, or other types of therapy for severely mentally ill proved uncertain at best.

However, these policies were successful in reducing the impatient population of large mental hospitals. Between 1955 and 1975 there was a 65 percent decrease in the census of resident patients in state mental hospitals. It has also meant a growing proportion of readmissions into those same hospitals and an influx of patients using the services of emergency rooms, shelters and clinics by the many who fail to make it on the outside.

Public outrage and problems resulting from this has been well documented. Worse though, for thousands of people released to a nonexistent system of community aftercare, this policy has meant a battle to survive a transition from the "back wards to the back alleys." Unable to cope with the anxieties and stress of competing for jobs and housing, many of these former patients drift about unprotected and unprovided for on the streets. Although sent to welfare or the social security offices, they often became "lost," only to turn up in emergency rooms or to be seen sleeping in public places.

This is not to imply that all homeless women on the streets or in the shelters have been in and out of mental hospitals. While it is true that many have spent years in hospitals and are the victims of deinstitutionalization, because of the more stringent requirements for admittance. The unusual and extreme stress of living on the streets tends to exacerbate emotional disturbances, and most of the women I met had great difficulties in effectively dealing with their problems, yet not all of them could be described as mentally ill.

In exploring how women survived on the streets, I spent many hours sitting in train stations, meeting and talking with women who made these places their homes. There is a kind of stupor that one an fall into sitting over long periods with no place to go. In one large station there are no windows. Time passes eerily under the perpetual fluorescent lighting. Some women spend entire days there. In that atmosphere I became aware I would easily lose track of time as the hours slipped by, one undifferentiated from the next. I found myself passively sinking into an immobilized daze, talking to someone or staring off blankly into space as the day passed from evening to night to morning. It was difficult at times to find the energy to get up and leave.

Finding a place to sleep is a major problem for the women. Waiting rooms, subways, and all-night restaurants can at times provide a temporary safe shelter from men as well as a resting place, but there is always the inevitable moment when she is asked to move along. In train stations, police make hourly rounds to shake the shoulders of anyone who falls asleep and to give a solid whack to the soles of the feet of those they have had to remind one time too many. Some women are asked to leave, but those deemed presentable are allowed to say as long as they can deep their eyes open. Rarely can a woman get a full night’s sleep in any of these places. Because of the many difficulties she encounters in even trying to get rest she is forced to live in a perpetual state of extreme weariness and exhaustion. We see them sleeping in public so often because it is better to wait until daylight to find a doorway or a park bench that might be more conspicuous but is at least safe.

Sleep deprivation disorients and confuses even those with the strongest of minds. When this is combined with poor nutrition, lack of shelter, constant exposure to the elements, and physical and mental infirmities, many women spend their days in a continual fog of fatigue. Never getting a chance to lie down also causes circulatory problems. Long hours spent walking or sitting means they are especially prone to swollen, ulcerated legs. Once ulcers start, repeated irritation, poor treatment, and lack of cleanliness makes them all the more difficult to cure. Under these circumstances the women struggle to maintain themselves as best they can.

Train stations have the advantage of accessible ladies rooms. Whole communities live in some of them. The women in the waiting rooms stay short distances apart from each other. They usually wait until after rush hour to take seats, and them sit upright attempting to sleep or stay awake- inconspicuous travelers with their bags, until one notices the swollen legs and flimsy house slippers on even cold winter days.

These stations provide many of the amenities of a hotel- a roof over one’s head, warmth, sinks for washing, and the anonymous crowds in which to lose oneself and join in the spectacle of watching other passersby. The women wait for a train that doesn’t come, wait to get warm, wait for the police to kick them out and wait for the day to pass. In one station there is a mass exodus to the ladies room after eleven P.M. when the attendant goes off duty. The euphemism of "rest room" is an apt description for a place where a woman can quite literally find rest. Depending on the presence or good will of an attendant, women may at times use these rooms to find a few hours of uninterrupted sleep. They will be reasonably protected by each other’s presence until the police come as they do most every night to shoo them out around three or four A.M.

In one station on cold nights there is a waiting live to get to the low-dryer to warm frozen hands, and to dry hair or clothing. An old lady without a coat stands under the blower. She tries to push the button and to fall asleep at the same time. Succeeding for seconds at a time she begins crumpling to the floor and jolts herself awake to press the button again. The incessant whirring of the dryer is added to muffled snoring in one corner, the noise of running water of those washing at the sinks, and the self-contained dialogues of two or three women carrying on boozy conversations with themselves. Occasional shouting matches break out among women accusing each other of stealing or whoring or "Not being fit to sleep in a rat pack!" The old lady finds herself a trash bin to sit on and gradually the silences grow loud between her waking to press the button.

Most of the women seem to live in their own worlds, talking to themselves or just sleeping quietly in corners. Few are very friendly with each other or anyone else. They are wary of contact with people and find that they are safer and less bothered if they keep to themselves. At the station it is important to deep as low a profile as possible in order to blend in with the travelers and not get asked to leave.

Sonia, a Spanish woman with brown eyes and a pretty face has befriended me. She says she has lived in the station for three years and knows everyone who lives there and works there. Sonia panhandles enough to support four lockers for all her possessions. Most of what she has is clothing and a few treasured items, including a mirror, a tiny statue, and magazines. Supporting these lockers consumes much of her time as they have to be "fed" every twenty-four hours. On the occasions when she can’t get the money together, and the twenty-four hours are up, her possessions are taken out of the lockers and put in storage at a daily rate. As the days pass and she is unable to get the money, the bill mounts up and she periodically loses everything- only to acquire new things and begin the process all over again. This is a common pattern for many women.

When I tell Sonia I am doing research about homelessness she immediately begins to tell me bits of gossip about the women around us. One woman she says is really crazy. Mary and Beatrice are her friends. The old lady by the blower lives in an SRO hotel near the station, but she is senile and comes nearly every night to sleep and keep warm.

A black woman in a salmon sweater, who like several others has a huge amount of gear, sets herself up in one of the toilet stall on the floor. It is almost like taking a room in a hotel. They put up newspapers to cover the bottom of the stall door for privacy. Sonia tells me that one woman, who eyes us very suspiciously is really a prostitute in the South Bronx. She gives all her money to a pimp. She comes here every night because she has nowhere else to go. I remark on the sadness of her situation, but Sonia clearly disapproves and has little sympathy. Later, as the night wears on, I see prostitutes bring men down to the toilet stalls. If all these "rooms" are taken they leave to return later. There are stories about the men who find their way down there, beat up various women, and steal their bags. Beatrice says that the police use less than gentle treatment in clearing out the room in the morning.

It is Elsie who cleans up. She busily washes the mirrors, sweeps the floors, and empties the trash bin, all the while humming softly to herself. Sonia doesn’t like Elsie. She says she steals from the other women while they’re asleep. The paid attendant told me that the women who sleep there always leave it neat and in order. In the mornings, when she comes to work, she rarely has to pick up after anyone.

Sandra Rollins wanders in late each night to wash up at the sinks. At the women’s shelter, through the classes I taught, I had come to know her well. She was always friendly and sociable. I last heard that she had been placed in a hotel, but Sandra has a history of mismanagement on welfare. In the hotels, when isolation becomes overwhelming, when she overspends her rent money, or gets mugged, or her checks simply do not arrive, Sandra packs what she has and takes to the streets.

As we pass I look directly at her to say hello, but she stares blankly and seems to see right through me. I hesitate to remind her of our acquaintance. I'd seen another woman from the shelter whom I recognized and said hello when she asked me for a quarter. But it was the wrong thing to do. As I gave her the quarter and said, "Aren’t you Martha K.?" she suddenly leaped up and came after me screaming the loudest sound I’ve ever heard. I ran for my life. I now passed quickly by her in the station where I often see her giggling, shouting, walking about in a daze or sleeping. I do not know if she recognizes me or remembers anything.

Sonia and Mary and Beatrice commiserate about "these poor unfortunate women that live down here and have nowhere to go." Shaking their heads sadly they tell me, "Something really ought to be done about it." "They’re called shopping bag ladies," the three of them tell me. "Some of these women have checks and lots of money in those bags." They, themselves help to perpetuate the famous myth about shopping bag ladies really having a lot of money. I ask this group for facts, but nobody can tell me anything concrete. Sonia merely nods her head knowingly and assures me that it is true. Mary and Beatrice agree.* Mary then goes on to say that, "You know it’s because they’re closing down the mental hospitals that you have so many of these unfortunates down here."

Mary and Beatrice sleep nearly every night in the station and Sonia says she has lived there for years. None of them are on welfare, get social security checks, or have anywhere else to go. They each carry around a collection of bags with all their possessions, yet none of them considers herself a "shopping bag lady," (a term which they regard as derogatory) or, for that matter, particularly homeless. They explain that they are simply temporarily without funds and down and out o their luck- even if it has been for years.

For some of the women I met I had a small hope that through luck or endurance they would eventually create a reasonable life for themselves. These were the women who had left within them resources of inner strength, emotional stability, and enough will to fight for the minimal scraps of help offered here and there by individuals and social agencies. But the lives of most of the women have been lost. Profound and irrevocable maltreatment and deprivation at every turn has denied them to psychological and material necessities of a life outside an institution, or off the streets. The long term intensive help that might have saved them was rarely available. I was forced to accept the reality of human fate in which none of us can save the other, and yet in which we must never cease to make every effort to give help so that another can save herself.

To be without a home is to be invisible. Because the needs and the lives of the homeless are unacknowledged, they remain in this sense unseen. By revealing the hidden world of those who are without even the rudimentary protection of shelter, I have raised questions about the prospects for those who cannot provide for themselves in this society. Opening our eyes to their experiences illuminates all our lives.

Ann Marie Rousseau
Published by Pilgrim Press, New York

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