Tag Archives: homelessness

Trans, Homeless, and Turning Tricks to Survive

(William Murphy/ Flickr)

At Rolling Stone, Laura Rena Murray chronicles the dangers young trans women face as they struggle to survive on the streets of New York City. Often the targets of violence, one in two trans women in the city will become HIV-positive before she turns 24. Turning tricks to bring in cash, some have gone so far as to attempt suicide simply to gain access to a bed for the duration of the mandatory 72-hour watch period. “I just needed a bed,” says Scarlet. “I did what I had to do to sleep for Christmas.”

In the Dominican Republic, where Sophie was born, her mother struggled with addiction and sent Sophie to live with her grandmother in New York when she was six months old. Her grandmother, who was able to send the family money, food and clothing, Sophie says, by pimping out undocumented girls, was nearly beaten to death by two men when Sophie was in the fourth grade. Both her grandmother and her father hit her, she says, and sometimes locked her out of the house. “It was more hatred than discipline,” she recalls. “My dad would beat me in the shower with a belt and punch me in the face, calling me a faggot. Then he’d turn around and say, ‘I love you.’ How can you treat me like this if you love me?”

She began living on the streets at 16, attending school whenever possible, but more often worrying about where to eat, shower and sleep each night. “You can’t go to school smelly and drawing attention,” she says. “I would take cat baths at Starbucks.” Now, at 21, she’s hoping to build a civil-rights career, either as a lawyer or a social worker. The next morning, in fact, she has an interview for an eight-week internship at the American Civil Liberties Union. “I know I’m going to be a very successful person,” she says. “I want [my father] to learn he lost something.”

There are now more than 350,000 transgender people under the age of 25 in the United States, the majority in the largest cities of New York, California, Florida and Texas – and an estimated 20 percent of them lack secure housing, though many service providers believe that figure is low. Craig Hughes of the Coalition for Homeless Youth notes that the federal definition of homelessness does not include those who trade sex for shelter; instead, they are considered “unstably” housed. “There are thousands who go uncounted,” Hughes says. “They are disconnected from services, sleep on multiple couches a month and spend some nights trading sex for shelter.”

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The Price of Tuition-Free College

Fairfax Media via Getty Images

Tuition-free college is a reality in California. The catch is that eligible students can’t always afford rent, food, or books.

“More than half of California college students don’t need to worry about tuition,” Ashley Powers writes in a recent feature for California Sunday Magazine. Thanks to California’s Master Plan for Higher Education, federal- and state-subsidized grants are available to help students from low-income families cover the cost of tuition at state-financed universities and colleges. “The problem,” Powers explains, “is the cost of everything else.”

In “The College Try,” Powers follows Liz Waite and Kersheral Jessup, two Cal State students who’ve each put themselves through six years of college. Both went to community colleges first to save money — Jessup for three years before transferring, Waite for six. Both believed a bachelor’s degree would spare them from homelessness, wage slavery, and following in their parents’ addictive footsteps (meth in Waite’s case, alcohol in Jessup’s). As they navigate bureaucratic mazes, couch-surfing roulette, and soul-killing jobs that don’t even require advanced degrees, the duo weigh their years of sacrifice against an unverifiable suspicion that years of work experience might have yielded better prospects.

At the Dems’ weekly meeting, about a dozen students chitchatted in a semicircle; the speakers before Liz were looking for volunteers to take surveys about election-related stress. When it was Liz’s turn, she bounded to the center.

“Hey, everybody, let’s make this awkward,” she said. “What words would you guys use to describe me? Like, if you look at me, what words come to your mind? Just shout ’em out.”


She nodded. “Tall…”



“Student, blond, right,” she said. “Here’s a word that’s probably not coming to your mind. And it’s” — she shot out her arms the way you would to yell, “Surprise!” — “homeless!” Liz looked at the audience: saucer eyes.

No type of school has been more successful at lifting the poor up to the middle class and beyond than midtier public universities like the Cal States. In a ranking published this year of colleges that helped the highest percentage of students claw their way out of poverty, four Cal State campuses made the top 10. Cal State Long Beach clinched the last spot, vaulting 78 percent of its students from the bottom of the economic ladder, where household incomes top out around $25,000 a year. But for all the good Cal State does for its alumni, most students there struggle to get their degrees. Only one in five finishes in four years, and a little more than half graduate in six, their progress slowed, in part, by soaring living costs in one of the nation’s most expensive states.

Two-thirds of the expense of attending a public four-year college stems from costs like rent, food, and books. The vast majority of Cal State students live off campus (the system has enough housing to accommodate only about 10 percent of its undergraduates). Cal State Long Beach estimates that off-campus students who don’t live at home need close to $18,000 a year in addition to the cost of tuition, or nearly the salary of a full-time minimum-wage worker.

Last year, researchers at Cal State estimated that nearly one in nine students is homeless. Even more couldn’t afford food on a regular basis (a problem at UCs, the California community colleges, and campuses from Hawaii to New York). Students without stable housing, in particular, are more likely to enroll part time, struggle in class, and drop out altogether. In California, lawmakers recently floated a proposal to help many UC and Cal State students with their expenses. Projected to cost more than a billion dollars a year, it sputtered.

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New York City’s Housing Emergency

Row of boarded up houses in Harlem. Photo by Frank Vandenbergh. (Getty Images)

Despite having some of the most progressive housing laws in the country, New York City is in the throes of a humanitarian emergency: a man-made and large-scale “displacement of populations” from their homes.

In an essay for The New York Review of Books, Michael Greenberg breaks down four aspects of the city’s current housing crisis: homelessness, rent stabilization loopholes, Mayor de Blasio’s housing plan, and alternatives for reform. Nestled within every terrifying statistic are heartbreaking personal stories — landlords grinding down tenants financially and emotionally until they give in, families with children bought out of apartments they’ve lived in for decades after the rent “perfectly legally” doubles overnight. “I put up with these streets when you had to be half-crazy to go out to the bodega for a quart of milk after dark,” one renter says. “Why should we have to leave?”

An artist I know in South Williamsburg took flight after her landlord paid a homeless man to sleep outside her door, defecate in the hallway, invite friends in for drug-fueled parties, and taunt her as she entered and left the building. In East New York a mother tells of a landlord who, after claiming to smell gas in the hallway, gained entry to her apartment and then locked her out. In January, a couple with a three-month-old baby in Bushwick complained to the city because they had no heat. In response, the landlord threatened to alert the Administration for Children’s Services that they were living with a baby in an unheated apartment. Fearful of losing their child, they left, leaving the owner with what he wanted: a vacant unit.

Stories like these move through the city like an underground stream. I repeat them not because they are extraordinary, but because they are a fact of life for thousands of New Yorkers. For the most part they go unnoticed. The displaced slink away, crouched into their private misfortune, seeking whatever solution they can find. Many experience displacement as a personal failure; they dissolve to the fringes of the city, forced to travel two or three hours to earn a minimum wage, or out of the city altogether, to depressed regions of Long Island, New Jersey, or upstate New York. If they have roots in the Caribbean, as some residents of Central Brooklyn do, they may try to start again there. Or they may join the growing number of people who are officially homeless, dependent on the city for shelter.

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From a Hawk to a Dove

Illustration by Katie Kosma

Ray Cocks | Longreads | May 2017 | 11 minutes (2,844 words)

Our latest Exclusive is an essay by Vietnam veteran Ray Cocks, co-funded by Longreads Members and published in collaboration with TMI Project, a non-profit that brings empowering memoir writing and true storytelling workshops to underserved populations.

When I graduate high school in the spring of 1967, I’m determined to go to war. I enlist in the army and prepare to leave, proudly, for Vietnam.

Before I go I encounter some older guys coming back home. They speak out against the conflict, but I don’t believe them. “Don’t go,” they tell me. “It’s bullshit. It’s all bullshit.” I think they’re just hogging all the glory for themselves.

Nothing is going to stop me. Besides, what ever happened to “My country, right or wrong”?


To tell my story, It helps to back up and start with my father’s.

During World War II, he was a gunner’s mate, third class, on board the aircraft carrier Yorktown — the second one, commissioned after the first was sunk. He was on a five-inch cannon, information that means little to me when I first learn it as a kid. But then I wind up on a four-inch cannon in Vietnam.

My generation was raised by World War II veterans — the iron men who served on such ships and watched as their friends were burned to death, blown to hell, drowned, eaten by sharks, shot to pieces literally. World War II, “the big one,” — a massive, global stroke of insanity that brewed from the ashes of World War I, the war that was to make the world safe for democracy.

These men went through the rest of their lives, for the most part, with untreated PTSD. My father was no exception. Read more…

How Homelessness Looks in the Tech Boom

It’s a familiar American tale: people living in poverty amid great wealth. In Palo Alto, California, where the per capita income is over twice the state average, the tech boom has driven real estate values up, and evictions have left many renters homeless. In the New Republic, Monica Potts profiles an elderly couple who lived in their van while searching for affordable housing, and portrays the hostilities and NIMBYism that Silicon Valley’s homeless face, as well as the social services available to them.

One night, about a month after leaving Cubberley, the police pulled Suzan and James over. Their registration was expired. “This officer, he got a wild hair, and he said, ‘I’m going to impound your car,’ and called the tow truck.” Suzan told me. They got out of the car. Without pushing and demanding, she realized, she was never going to get out of the situation. She told me she said to the officer, “This is our home, and if you impound it we will not have a home.” He insisted. “I said ‘That’s fine. You do that. We will stay right here. I will put the beds out, I will put what we need here, right here on the sidewalk.” Other officers arrived and talked to them. They asked Suzan whether, surely, there was some other place they could go. “I said, ‘We have no place to go, and we’re staying right here.’ I was going to make a stink. They were going to know about it.” Suzan told me people were poking their heads out of their homes, and she realized the bigger fuss she made, the more likely officers might decide just to leave them alone.

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Going Underground into New York’s Tunnels: A Glimpse at Life in the Dark

“You’re the first person to visit this week,” he says. “People don’t want to speak to me when they come here. I don’t know, man. They’re scared or something. I can get why, it’s a spooky place when you don’t know it. But people, they like it when it’s scary. They like it when it’s dirty, right? It makes them feel alive. That’s why they make up these stories about cannibalism and stuff. Like alligators in the sewers.”

Jon offers me a sip of vodka. We drink together. He tells me to stay safe and to watch out for trains when I go back walking into the tunnel. I hear him talk to himself as I go away from the entrance and from the white sky.

The smell down here is the one of brake dust and mold. I can see rats scouring for food and drinking from brown puddles in the tracks ballast. EXISTENCE IS FLAWED, a graffiti inscription reads.

The city growls over my head — a distant growl muffled by the concrete, almost a snarl, like something cold and foul spreading over the long stretches of stained walls, like a dark and wild beast curling up around me and breathing on my neck. A dark and wild beast silently trailing me.

— At Narratively, Montreal-based freelance writer Anthony Taille takes us into New York’s underground among “Mole People,” the Amtrak tunnel residents under Riverside Park. Taille has spent time with people who have lived under the city for many years, from Bernard Isaac, a legend among Mole People, to longtime resident Brooklyn, who has lived underground since 1982.

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A San Francisco Story

Leah Rose | Longreads | August 2015 | 12 minutes (2,876 words)


On a Saturday afternoon in February, a group of 15 men stood chatting on the back patio of the Eagle, a leather-themed gay bar on 12th Street in San Francisco. The lone female of the group, 55-year-old Donna Merlino, known as Downtown Donna, untangled a heap of heavy extension cords and powered up a Crock Pot full of lamb stew. Wearing a black leather vest and sturdy black boots, Donna set up two tables of food for the guys, who sipped pints of beer surrounded by paintings of pantless Freddie Mercury lookalikes with enormous genitalia. Read more…