When Help Is Not Enough

Bisnelly Polanco (Younjoo Sang/NYCityLens)

Bisnelly Polanco (Younjoo Sang/NYCityLens)

Bisnelly Polanco, 32, walked into The New Beginning International Ministry, a church located in East 118th Street. She steadied herself with a cane. She was here for the biweekly soup kitchen and food pantry service.

The meal of the day was chicken and rice. “I haven’t had chicken in a while,” she said brightly. She also got herself two full cups of apple juice. “I haven’t had juice in so long.”

Unemployed and in debt, Polanco, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, barely scrapes by on food stamps, a partial rent subsidy and $60 in cash every two to three months, which she receives from a public assistance  office at 126 Street and 2nd Avenue.

She lives alone in low-income housing on East 94th Street and eats at the soup kitchen twice a week. In other days, she lives off of the food she receives at the pantry from church. She says she can make the contents of one bag (rice, lentils, pasta, etc) last her a few weeks to a month.

She has no savings. Sometimes, she even has to ask the bus driver to let her ride without a fare. Polanco’s friends and family help her when they can. They cover her cell phone plan, (although she occasionally has service cut off) as well as most of her home furniture.

For Polanco, like so many other unemployed adults on welfare, public assistance helps them get by, but it is not nearly enough to pull them off the edge.

“Who can live off of $60 every two or three months?” she asks. “Even if I’ve been working here since I was 13 years old, I’m a taxpayer of the United States of America. I still don’t get the help I need. I still get treated like a stepchild.”

She owes more than $300 in back rent. Because she is responsible for paying 30 percent of her rent, she said she gathers money a little at a time any way she can before the debt accumulates. But public assistance takes a while to process the payment, and the cycle never seems to ease.

“By the time they pay, I already owe another three to four months,” she said.

It has not been an easy journey for Polanco. She came to New York with her family from the Dominican Republic at age four, and started working when she was 13 years old.

“Kennedy Fried Chicken was my first job,” she said. “My second job was McDonalds, then Burger King.”

Her life has been a series of moving in and out of shelters and finding a place to call home. When she was pregnant with her first child at age 13, she said the City put her in a shelter for pregnant teenagers. Her mother raised Polanco’s daughter and Polanco continued to work and study.

She wanted to have an independent life and got an apartment on her own, but was unable to make ends meet.

“My rent was $650 dollars, my cable was almost $200, then the light bill. I still couldn’t make ends meet, so I ended up homeless,” she said.

Polanco returned home and eventually got a MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) specialist certificate in high school, and graduated from Monroe College with a degree in hospitality management.

Polanco said that during college, she received help from a rent subsidy program called Housing Stability Plus and lived in an apartment with $1,200 rent and with her then two newborn sons. The program was supposed to pay for your entire rent in the first year and gradually pay less until you were paying on your own by the 5th year.

She worked during that time to make ends meet, but still struggled. The program sometimes did not pay rent on time, she said, as well as having an unrealistic view on how quickly one can become self-sufficient.

“It failed because everybody who was in the program went back to the shelter,” she said. Polanco sent off her sons to her mother, and went to a homeless shelter. (Housing Stability Plus was shut down in 2011 amid controversies.)

She found a partner in the shelter and got a duplex to live together in the Bronx through an assistance program called Work Advantage. The program makes you pay 30 percent of your income for rent and  they cover the rest.

But Work Advantage did not turn out to be helpful for them either; Polanco said they also made late rent payments, and she and her partner did not earn enough to cover a $1,400 rent. In addition, they had a daughter together.

“We still couldn’t afford it, the light, gas, heat,” she said. We ended up homeless again and ended up separating.”

Polanco went back to the shelter and went through multiple jobs, ranging from a waitress to bartender to sound production.

Then November 2011, a stroke of good luck: after waiting seven years, she won the lottery for low-income housing. It seemed like there was a light at the end of the tunnel. She prepared to have her children live with her.

But three months later, in February 2012, she almost lost her life; while Polanco worked as a bartender in a club, a customer who has been stalking her for seven months stabbed her lower back with a knife, which also injured her right leg.

“It was a big knife,” she said, gesturing the approximate length with her hands to be about a foot long.

Though her attacker went to prison, Polanco had to quit work due to her injuries. She has gone to court to try to collect disability and workers’ compensation, but the case is still pending.

Before her injury, Polanco worked eight to 12 hours a day. Although her earnings were irregular, she estimated that she earned around $380 to $700 a week, which is about $19,760 to $39,200 a year.

“I was struggling to pay the rent. I was always behind, struggling, struggling. It was very hard,” she said in an interview at the church. “It’s still hard.”

She described the past two years that she has been out of work as “the worst two years” of her life. Witness protection provided her both physical and mental therapies, which she still attends twice a week. She does not know the cost of her therapies but know that they are covered through Medicaid. Overall, she feels that she is not mentally or physically ready to work at the moment.

“I need to wait until I’m alright,” she said. Polanco said that in addition to providing food, the people at church had also helped her emotionally.

Three of her four children currently live with her mother and aunt, and the eldest has gone to college.

“I have a big family, thank God,” she said. “It’s bad enough for me living by myself, imagine if I had my four kids here.”

She says she might have been in better shape now if she realized back in 2012 that she was eligible for public assistance. But she says no one told her.

“If I had known back then I would have saved a lot of money,” she said.

With her accident and the constant struggle to survive in New York, Polanco said that it has been hard to keep a smile. But she tries to remain optimistic.

“In the future I see myself with God by my side and hopefully my kids will be around me,” she said. “I’ll be able to do things I’m not able to do now, like travel, drive a car, get my hair done every week.”

But for now, she has to worry about her next meal. Before leaving the soup kitchen, she asked the pastor for permission to take more food. He gave it to her. And Polanco left with six more potatoes and three more cartons of milk.