Working, But Homeless

Denise, who did not want to be identified, displays some of her many books. (Patrick McGovern/NY City Lens)

“Sarah”, who asked that her name be changed for this article and did not want to be pictured, displays some of her many books. (Patrick McGovern/NY City Lens)


For Sarah, work starts after closing time. After the day’s customers have left the upstate Target store where she has been employed for the past five years, she begins her nightly tasks. From 10:30 p.m. to 6:45 a.m. she breaks down retail displays and builds new ones—grueling labor that leaves her exhausted. (“Sarah” asked that her named be changed for this article, as she does not want to discuss her finances in public).

After her shift ends she begins her journey home, a two-hour trip. Home, however, is a loaded word for Sarah. Home is something she has lost. It is a battle that must be fought daily. Home is a homeless shelter in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.

“I can’t go home and decompress,” she said. “I have to go home to a shelter. When I go home I still have to fight another battle.”

Sarah has no space of her own. She lives in a large room filled with beds and other women. Even with the noise caused by many roommates, sleep comes easily to Sarah.

“I’m out like a rock, work makes me so tired,” she said. “I’ve gotten used to sleeping during the day.”

Sarah, 40, looks younger than her age. She is one of thousands of individuals in New York City living in homeless shelters while holding down a job. According to a report from Coalition for the Homeless, one in six homeless single adults in the city are employed.

There haven’t been many constants in Sarah’s life. Abandoned by her parents when she was just 10 years old, she grew up in various households in foster care in her hometown of Philadelphia. She suffers from ulcerative colitis, a form of inflammatory bowel disease that can flare up painfully and has led to employment problems. Sarah has been homeless once before, in 2008 she was let go from her job at a Filene’s Basement clothing store after being hospitalized due to symptoms from her illness. She was evicted from the room she was renting and spent time living in a shelter in Harlem.

Through all her struggles, there has been one constant, however: her desire to work.  “I’m very willing to work. I want to have a job,” she said. “I want to maintain my life. I don’t want to depend on the city or state for anything.”

Sarah would like to work full time, but she currently gets between 24 to 32 hours a week, depending on her manager’s needs. She makes $12.30 an hour, just 30 cents more than she was making at a similar job in 2002. Sarah estimates that her take-home pay is between $500-$700 per month. As part of a mandatory savings program for shelter residents, she has begun to save for an apartment. However with studios renting in Brooklyn at well over $1,000 per month, finding a place she can afford appears to be a daunting task.

In 2009 Sarah was able to find an apartment with the help of the Advantage program, a rent subsidy program designed to provide two years of rental assistance to shelter residents to help them secure permanent housing. For two years she received vouchers from the program that allowed her to afford rent on a one-bedroom apartment in East New York. According to Sarah, the apartment was clean and beautiful. She was overjoyed to have her own kitchen and bathroom.

In March of 2011, however, the program was eliminated due to budget cuts. The last rent subsidies were sent out by the city in January 2012. Sarah was left to pay her entire rent, $950 a month, on her own.

She soon fell behind. After accumulating thousands of dollars in rent arrears, she was finally evicted in December. Sarah could only take with her what she could carry, and was forced to leave behind many of her belongings, including family pictures. She did take her collection of scarves; she thought she might need them due to the brutally cold winter.

Sarah reluctantly moved into a woman’s shelter on Williams Avenue in Brooklyn. However, after being interviewed by the staff psychiatrist there, she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome and sent to a MICA (Mentally Ill Chemically Addicted) shelter, Harry’s Place in Bed-Stuy.

“She asked me if I was depressed,” she said. “I mean, I lost my place. My place that was clean and beautiful that I may not ever get again. Hell yeah I was depressed, and I still am, a little bit.”

Sarah, however, remains resilient. Despite her struggles with her health and her housing, she continues to make the two-hour journey upstate to work without complaint. The long hours spent on the train give her time to do something that homelessness cannot take from her—to escape into literature. She carries a pile of books wherever she goes. She is currently reading four books, including King Leopold’s Ghost, by Adam Hochschild and Cloud Atlas, the fantasy novel by David Mitchell.

“I’ve always loved literature,” she said. “It’s great. It gives me a way to escape all this, you know?”