Where Christmas Never Comes
Fearing retaliation from hotel management or fellow residents, a number of the parents and children who agreed to talk about their experiences in New York City's hotels and shelters for the homeless asked that their identities not be disclosed. For this reason many of the names on the following pages are fictitious; their stories, unfortunately, are not.
Prince George Hotel: Tina Gomez, 15, leads a visitor up a dimly lit stairwell littered with trash. "When we first came here, I thought I would die right that second," she says. "On the first day, I saw a fight in the hallway. After that, all I did was cry and cry." A once-luxurious hotel built at the turn of the century, the Prince George now houses 468 homeless families—more than any other facility in New York City. It is also the base for an uncounted number of crack dealers and thugs. Since elevator service for the 13 floors is erratic, the hotel's 1,400 children spend a lot of time on the stairs, which reek of urine and garbage, and on the landings, where bulbs are often out.
Stella Schindler, Director, Mayor's Office for Homeless and SRO Housing Services: "I don't want to be an apologist for the hotels, because I want us out of them. But while we're in them, we enforce the codes as well as we can in a vigorous way. But can we patrol every corridor and every stairwell every day? Absolutely not."
Prince George Hotel: Tina's family were evicted from their $371-a-month, two-bedroom apartment in the Bronx last March when the welfare office mistakenly failed to mail out their rent subsidy. Now she, her big brother, Jim, her little brother, Pete, and her parents, Hector and Carla Gomez, are jammed into this 13-by- 16-foot living space with four beds, two chairs, a bureau and an illegal hot plate. "We go into the bathroom just to have a moment alone," says Carla. Not that the accommodations are cheap: The government is paying $2,139.90 a month for the Gomezes' room. "I could live in a penthouse for the price they pay for this place," says Carla. Perhaps she could, but the system would not pay for that. If the Gomezes were to leave the hotel, they would be entitled to only $281.50 a month as a rental allowance for a family of five. "In New York you couldn't even find one room for that," says Carla, who is getting her high school equivalency certificate while her husband takes a computer training course.
Regent Hotel: Thomas, 11, and Jamie, 9, have been living at this Upper West Side hotel for about a year now. For six months after fire destroyed their Brooklyn apartment, killing their brother Dennis, 3, they and their mother, "Dimples" Ludd, were shuffled from shelter to shelter. Fourteen months ago they were assigned to the Regent, where they live in a single room with no kitchen. "My daughter and I have to share a bed," says Dimples. "My son throws the ball, and I'm screamin', 'Why are you throwin' that ball?' I want to get a job, but then who's going to take care of my kids, make sure they go to school, cook for them?"
Emergency Assistance Unit, Manhattan: Shaquna McManus, 8, is separated from her parents more than half the time now, staying with friends whenever she can in order to remain in school. Since her family lost their St at en Island apartment four months ago because of a dispute with the landlord, they have moved 27 times. Each of their placements at a hotel lasts one to seven days. When it runs out, they must return to the EAU and wait three to eight hours for another housing assignment. This means that Ranie McManus, 33, formerly a boiler repairman, and his pregnant wife, Carrie, 34, a onetime guidance counselor, have little time to look for work and no place for an employer to contact them.
Today a voice on the EAU loudspeaker calls the McManuses after only three hours. They are thrilled by the promptness, but Ranie is upset to learn that they have been placed at the Prospect Hotel in the Bronx. The McManuses have been there several times. Once Ranie had to use a bottle to fend off a rat near their bed. Another time the McManuses found the bed in their room still warm from the previous occupants. There was a used condom in an ashtray, and empty crack vials were scattered on the bureau. The room was so cold that Ranie had to turn on the shower to heat it. (Hotel management admits to some difficulty with keeping rooms clean in the past but denies that the Prospect has a heat or rat problem.)
"It's terrible there," Ranie tells the EAU clerk. "Please find us something else. And we've used up our food money."
"No more money," says the clerk. "You were paid two days ago. Your case is closed."
Pennsylvania Station: Social worker Randy Harper strolls through the train terminal looking for children from the welfare hotels. "There, in the red shirt," he says. "And there, bluejacket. This is schooltime, but they'll tell me they're out early or that they missed the bus. It's hard to get down on them when their parents let them do it." Some kids come here just to hang out in the video arcade or to steal tokens from the turnstiles, Harper explains. Others are here on more sordid business: "Prostitution," says Harper, "and they're just kids. Jackie, he's 11. He's usually the first one here."
Catherine Street Shelter: Sprawled across a cot in the converted classroom he shares with his sister, his mother and four other families, Ladue Haskins, 10, quietly does his homework. In 1985 the Haskins family had to leave the Long Island house they shared with another family when the rent jumped dramatically. At first La-due's mother, Phyllis, 29, who lost her job as a health-care attendant and is desperately looking for work as a maid, took Ladue and his sister, Ebony, 7, to live with cousins in the Bronx. When they couldn't stay there any longer, they lived in a Brooklyn shelter for two months, then in the Martinique, a 442-unit midtown hotel much like the Prince George. Ladue hated it there. "I was scared to go outside," he says. "My mother sent me to the store, and some older kids hit me with sticks and brooms to get my money. But they didn't get it."
Finally, last July, the Haskinses were placed in the Catherine Street Shelter, a dormitory housing about 250 adults and an equal number of kids. It is clean and safe and serves a hot meal every night, but it still isn't home. "I miss my mother's cooking," says Ladue, returning from the cafeteria. "She cooked more food better than this." He insists that his mother escort him to school because he won't take a bus from the shelter. "If other kids know I live here, they'll tease me," he says.
Prince George Hotel: It takes Tina Gomez more than an hour to get from the hotel to her old high school in the Bronx. A good student, she, like Ladue, doesn't want her classmates to know where she lives. "There are 10 kids in four apartments around us, and only four go to school. The little girl across the hall doesn't know her ABC's," she says. "There are little kids in the hallways singing at 4 or 5 in the morning. Their parents don't care. Imagine a whole hotel like that." Says her brother Jim, 17, who is studying computers at a trade school: "The kids who are 8 to 12 travel in packs. They go to Park Avenue, where there are prostitutes. After somebody comes from a trick, the kids rob 'em. Their parents tell 'em, if you're gonna steal, you can't come back unless you give me money. It's sad. A kid could be a real genius, but no one's ever gonna know because he won't go to school. He'll be out stealing and selling drugs."
Salvatore Tuccelli, part owner of the Martinique, also affiliated with the Prince George: "These people belong behind bars. They destroy buildings. They're always blaming management. Let them look in a mirror, these people. If they know who the drug people are, why don't they call the police department?"
Catherine Street Shelter: The back of a door bears a single line of graffiti, scrawled in a child's hand with a silver magic marker: "I have no friend's."
Upper West Side subway: Lila, 4, and her sister, Maria, 3, enter a subway car with their parents, Roger and Doreen Johnson. Homeless all their lives, the girls are being taken to a single room at the Hamilton Place Hotel in Harlem where the city has given them temporary shelter. Two months ago the family missed a welfare meeting and lost their food allowance because they were filed "address unknown." While they're waiting to get back on the rolls, they have worked out a routine to survive. As Maria points again and again to her open mouth, her father announces to the crowd: "Excuse me. We are homeless and we need money to eat. Would you please help us?" A woman hands each of the little girls an apple. "Thank you," says Lila, wiping the fruit on her soiled shirt.
Prince George Hotel: Tina's brother Jim looks out a window to see a crack dealer sidle up to his client and palm some money. "There's one guy who's like the kingpin," Jim says. "The security guards won't stop him because they want the money they get from renting out rooms to dealers. It's good that the Coalition for the Homeless serves lunch because the parents spend all the money on crack, and without it the kids would have nothing to eat."
Randy Harper: "There's more dope in some hotels than on Times Square. It gets to all of them after a while. I've met families that were strong when they walked through that hotel door. Then, later on, I see them on the street, asking, 'Got a quarter?' "
Martinique Hotel: Ramon, a rail-thin 7-year-old, greets Randy Harper by jumping into his arms. The boy is due in court soon on a chain-snatching charge; Harper asks how he has been. Ramon fidgets with a toy he has made from thumbtacks and a piece of dirty cardboard. "I'm okay," he says quietly. "He's a good kid," says Harper as he leaves the hotel, "but if we don't get him out of that place, it's over for him."
East Harlem Family Center: Joey Astacio, 3, races a bright red fire engine down the clean, well-lit hall of a renovated 12-unit building. When adults approach, he looks up and beams with pleasure. Last year, when the Astacios lived at the Prince George with two adults and five children in one room, Joey was a sullen 2-year-old who never spoke and never smiled. At night, says his mother, Esther, he would babble and punch at the air. "I couldn't understand what he was saying," she says. "So one night I lay right next to him and listened. He was saying, 'I'll kill you, you bitch, I'll kill you.' " But since May, when the family was moved to this privately run shelter, Joey has been a different child. "He has bloomed," says his mother. "He sleeps so quietly." Here the Astacios have a living room, two bedrooms and a kitchen for about the same price that the city paid for their cramped room at a welfare hotel. Joey's sister, Gloria, 10, had begun to do poorly at school while she was at the Prince George; now she has a quiet place to study and just scored in the 93rd percentile on a national math test.
Roy Grant, psychotherapist and program director at the Association to Benefit Children: "Studies show a very high level of school failure for older homeless children. The outlook for younger children is even worse. At 4 or 5, many don't speak at all or use only one-or two-word sentences. In the dress-up corner of the day-care center they play welfare office, telling each other, 'Sit down. Shut up. I didn't call your number.' "
Midtown subway: Shaquna McManus has come in from Staten Island to help her parents beg on the subway. "When we got on one train last night," says Carrie, "a bum asked our daughter for change. So she reached into her pocket and gave him some. It was all the money we had, and she gave it away. Then she started crying."
Herald Square: Swinging around a midtown Manhattan lamppost at 8 p.m., Willie, 12, doesn't want to talk about skipping school or begging money from cab drivers. He wants to talk about Christmas. "The Bureau of Child Welfare came to my house last year," says Willie, who lives in the Martinique with his alcoholic father. "They didn't come 'cause I was bad or nothin'. They came with $1,000 worth of toys. I had a pool table there, a dirt bike there. My sister, she got a Cabbage Patch doll and all this other stuff. You should' a seen it."
The kids around Willie laugh. They know instantly that he's lying. Homeless children don't believe in miracles. When they've been homeless long enough, they don't believe in very much at all.