Women Deserve Better
Barbara Hanneman, USA
June 11, 2003
As it turns out, this is an undeclared war zone. The terror is diffuse and pervasive rather than immanent.
"You can't take this inside," followed by a sharp exchange of words. I had
invited her to inspect my bags rather than continue the guessing game that the pictures on the X-ray machine had inspired. The Department of Homeless Services officer held up the camera she had taken out of my knapsack. I told her that I needed the camera to take pictures for my mother. When I can salvage a picture or two from a badly shot roll of film, I send them to her at the nursing home. Usually a shot of some place or a building in New York that represents some piece in the quilt of her remembering. The cost of this pleasure limits the practice to an occasional burst of shutter-snapping bliss. My mother likes the pictures I have sent.
But this score had piqued the DHS officer's interest, and each item in my knapsack and briefcase occupied her and her partner for several minutes. I grudgingly agreed that the glass-bottled makeup, nail polish, the pencil sharpener, tweezer, etc. were fair game. Engaged by a creative soul for a purpose other than that for which they are intended, they could do some damage, maybe. But my ten dollar camera?
The camera disappeared unvouchered into the bowels of the Brooklyn Women's Shelter. Her supervisor, the good Sergeant Rojas, added insult to injury. He sat there with his hand on his crotch ordering me to leave. His message was clear enough. Even as I continued to protest this injustice and his crude behavior, I was pushed physically out the door by the woman Officer Viero and her partner.
Later that day, now calmer, I told the story to a BWS supervisor. She told me, "You have a problem." The reason: This was the second time I was reporting abuse by a staff member. Letting that absurdity go for a moment, I inquired about my camera. No voucher needed. The camera was "confiscated,"' she said. "Cameras aren't allowed in the shelter," she told me. But there was no film in it. "It's against the law," she said. I feigned surprise, but again I got the message. They were afraid. I had not tried to hide the camera. I had invited them to inspect my bag. They were afraid.
I had been staying in that abandoned school of a shelter since March 7th. I had started with the "deluxe" accommodations, a dirty, unpainted room with seven or eight other women on a floor with several more rooms like it. I did have a separate cubicle. Common showers, common toilets at the end of the hall that are seldom cleaned. Four or five sinks and six showers in all. DHS police officers are stationed on every floor. (In all fairness I have to say that some have been very nice. But enough are not so that you really notice.)
One night I "lost my bed," as it is termed, Yes, I had told a male DHS staff member not to speak to me in that tone of voice. Yes, I had told Officer Fulford who literally "got into my face" (she has that habit) that I would call the police if she put a hand on me. The women in the room that night weren't much help. On one level I really don't blame them. The least one should be able to hope for is a bed (of sorts) at the end of the day. Now I sit each night outside of social services until 10:30 or 1l:00 PM waiting to find out whether a "temporary" bed will be available for the night. No? Then it's off to St. Mark's on the bus and then back to BWS at 7:00 AM the next morning.
If I am lucky I might get for a night the bed of someone who has a pass. The real "cheap seats" I have found are in rooms rowed four by seven or eight or more with only a small cabinet separating the beds. Since this is only a "temporary" bed (more layering and degrees within the "temporary shelter" system) I have no locker and must sleep holding my bags or using them as pillows lest they disappear into the night. Call me lacking in trust, but don't call me paranoid. I speak sadly from countless experiences during the last few years.
Each night I sit there and read, or put on the Walkman, or just listen and watch. The cursing and arguing and yelling at eardrum-smashing decibel levels among residents, among residents and staff, are constant, an ever-threatening prelude to more serious violence or disaster. A woman DHS officer walks over to the woman sitting next to me who has begun to doze. She bends over and snaps her fingers loudly in the woman's face, startling her to a befuddled attention. "Keep it awake, honey, you canít sleep here," she says. I long for my camera.
Breakfast is always the same. Blaring boom box and du jour choices made from piled-high cardboard boxes on a table. From six to seven AM the long, school lunch room tables fill and empty in waves of random patterned engagement, as New York City's homeless women file past in a surreal parade wearing every make, manner and degree of garb, from the kind of pretty house coat my mother favors to the most impressive African styles favored by some of the women. Tableaux worthy of a Kodak moment continue to pass before my eyes. Very often I am the only "white" person in the filled room. What story does that picture tell? More than the housecoats trigger the "mom" associations. I am fifty-four. Some of these women could be my mother. A sad family album to be sure.
Flip to the next landscape. Frame a very large room, dirty and dark. The tile floor is littered with piles of extra mattresses. Three or four more lunchroom tables, plastic chairs of assorted colors, one desk, a few cabinets and one small television. From 8:00 AM until 11:00 PM this is the "recreation room." Here is the place for candid snapshots of women engrossed in nurturing, challenging activities. Perhaps just a single frame that captures in mid air the intangible realness of a budding friendship. At bottom I would settle for some group portraits of smiling faces, some testament to the much-acclaimed "resiliency of the human spirit." The hand-crafted pictures on the wall testify to the continuation of its existence.
And then as I sit there late into the night caught up in some flight of fancy wherein Magritte, Weegee, and Margaret Bourke-White float and amble through my stream of consciousness offering solace and hope, I experience one of those, for me, rare moments. Not a patiently awaited, coming to realize moment. A shot to the brain, A realization that blasts me across the room. "No pictures, please." Of course. The longer I ponder this seemingly private revelation, the more I look around, the surer I am of the truth of it. Reality jolts and slams me straight up. For the first time I know where I am. This is where they send the casualties. This is where the wounded come. But they never say wounded. Common sense and canniness inform the choice of terms. That image grates the sensibilities. Those in the know speak matter-of-factly in numbers. Antiseptically scientific statistics insure a concerned but comfortable distance from the carnage. They cover the blood and gore of lives assaulted with generalities about "the homeless."
When a neighborhood suddenly becomes "hot" and unaffordable, they fall. When rent guideline board increases raise rents but not in proportion to minimum wage or living wage realities, they fall. A few more chairs line the social services corridors throughout the city. When the effect of job cuts in times of economic stress "trickles down" and there results a few missed paychecks, they fall. And the beds fill and multiply in a perverse parody of the well-known sharing story. When the education system fails, they fall. When social stresses caused by all of the above frag family life, casualties mount. Add illness and other factors I have not mentioned.
Am I too harsh? No. It is war undeclared. And they fight dirty. They don't even give you clean hospitals and smiling nurses. They crowd you in, and you sit there surrounded by neglect and low-grade violence until you begin to think it's all your fault. Well, I won't fall for it. Iíll bring in the cameras any way I can. Let them know that it's no fun living in BWS. I try to fight back. Some have suggested a Swiftian approach: "Eat the rich," they cry out. I find that drastic and messy. I, for one, still, even now, favor the idea of conversion, People are generous. People want to help, very often. So, bring in the cameras, tell the stories, convert them. But at the same time, vote, beleaguer those elected to do better. When they holler "budget cuts," cry no. When they whisper "stock transfer tax" or "commuter tax," scream yes! And, of utmost importanceódonít believe their propaganda.
Barbara Hanneman lives in Brooklyn.