No Place like Home: An Investigation into Homelessness in Hoboken, New Jersey

By Natasha Persaud

“Why are there so many songs about rainbows
and what’s on the other side?
Rainbows are visions, but only illusions,
and rainbows have nothing to hide.
So we’ve been told and some choose to believe it.
I know they’re wrong, wait and see.
Someday we’ll find it, the rainbow connection.
The lovers, the dreamers and me.”

“I love this song,” murmurs Alice, a middle aged woman with widening brown eyes. Her bedraggled blond head rises from the fold of her arms where she had withdrawn, receding into herself, for a quick nap. She leans against the silver coated folding table lured by the sound, a pull of some distant dusky memory concealed in the form of a childhood melody.

She is not alone. Others line the walls immersed in idle chatter—eyes boring into to the red speckled floors as their minds reach past the hollowed confines of the room.

“Yeah, I bet they’ll do good this year,” a gruff voice calls out. “Eh, the Yankees always do good.” The room is painted in a patchwork of unfinished blues—exposed pipes colored with the same bright blues trail along the ceiling. Their voices flit into the sullen open space—at times lost in silent prayers rising from beneath the foundation of the church. Jesus Christ is occasionally the holiest of curses, falling from the lips of those most in need.

“Rosie is beautiful.” “She ain’t that great.” “She had it hard too, ya know.”

But they have stopped.  All talk of weather, sports and the brewing dispute about Rosie Perez slowly fades, replaced now by the voices of Kermit, Queen Latifah, Ms. Piggy, and John Legend, an American actor, singer, and songwriter.

Arguments are lost to the lullaby of piano keys stringing out a song that fills the room with melancholic recollection. The woman quarrelling with her boyfriend since eight a.m. has quieted. He tenderly strokes her back as their eyes fixate on the 60-inch flat screen television on the wall, his stubbled cheek finding comfort in the hollow of her neck. Somewhere a woman begins to hum lowly—a little off key but the sound carries through the space with deep longing.

“I know this song,” is whispered in a voice haunted by recognition.

Their eyes become pools, a chasm of thoughts that can be observed from the outside but holds some unfathomable sadness that never reaches their lips. Sorrow is not shared here. It is a lonesome burden that each person quietly carries as they do their overstuffed plastic bags.

“What’s so amazing that keeps us star gazing. What do they think we might see?” dreamily drifts out of the television. There is a strange sense of time as the moments stretch, distorting minutes to create stillness.

Light pours through the four rectangular windows as the song slows to an end.

They stare around with uncertainty as voices gradually rise again, choosing to bypass their collective moment of nostalgia. Alice immediately jumps up. “I have to go to the doctor anyways.” She pushes past the rows of tables filled with people catapulted to the present, forcefully confronted with reality and an off-putting truth.

They are homeless.

These are the “guests” of Hoboken’s shelter located on 300 Bloomfield Street—nestled between Elysian Charter School and beneath St. John the Baptist Lutheran Church. These are the people we walk past sitting on the ground with coffee cups nearby. These are the people who have lost everything and must now set aside their pride, open their mouths and ask, “Spare some change?”

~

From the light rail station, Hoboken melts into the New York skyline. There is no separation; the Hudson River becomes lost to the sea of buildings—and the shelter another place that is ingrained into the fabric of Hoboken. At eight thirty in the morning, workers flow out in a continuous stream of meticulously draped hobo chic ensembles, designer shoes, and coats with recycled luxury shopping bags in hand.  They walk with squared shoulder, head perfectly aligned between the ground and sky with a sense of pride, urgency and belonging. Even in their most relaxed state Hobokenites are surrounded by an aura of self-possession.

“Excuse me. Excuse me,” hands slap repeatedly against the plastic table. “Sir, you have to go right now!”

The sanctuary of Saint John the Baptist Lutheran Church, Hoboken, NJ

The sanctuary of Saint John the Baptist Lutheran Church, Hoboken, NJ

The man cocooned in an oversized black quilted jacket pulled around his lanky frame is escaping the enduring cold, but just as the people outside must head to their destination, he has his. He languidly unravels his arms before making his way to the exit. The shelter reopens from nine to eleven for drop in—breakfast, television, bathroom and warmth is available. Unlike most shelters around Hudson County, the Hoboken shelter, an adult only lodging, is open approximately twenty and a half hours out of the day. McDonald’s is often the gathering ground for guests of the shelter; it’s warm, conveniently located two blocks away, has a public bathroom, and is one of the cheapest places to buy food and time.

Among the restroom sinks, women sponge bathe, coloring the white porcelain with days of murky grime etched onto the fabric of their clothing and skin.  A brown haired woman with makeup heavily caked over her pale face wrings the last drops of water from her red shirt into the sink.  Her only belongings are packed firmly into a small metal hand cart. She leave’s dragging the possessions of her life behind her—a physical manifestation of her struggles exposed to the world.

As nine o’clock nears, McDonald’s workers are asking those who have not purchased anything to leave as paying residents file in.

St. John the Baptist Church appears blooming with people. The drop in line wraps around the exterior—a modest sized coffee and beige colored structure with trails of ivy and greenery established in a small plot inside of the fence of the main entrance.  From outside, the large stained glass windows are obscured to everyone.  Its whimsical beauty is revealed only to the interior of a church that sits mostly unused during the day when sun catches the painted glass bathing the inside in a splendor of colors.  At night it serves as the resting ground for the women of the shelter.

Occupants of the shelter arrive through the side entrance located near the elementary school.  The grey overcast makes the illusory warmth inside of the shelter welcoming. Through the slits of shades, food sits abundantly on the tables.

Sidebar: Americans need “You” to Donate

“Come on, it’s like one minute to nine. Open already,” a man says impatiently as he rattles the knob of the weather-worn white door. It will not open a minute before nine a.m., not unless the weather is severely cold or raining.

When it does, techno-dance music escapes the doorway as the sound leaks onto the streets of Hoboken. People pour in filling the narrow entry—making a beeline for the mountain of bagels, donuts, and coffee and a chair. Breakfast has been donated.

“Starbucks, the one around the corner donates Monday through Fridays. Chipotle on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Choc o Pain every day, um Sweet Bakery every day and Carlo’s Bakery occasionally,” says Keith, the 27-year-old case manager.

Plates pile over with food.  Fresh bagels, donuts and coffee are placed abundantly in mouthwatering trays in the center of the room. Everyone eats, filling their stomachs then refilling the plates. The rest of the morning for some is spent in quiet contemplation of life plans. Others are consumed in chatter.

A dark-skinned man with groovy shades circles around the room, one hand secured at his hip and the other pointing in the air. He proceeds to skip in and out of the rows of tables, stopping to bluff charge another man before laughing.

“You’re not going to think it’s funny when I fucking knock you out,” the man replies. These occurrences are common and instantly forgotten as Law and Order becomes the center of attention. When it is time to leave, each person linger’s waiting to catch the dramatic climax at the end. Some days they do. Some days they don’t.

Q, the assistant chef, bustles around the kitchen handing out orders to volunteers and workers. Add more oil. More cheese! Place one mug of water on each table, and then add the salt and pepper shakers—one set on each table. He continues to stir the large pot of chicken stew that will be served today with bread, mixed vegetables, mashed potatoes or rice, and a special dessert that has been made by a regular Hoboken volunteer.

“I made pudding. Last week they didn’t have any dessert and I felt so bad,” she says while scooping heaps of chocolate pudding into a cup before adding whipped cream. All of the food today is donated. The shelter has to cover the cost of food otherwise.  The Community Food Bank of New Jersey, an organization that aims to “fill the emptiness caused by hunger with food, help and hope,” charges approximately two dollars per meal per person. The shelter will feed around fifty people per meal and house fifty people every night.

It is eleven o’clock and everyone is gathering their belongings—clear plastic bags revealing brushes, combs, toothbrush, papers or black bags hiding from view the contents of their life.

It is time for lunch preparation and house maintenance. Preserving cleanliness of the main room is vital, it will later serve as the sleeping quarters for the men. From 11 a.m. to noon volunteers and workers hurry to sweep, pick up trash, clean the tables, floor’s and do laundry. The bathrooms must be swept and each table is set with one napkin, one set of utensils, and a single paper cup. But most importantly the food must be freshly prepared.

The room is finally empty of people and its vacant turned out seats and leftover meals sit abandoned on the tables.

“Toss it out,” says a volunteer. Trays of bagels and toast fill the large jumbo garbage cans. Because of liability issues food cannot be given to occupants of the shelter.

Today the volunteers from New Jersey City University’s sociology club are late. “Don’t volunteer if you can’t be on time,” says one irritated worker as he hurries to finish. “Thank god we didn’t wait on them. People are waiting for food you know?” says another disgruntled worker as she sets each table. And they are right. The line of people formed inside of the gate is larger than the breakfast line. As the students show up, most of the work is finished and the doors are about to open. They are ushered into the kitchen to chop vegetables and are told to refold piles of donated clothing scattered on the tables beneath the windows.

Waiting on line takes patience and the sight of food inside is tempting, especially for those who have not eaten within the last few days and those waiting to escape the stigma of being homeless. Within the walls of the church they are protected, closed off from the outside world.

“What hurts even more is walking past an establishment with great smelling food coming out of it. And I am hungry as hell and I can’t go eat cause it’s not time to eat yet. I have to wait until it’s time or I have to wait till the following day,” says Jose, a twenty six year old regular.

“I feel like it doesn’t belong there,” says Sierra, a volunteer and previous occupant speaking about the placement of the shelter. “Like we are a little out of place. I just feel like sometimes they look down at the homeless,” she whispers quietly. Her face is wrinkled, forehead creased with unwanted thoughts.

There are two worlds in Hoboken existing alongside each other; the rich and the poor. Hobokenites walk differently, they are set to the beat of a New York style of walking—a fast paced strut that resembles a perfectly choreographed dance as they navigate around each other. They eat differently. They spend money differently.  They live differently.

“They know if you sit a little too long without ordering anything to eat,” Sierra says with shame-infused honesty.  Other than money, sometimes it is almost impossible to discern a guest from the shelter and everyone else. They are clothed in the best brands by Hoboken’s most stylish citizens who graciously donate.  During cold days like these, where the iciness lingering in the morning air clings to your clothing, it becomes a necessity to find a warm place, even if it lands you in jail.

Jose is a product of the foster care system and the homeless system. He has been in and out of foster care throughout his entire life and now he faces imprisonment.

“There’s no proper set up to [help you] transition from being dependent on the system to being independent on [your] own,” he says.   Like others he has eaten food taken from store garbage cans like Duane Reade, walked miles in the rain with threadbare shoes, begged, and has been imprisoned partly due to sneaking onto public transportation. Like every homeless person, he depends on the mercy and kindness of others.

“This is not living. This is survival. Everyone under that church, at St. Lucie’s, or another shelter is surviving off of someone else,” he somberly says looking around at the line of people. “And I am not the only one.  There are people who don’t have shelter or can’t get into the shelter so they just ride the trains back and forth. For them there is nothing else they can do. They got nowhere else to go. Nowhere to sleep.”

Some might look at him and the others and think of them as parasites of society. Why don’t you get a job? This question has been thrown at the face of every displaced person becoming the companion and response to, spare some change? However, the reality of finding a job is complex. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported for March of 2014, “the number of unemployed persons was essentially unchanged at 10.5 million, and the unemployment rate held at 6.7 percent. Both measures have shown little movement since December 2013.”

Sidebar: Local New Jersey residents respond: Why do you think people are homeless?

The National Alliance to End Homelessness released A Research Report on Homelessness April of 2013. It stated that there was a change of -7.9% in the homeless population in New Jersey from 2011 to 2012—from 14,137 people to 13,025 people. New York increased from 63, 445 to 69,566.

For Jose finding a job is next to impossible, especially with an address that places him at a shelter. He has been denied work, the worst being a Walgreens store where he was asked whether or not he would bathe, dress decent or bring his homeless friends to steal store merchandise. Jose has been stripped of his basic human dignity by becoming a statistic, a number of the page—another “bum” in the shelter.

“I do believe that there are enough of them that do have a caring heart. Otherwise this place wouldn’t be functioning, there wouldn’t be any donations.  The community is reaching out. But there are individuals who think differently.” Particularly individuals who cross the street, walk past hurriedly while clutching their bags and those who openly voice their disdain for the homeless.

“I heard this girl telling her boyfriend, ‘I don’t want to walk pass the homeless shelter.’ I was like, ‘You just walked pass a homeless person. Did you know that? No. You didn’t because some other people in this city unlike you had a heart [and] donated their clothes so I don’t have to look homeless.’ ”

~

The sour stench of day’s old urination, grime and sweaty bodies war with the mouthwatering aroma of chicken broth, bread, and coffee filling the air—sticking to the body like a second skin.  There are different types of people eating in homeless shelters, some are surviving, others are trying to find a way out.

“It’s tough to find a place to shower if you are not in a shelter. It is difficult for people who literally sleep on the street to shower and stay clean,” says Keith. Every day the shelter offers a shower program before lunch, providing socks, deodorant, toothbrush, mouth wash, lotion and fresh towels. Some will have walked over ten to fifteen miles today and every other day.

Living the shelter life is not easy and the transition from having a career to being dependent on others can take time to settle in.

“Anytime that your life goes through such a drastic change, especially if it happens quickly, there is a period of time that you have to adjust to it. So I think that it’s rough adjusting to it when you first come, especially when you come having money and being able to do what you want to do—go smoke a cigarette when you want to smoke a cigarette and eat when you want to eat and do these things that when you come here there’s a little bit more structure.  [You’re] adjusting to living with 34 other men or 13 or 14 other women. You only have a small locker. Sometimes people arrive and within a week they are gone because they can’t follow the rules.”

Basic Rules

  • Men and women sleep separate. The women sleep on the floor above the shelter on the church floor. The men sleep in the main area, which is cleared of tables and chairs at night.
  • You must be inside the shelter around 5:30 p.m. if you want to procure a bed for the night.
  • You must be actively searching for a job.
  • You must be saving money.
  • After lights out you cannot talk or be on a cell phone.
  • You cannot go into the kitchen unless permitted.
  • You cannot touch the television remote.
  • You cannot eat when you want to. Food is served on a schedule.
  • A staff member must place your clothing to wash.
  • You must wake up by 6 a.m. and be out by 7 a.m.
  • You cannot sit on the stoops of resident buildings.
  • You cannot sleep on a cot during the day.
  • You must vacate the premises throughout the day when you are told.

These small regulations become the foundations that govern your life. You are reverted to asking permission for the littlest of things.

It’s 11:30 a.m. The weather is starting clear. The sun peeking out beneath the layers of winter clouds signifies warmth. Everyone is outside, including those without a place to go—no work, appointment or shelter event.  They are strewn about the park, wrapped up in blankets lost to the conscious world. Children run without contempt for the large man whose jacket has collected a film of brown dirt, they run without fear or prejudice.

This is the pinnacle of human interaction between two worlds lost in each other among the softball fields, the gazebo, and endless park benches.  Here the large generational gap crashes against the sound of youthful screams and the soft snores of those napping on the benches. Home becomes anywhere and everywhere, the green bench, the gazebo, the doorway of buildings, the street corners and here. This is where they come, for a nap in the park, for the eyes of others to rake over them with unjust accusation but also with equally innocent curiosity.

The people of Hoboken are no different than those in any other part of the United States. They volunteer, donate, and provide many necessities for persons in need.  Every week some send two lunches to school, one for their child and another for an unknown occupant at shelter.  Some are kind, some fearful, some unaware of the person who walks a bit slower and sits lower on the ground.

[Excerpt from the 2012 film Mud:]

Neckbone: He’s a bum Ellis, let’s go.

Mud: I’m no bum. I got money. You can call me a hobo ‘cause a hobo’ll work for his living and you can call me homeless ‘cause that’s true for now, but if you call me a bum again I’ll have to teach you somethin’ about respect that your daddy never did.

“I’ve heard the word, people use it jokingly referring to themselves but to be honest the times it’s happened they don’t react nicely to it. It is derogatory.  People take offense to it. A lot of the people here in the situation take offense to it,” Keith says.

But the face of homelessness is changing. After the economic meltdown shelters are now home to the young, the old, the weak, the strong, the educated, men, women, children, and people who were hit by job loss, which ultimately left them without means to survive.

Those who are facing difficult life changes are also facing the stigma of being a “bum”.

“No person is a bum. Maybe someone who sells drugs and takes advantage of people, not someone who happen to lose their apartment because they got laid off from a job,” Jose says.

Like Jose, Sierra has been on the receiving end of this word many times. “It makes me feel bad because I am not a bum, not a hobo, and yet I was homeless. I was right there. I am not a criminal. I am not a bad person. But people could look at you like that. Right away they judge you [saying] oh well you’re homeless? You must be a bad person.” Her voice lowers to a whisper, a soft sweeping sound that that is barely audible. Tears are settled in the rim of her eyes.

“I got this apartment through the shelter,” she says. Sierra has spent six months sleeping on a cot on the church floor above the shelter—a large empty space, with ceilings that reach high into the darkness when the lights are off—even Jesus nailed to the cross slips into the night as the women settle in.

Before homelessness, Sierra was a house wife whose husband passed away from lung cancer leaving her with three young children.

Her apartment is emptied of many things, like photographs and keepsakes. One large floral couch and two faded arm chairs sit in her living room. They have been given new life through donation. The walls are bare. Like others before her, depression became a battle throughout her stay. “I felt like the world fell on me,” she says in a soft voice.

Nothing prepares you for walking away from your life and into a shelter.

“I cried the first night. I took a backpack with a couple of clothes, shirts and pants, toothbrush and hairbrush.” She used to have it all, baby pictures, toys, Christmas cards, a china cabinet filled with memories. Most of her things have been lost, becoming as displace as she was.

“Material things ain’t nothing. What is [the worth of] material things if you don’t have a place to put it.” Her words float around the almost empty apartment with resounding truth.

No one thinks of the silent burden the things we collect carry until the pressure of housing those items settle in and you are stripped of the ability to house your own body. It is not only people that become homeless; it is also the collection of your life’s possessions, the physical memories of the years.

This is the face of homelessness. These are the people we have walked by.

She sits silently staring out at the low flying planes. “I was walking down the street in tears. And only one time I had this man approach me and ask me ‘Are you alright?’ And I said ‘Yeah.’ People don’t approach you. Sometimes that one person asking you if you’re all right makes a difference because at least somebody cared enough to come and ask me if I am alright.”

Like others Sierra has questioned her dependency on society and her role in her situation. She continues to tackle the sigma placed on those in need.

“You feel some type of abandonment. So much friends and family but now everybody doing their own thing. I felt forgotten. Alone. Helpless. And I didn’t want to be a burden to anybody. And none of my kids either.

“I put a lot of blame on myself for what happened. If I could have done things differently this wouldn’t have happened. Things happen because of the bad decisions you make in life.”

Sierra was faced with many new struggles like panhandling. She didn’t want to be reduced to begging for money but she built up the courage she says, “because of the need. I wanted to die like oh Jesus Christ, how am I going to ask this person? How am I going to look. Look what I look like? I look like a bum in the street. They probably think I am this or that. And I am not. But all I need is that little quarter or dollar to get home. It was either taking the chance, or walk at least for two or three hours to where I was going then back.  It’s always dangerous, especially for a female.

“I have learned that you really have to struggle in life and that you can’t take anything for granted. You really got to struggle in life, no matter what. But not give up, always keep forward, don’t look back.

“Life is uh… I got it I just want to say it right. You know what; I am going to say that little phrase from Forrest Gump, ‘life is like a box of chocolate you never know what you are going to get.’ ”

And this is Sierra’s worst piece thus far.

“That was rock bottom for me. You see this. You hear it and you never think that it can happen to you.” But it can and it does.

“Bum is such a strong ugly word… like I don’t know… Bum… Like you are nothing and nobody. No. We’re human beings just like anybody else, just going through a little turbulence in life. And it will be temporary. It’s a temporary thing,” she mutters as the engines of the overhead plane rumble, rising further into the sky.