By: Johanna Elattar @2022
I’m an NYC girl. I was raised in New York City, and I have many great memories of growing up there. When I was in college, Sundays were always spent with friends, having brunch at some trendy spot that we had to get in line for at least two hours (if not more). After brunch, we’d go to The Angelika Film Center. We’d rarely know what we’d see. We’d just pick a movie when we got there. Those were some of the best times of my life.
When I was a child, my dad would take me to Coney Island. He’d take me to get hot dogs at Nathan’s and go on a few rides at Astroland. I loved the Wonder Wheel. My father didn’t like driving to Coney Island, and so we’d take the subway. I didn’t like taking the subway, and I hated seeing homeless people on the train. My heart ached for them as they begged, slept and were ignored (or abused) by almost everyone. My father would always try to help, whether it was by giving them a few dollars, or some food, if we had it. I learned to have compassion for others by his example, and I’m grateful. (Thank you and Rest in Peace, Dad).
Whenever I saw the homeless as a child, I never thought that I would ever be one of them. I never thought I would have no place to go, I never thought I’d worry about how I’d survive on the streets of NYC. I was wrong. I’ve suffered from depression, anxiety and a depersonalization-derealization disorder since childhood due to several traumatic events. For those who don’t know what this disorder is, it is the persistant, recurring feeling of being detached from one’s body or mental processes. It is like being an outside observer of one’s life (depersonalization) and being detached from one’s surroundings (derealization). I’ve lost many things to this disorder over the years. I’ve lost and had problems keeping friends, jobs and even intimate relationships.
In early autumn 2001, I was living in my own little apartment and I was doing well. I worked as a freelance writer, and though I was happy doing what I love, I didn’t make much money. This was a time of fear and confusion in New York City, and the country as a whole. September 11 had just taken place, and people were frightened. Being an Arab Muslim woman wasn’t something that I was ever ashamed of, but shortly after 9/11, I was asked to vacate my apartment because my landlady “didn’t want any problems.” I never really understood what she meant by that.
Having very little money and almost no family, I had no one to help me. I ended up homeless in New York City during one of the worst times in this country’s history. Before losing my apartment, I had my Depersonalization-Derealization Disorder under control for the most part. I was able to write, I was in the early stages of a relationship with someone that I really liked, and I was in therapy. The sudden loss of my apartment was a shock for me. It caused me to regress and to lose control due to my disorder. I felt completely detached from what was going on around me. It’s very hard to describe this feeling to someone if they’ve never had it. I felt like I was observing someone who looked like me and whose life was falling apart. I felt nothing, just numb with no feelings of my own. Everything was happening around me, but never to me. Of course, being so detached from my own reality caused me to stop seeing the person that I’d started a relationship with. He never knew why I ended everything with him. I stopped writing, so there was no money. I stopped going to therapy because it no longer felt like it mattered. I ended up alone and homeless due to mental illness. I was one of the homeless that everyone seemed to despise and blame for their condition. People called me a drug addict and other names, even though I was none of those things. I suffered from a mental illness, but no one seemed to care or take the time to find out what was going on with me.
A couple of months after becoming homeless, a friend of my father’s, whom I hadn’t seen in many years, recognized me on the street. He knew about my mental issues from before and he made sure that I was able to get the help that I needed. I was taken to the hospital immediately. I was very dehydrated and hadn’t eaten in a while. I was stabilized while in the hospital, and I reconnected with my therapist who didn’t know what had happened to me after I abruptly stopped showing up for my appointments. I started to come back to life—slowly, but I was making progress. Eventually, I was able to get another apartment with some help from my dad’s friend and a social worker. I often wonder what would’ve happened to me if this person never noticed me that day on the street?
I now live in upstate New York, but I try to visit my mother in Brooklyn whenever I can. Even though many things have changed in New York City over the years, one thing has never changed, and that’s the ever growing number of the homeless population. New York has approximately 8.8 million people, of which there’s one sheltered homeless person per 181 people. Thousands more men, women and children are sleeping on the streets, subways and other public places, many of whom suffer from mental illness.
I recently had a Zoom conversation with Alison Freer, a volunteer therapist at the Coalition for the Homeless. Alison has been volunteering for the past 23 years, not just in New York City, but also in upstate New York.
“The homeless in NYC aren’t as fortunate as the ones in upstate New York,” she said. “Being in a rural area has its advantages, because there are more resources available, and the number of homeless people isn’t nearly as high as it is in a big city like New York.”
Alison shared some facts from the coalition:
- In December 2021, there were 48,691 homeless people, including 15,227 homeless children, sleeping each night in New York City’s main municipal shelter system. A near-record 18,704 single adults slept in shelters each night in December 2021.
- Compared to homeless families, homeless single adults have higher rates of serious mental illness, addiction disorders and other severe health problems.
- Over the course of 2021, 107,510 different homeless adults and children slept in the New York City Department of Homeless Services shelter system. This includes 31,947 homeless children.
- The number of homeless New Yorkers sleeping each night in municipal shelters is now 16 percent higher than it was ten years ago. The number of homeless single adults is 91 percent higher than it was ten years ago.
- It has been estimated that 77 percent of adult families, 68 percent of single adults and 53 percent of families with children sleeping in shelters had at least one disability.
“City surveys and even public assistance organizations greatly underestimate the actual number of homeless men, women and children in the city,” Alison commented. “The numbers are far greater, and there are thousands of unsheltered homeless that fall through the cracks. Just forgotten about.”
As Alison spoke to me, I noticed that she shook her head often, overwhelmed by the facts in front of her. I asked Alison about her own experience with some of the mentally ill homeless people that she’s worked with.
“Many schizophrenics, but one sticks out the most in my mind: a young man named Anthony who was quite talented, an artist. He sold his paintings in the subway sometimes, and many people would look for him every day because he was so intelligent and charming when he was lucid. Then one day, he disappeared, just gone.”
“Do you know what happened to him?” I asked.
“I don’t know. We looked for him, but he just vanished. Sometimes this happens with some of the homeless that I’ve worked with, but Anthony was different, special. I like to think that he’s out there, still painting and happy, but it’s probably not the case. Many with mental illness use drugs or alcohol to cope, self-medicating. Anthony had substance abuse issues, and he’d overdosed a few times.”
Alison had tears in her eyes as she spoke, and I felt myself becoming emotional as well. I could almost see Anthony in my mind, even though I had never met him. I didn’t want to overwhelm Alison any more than I had to, so I scheduled another Zoom call with her to discuss her experience as a volunteer therapist for the homeless in New York, and how the pandemic has affected the homeless in New York City and the state as whole.
Please join me for part 2 of “Falling Through The Cracks,” coming soon.
Johanna Elattar is a writer in New York. Readings of her poetry and fiction can be found on her YouTube channel Rotten on the Vine.