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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
Published by Pilgrim Press, New York
Links: The Museum Project
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