As a child in the 1960s I once rode a trolleybus in Seattle with my grandmother, and when it rounded a corner looking out over industrial land south of the train station and west toward container ships on Elliott Bay, she said, “That’s where the Hooverville was.” Close to a thousand unemployed men had camped there for a decade during the Depression, in improvised shacks and lean-tos built from scrap, boiling clothes in barrels and cooking food in blackened cans over open fires. Women facing homelessness were forced to move in with relatives or squat in doorways. Housing density in Seattle skyrocketed. Burned down twice by police, the Hooverville was rebuilt both times.
One of sixteen children, the daughter of Scandinavian immigrants, with only a few years of education, my grandmother was fortunate to have escaped such a fate. She worked all her life, cooking, cleaning, and taking care of her household, but the only paid job she ever had was taking tickets on a streetcar. Her husband, wounded in World War I, was employed sporadically as a carpenter, railroad worker, shipyard worker, and manager of a state liquor store. Despite these humble circumstances, during the lean years of the 1930s they were able to buy a modest house at the top of Seattle’s Queen Anne Hill, with two small bedrooms and a tiny bath, valued at $2,000 during the 1940 census, the equivalent of around $35,000 today.
Sold long ago, the house still stands, now with four bedrooms and three baths. It’s currently worth close to $1.2 million, well above Seattle’s recent median price for a single-family home, $760,000. Driven by ballooning growth at Amazon and other Seattle tech employers, the city’s housing costs have risen by around 10 percent annually in recent years, with home values rising 85 percent since 2012. Were they living now, my grandparents, laborers without much education, could never afford to rent or buy a house in their old neighborhood.
Seattle’s latest Hooverville is everywhere and nowhere, with the homeless population rising steeply over the past decade, reaching a high of over 12,000 in 2018, with more than half living “unsheltered.” (The total dropped to 11,200 last year.) People crowd into encampments next to highways, railroad tracks, or train trestles, under bridges, on city sidewalks, in their cars. They stay temporarily in shelters or sleep on park benches and in doorways, parking lots, alleys, abandoned buildings, campgrounds, and beaches.
And this time it’s men, women, children of all ages, infants, the disabled, people with jobs, and those who work in the gig economy. It’s those who have suffered a job loss or an unexpected medical crisis as well as those who simply can’t afford the rent (averaging over $2,000 a month), a situation also found in major cities throughout the west—Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego—and throughout the country. In Manhattan, the median rent is currently $3,167; in Queens, $2,424. In the now cratering pandemic economy, with tens of millions suddenly unemployed, many are facing eviction in coming months, despite Trump’s executive order establishing a moratorium through the end of 2020. That only delays the inevitable, as landlords continue to find loopholes and press for evictions. Without drastic action, the housing crisis is about to get unimaginably worse.
In This Is All I Got, a report about a year in the life of a homeless single mother in New York City, Lauren Sandler finds the intractable source of homelessness in the piratical inequities of the housing market, especially in New York, which she calls a “fun-house mirror of national inequality.” A journalist who has written previously about the dilemmas of motherhood in One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child, and the Joy of Being One (2013), Sandler immerses herself in the life of Camila (not her real name), a twenty-two-year-old from Queens. An empathetic and often anguished narrator, Sandler follows the young mother’s struggles from the day her baby, Alonso, is born until his first birthday, tracing an erratic and exhausting path through the city’s byzantine social service agencies. Camila’s story is both uniquely her own and illustrative of the grindingly dictatorial public assistance programs that are determined not to assist, a system that reduces her, as Sandler puts it, to “the sum of her paperwork.”
Camila’s early years can scarcely be termed a childhood, marred as they were by abuse and neglect, culminating in abandonment at age fifteen. Both parents were from Queens, both sets of grandparents from the Dominican Republic. In this country, her father, Mauricio, had seven or more offspring with different women, supporting none of them, instead investing his time, affection, and improbably flush resources (ostensibly from working in a hardware store but supplemented by drug dealing) in a succession of Porsches, Ferraris, and other flashy cars.
Mauricio never lived with Camila’s mother, Geraldine, who had four children with four men, none of whom supported her; Camila considers her mother the embodiment of Ronald Reagan’s infamous stereotype of the “welfare queen.” But even in an earlier, slightly less stingy era, welfare did not protect the family’s children. Geraldine did score the Holy Grail of New York subsidized housing, a Section 8 voucher, created by the Housing and Community Development Act of 1978 to ensure that families would spend no more than 40 percent of their income on housing. But instead of using the voucher to create a stable home, she devoted herself to her own needs, sleeping around and wearing what Camila termed “hoochie clothes.” Her idea of parental advice was to tell her daughters, after being dragged down the street by Mauricio, “That’s what love is. If he doesn’t abuse you, he doesn’t feel for you.”
Even worse, Geraldine beat Camila and at least one of her other daughters to augment her income, telling doctors at Bellevue that the bruised girls were abusing themselves and her other kids. Once her daughters were identified as “disabled,” Geraldine collected federal disability payments on their behalf. She locked her children out of the apartment after school and fed them NyQuil at night, drugging them so as to pursue her nocturnal activities uninterrupted.
Far from disabled, Camila had been working part time in her father’s hardware store since she was a teenager, although the money she earned was routinely seized by whichever parent she was staying with at the time. When Geraldine discovered that Camila, at fifteen, was having sex with “an older guy,” she had him arrested for statutory rape and kicked Camila out, in order to keep for herself food stamps meant to feed her daughter. Camila stayed briefly with Mauricio, but he soon sent her back to her mother, who responded by throwing everything Camila owned into the street. The girl was subsequently declared a ward of the state, spending time in a group home. She persevered, however, graduating from high school while camping out in rented rooms or on cousins’ spare couches. Although she never slept on the street, she was unable to find stable or permanent housing, and her life was a portrait of instability.
Yet Camila had opportunities. Just after high school she attended college in Buffalo while simultaneously suing her parents (unsuccessfully) for child support, shuttling back and forth to Queens, and juggling damaging relationships, including a brief marriage, at nineteen, to a thirty-seven-year-old Dominican gang member, Pedro. At the time they met, he was living in a halfway house, and his idea of romance was to masturbate in the common room and wipe handfuls of semen into her palm so she could inseminate herself. He was hoping he might “get out quicker” if he were married. When he asked her to arrange threesomes, she left him.
Notwithstanding his chivalry, Pedro was not the father of her child. When Sandler enters the picture, Camila is about to give birth and living in a private Catholic shelter. That doesn’t last long, and Sandler shows us how much Catholic charity is worth, as the nuns of the Sisters of Life who have pressured Camila to have the child (she considered an abortion) reward her with a cake and a package of Pampers, but they’re the wrong size. Rose, the vindictive and autocratic woman in charge of the shelter, takes her first opportunity to evict Camila, far and away the most promising of her “girls,” as she calls them, over a nearly empty bottle of Hennessy hidden in the freezer—a petty if rebellious violation of the rules. Camila’s room then sits empty for months while the young mother struggles and fails to find another safe haven.
For a long stretch of the narrative, the paternity of the child remains unclear to both Sandler and the reader, largely because Camila is loath to admit, to herself or anyone else, that there are two possibilities. When the baby is born, she chooses to assume that the father is Kevin, a Buffalo student who may or may not have been signed to the Canadian Football League. She invites him to the maternity ward, and although he does not show up for the birth, she posts pictures on social media of him holding her son. “If it was Kevin’s,” she thought, “she’d have a family with the right man,” a man with “character.”
It soon becomes clear, however, that the father is probably Camila’s most despised boyfriend, Jeremiah, a second-string hookup and former dental assistant in his thirties who is shy, smart, jealous, unreliable, and not much of a dresser. He tells her he hopes she has a miscarriage; he lies about not having another child (a twelve-year-old son whom Camila discovers on Facebook); he quits his job to have more time to “smoke weed with his friends.” The fact is confirmed when first Kevin and then Jeremiah compel her to furnish them with paternity tests. Camila’s fantasies about Kevin and other consequential matters reveal a strong tendency toward magical thinking, something that, time after time, undercuts her otherwise heroic efforts to attain stability, acquire an education and meaningful work, and provide her son with a home.
Having worked her share of dead-end jobs in the hardware store and at a pharmacy, she is doggedly determined to pursue a college degree in criminal justice, hoping for a career in law enforcement. She commutes for hours every day between a squalid and illegal rented room ($160 a week) carved out of someone else’s Bronx apartment, Alonso’s Brooklyn day care, and Kingsborough Community College in Manhattan Beach where she completes a two-year associate’s degree, making the dean’s list. Mother and child are often a single week’s rent or landlord’s tantrum away from eviction. Yet Camila is a fiercely organized warrior in her own defense, preparing for deadening encounters with the bureaucratic Scyllas and Charybdises who zealously guard the ever-narrowing path to welfare, subsidized housing, and other benefit streams by keeping with her a folder of essential documents: birth certificate, various applications, and other paperwork. She takes copious notes on meetings, court cases, and disputes with former employers. One of these, an incident of sexual harassment by her boss at a pharmacy near Grand Central, yields an extraordinary windfall, a settlement check for $8,000.
Instead of using the money as a cushion to secure better housing or day care, however, Camila spends it on an ultimately harrowing trip to the Dominican Republic looking for her roots, yearning to belong somewhere. She often struggles to allocate resources, frowning at Jeremiah’s blowing money on “new ink” but then spending hundreds on a large tattoo of her son on her arm and making routine visits to a nail salon even as she denies herself food, often living off half a bacon-and-egg sandwich for breakfast and the other half for dinner.
Her self-sabotage extends to her dealings with the men in her life, the worst bunch of inept predators imaginable, profiles in ejaculate. Too often a collaborator in her own mistreatment, she returns repeatedly to a father who wants nothing to do with her and expresses no interest in his grandson. She’s thrilled when her ex-husband, Pedro, texts her out of the blue, only to receive his next message: “I’m going to be straight with you. I don’t want to chitchat. I just want to get my dick wet.” Kevin, the man of “character,” does the same thing, texting after a long silence to suggest that she arrange a threesome for his birthday. He tries to borrow money from her, a homeless single mother. Jeremiah, awful though he is, at least expresses interest in his son. But since she early on persuades him that he’s not the father, he chooses not to provide child support, waiting for a court to enforce responsibility.
Camila’s near total isolation is excruciating, something she compounds by cutting off relationships with those who disappoint her. Understandably, she doesn’t trust men, never telling Jeremiah that the two of them had hit the housing lottery jackpot and been offered a rent-subsidized two-bedroom in Harlem for $850 a month, after she put his name and income along with her own on the application. Together, they might have occupied it, if only as roommates; instead, it slips away. Not a single friend, boyfriend, or member of her family attends the birth of her child or her college graduation.
One by one, every financial lifeline breaks due to the callous ineptitude of officials who close her public assistance account without notice for “noncompliance,” sending her from one borough’s “job center” to another to reinstate it. Tracking her fruitless trips, Sandler highlights another immigrant story, that of Harry Ratowczer, whose son, Bruce Ratner, became a power player in New York real estate, spearheading the first billion-dollar deal in Brooklyn at the MetroTech complex, which houses the child-support office Camila must frequent to pursue her case. In a touch out of Edith Wharton’s Gilded Age, the author follows the sodden, desperate mother, lashed by a winter storm, into Ratner’s “vast marble-walled lobby,” its lavish flower arrangement a testament to the bloated wealth of its star tenant, JPMorgan.
As in Wharton, there is no pity for the weak. Sandler is skilled in weaving together these scenes with the background to elucidate them:
Who knew why cases closed. Who knew how to find out why, without spending days in these waiting rooms; [a recent] study also said that over a third of welfare recipients reported that job centers “never” answered phone calls. A closed case was sheer catastrophe for the 356,350 New Yorkers on welfare that spring—up over 5 percent from the previous year. All this in a city with almost one million millionaires, more than any other city in the world.
No matter how assiduously Camila sees to her paperwork, by Alonso’s first birthday and the end of Sandler’s one-year reporting mission, she has lost all welfare, housing assistance, child care, and Medicaid.
Camila’s experience must ring true for thousands, yet as a very young homeless mother, she is atypical. “I didn’t set out to write about someone who would be a stand-in for statistics,” Sandler says, justifying her choice of subject. While minutely reporting Camila’s experience, she fails to provide a national portrait of homelessness, skimping on the complexity of the data. She rather airily says that “data doesn’t tell the whole story,” and that “this is information that any concerned citizen can find with a quick Internet search.” She may have neglected to do that herself, erroneously asserting that “three-quarters of the American homeless population is made up of families” and that “single mothers make up the vast majority of our homeless population.” These figures are perhaps mistakenly derived from the US Interagency Council on Homelessness, which has reported that women make up three quarters of adults experiencing family homelessness, a subset of the whole. Perhaps Sandler was considering the fact that families comprise three quarters of the shelter population in New York City, again a subset. Many individuals choose not to enter the shelter system.
According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness and many other sources, single adult men make up the overwhelming majority of homeless people, 65 to 70 percent nationally. Minorities make up a disproportionate share; African-Americans, more than 40 percent. Women, many of them single mothers, constitute just under 30 percent. Roughly a third of the homeless are families with children. One percent are transgender or gender nonconforming. Most are over the age of twenty-four.
The explanation for the gender disparity may lie in men’s elevated incarceration rates: every year some 48,000 men leave jails or prison and proceed directly to shelters or the streets. Men are likelier to drop out of school and run into poorer prospects for employment, while veterans make up another subset. In an overview, Harvard Medical School asserts that a quarter to a third of the homeless may suffer from some form of mental illness; other organizations report that 38 percent are dependent on alcohol. Yet many advocacy groups urge the public to recognize that the stress of homelessness itself may lead to mental issues or substance abuse. Advocates resist stigmatization by noting that the majority of the homeless are not suffering from mental illness or addiction. They’re suffering from not being able to afford housing.
Sandler emphasizes that Camila is exceptional, charismatic, attractive (even “stunning”), “like a savant,” in possession of the ambition to desire an education and the discipline to pursue it. With these attributes she seems perpetually poised for a breakthrough, and her failure to achieve it feels all the more poignant and frustrating. Camila is living proof that a segment of the homeless population would be well served by adequate, affordable housing. But unlike a recent New Yorker article on homelessness examining experimental housing programs in San Francisco—a city where draconian attempts to dismantle settlements were called, in a 2018 UN report, “cruel and inhuman” and a violation of human rights—Sandler provides little discussion of the efficacy of current initiatives.
As New York’s Coalition for the Homeless has pointed out in their annual report, the shelter population has increased by 10 percent a year under Mayor Bill de Blasio. Readers may well ask, Why? How effective are city programs, or state or federal ones? How devastated has New York City been by deep budget cuts, in the billions of dollars, made to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), year after year, by the Trump administration? Sandler barely mentions HUD, nor does she ask what, if anything, works, and what doesn’t.
Instead, she approaches the issue almost exclusively as Camila’s story, in ways that feel emotionally over-torqued and factually underreported. Camila apparently has caseworkers, who are referenced early on but never introduced. Subject and author form a friendship; indeed, Sandler says that she becomes Camila’s “primary relationship.” That serves to underscore the author’s queasiness about the ethics of her project and, ultimately, the reader’s. She grapples with this but doesn’t resolve it, buying her subject coffee and lunch, helping her move, and registering her guilt about not offering more:
I wouldn’t be able to give her a cent of what I might be paid for reporting on her struggle. Compensating a subject or source is, of course, the third rail in journalism. Introducing money would not just discredit my reporting, but it would also present an even bigger problem than the usual journalistic issues of ethics and reliability. Her story was one about structural inequality, the housing crisis, the welfare system, single motherhood, and more. That was why she didn’t have money or a home. If she had some money, I would no longer be able to witness how she succeeded or failed in making a life without it. We discussed this. She said she understood.
Yet my observation was hardly pure. My existence in her life had transformed it. I was observing a young woman, alone; only she wasn’t alone, I was there, shining worth and interest upon her, taking notes, paying attention. And, by nature of my presence, providing companionship.
The book taps into the genre of embedded accounts such as Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (2001), for which the author worked undercover as a waitress and Walmart employee, and Susan Sheehan’s 1982 Pulitzer Prize–winning exposé of New York’s mental health system, Is There No Place on Earth for Me? Sheehan spent more than two years following the nightmarish daily ordeal of a young schizophrenic woman, the pseudonymous Sylvia Frumkin, as she cycled in and out of the Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Queens, only a few miles from where Camila grew up. Through the depth of her reporting, exposing the harried ineptitude and ruinous pharmaceutical errors of the Creedmoor staff, Sheehan was able to challenge the limits of human interest and empathy, inspiring compassion and outrage for a figure who, in the worst moments of mania, bit staff and other patients, screamed obscenities and racial epithets, and painted the walls of her cell with her own feces.
While hewing closely to Frumkin’s story, Sheehan’s book was not simply about one woman; it was about a larger issue. Woven throughout the narrative were rigorous examinations of Creedmoor as a mental institution, the history and policy of deinstitutionalization (an issue relevant to homelessness), the development of psychopharmacology, the legal rights of patients, and schizophrenia itself. Given this grounding, while the book inspired fascination, pity, and horror at the patient’s travails, it did not feel invasive. It felt revelatory.
Sheehan later said that she remained lifelong friends with Frumkin, whose real name was Maxine Mason (Mason died in 1994 at the age of forty-six, having never recovered). She openly acknowledged the ethical perils of her reporting, saying that she had her subject sign consent forms every six months. The question of informed consent arises here as well, not because of Camila’s mental health but because of her youth and inexperience, as well as the gulf between her world and the author’s. As Sandler recognizes, the disparity between them is another example of the inequity the book decries, and it may have inspired Camila’s cryptic comment, after the year is up, that she “forgave” the author. The reader wants to know what she meant, but Sandler doesn’t ask. The year concludes abruptly, with an air of being unfinished. We do learn that Camila subsequently found religion, got married again, and moved to New Jersey, although her housing situation remains rocky. We’ve seen enough to know that her life is an “existence in a perpetual emergency” but nonetheless yearn for the wider purpose of her story to emerge.
That’s where This Is All I Got ultimately founders, failing to go beyond the narrative. At the end, Sandler offers a passionate cri de coeur for taxing the wealthy, denouncing inequity in a stirring but maddeningly vague conclusion:
Our lawmakers and lobbyists genuflect to the unchecked capitalism that pays their way. Any ethic of fairness, or possibility, or hope mainly exists as founding mythology—the fairy tale that if Camila is smart and capable, she’ll succeed. It’s America, after all. But this America has gone upside down. The inheritance game is an exponential graph, with one line stretching up up up and another steeply descending—the apocalyptic physics of inequality.
All true, but a summation calls for a command of the subject, not what Virginia Woolf termed “large indisputable platitudes.” Sandler pleads for us to see “the labyrinth of poverty” but fails to fully map it herself, offering no specific analysis of the scores of programs and organizations that struggle to address homelessness, no interviews with city or federal officials or experts or advocates or charities (beyond her conversations with Rose at the Catholic shelter), and little in the way of a comprehensive overview. No one imagines that a journalist will solve a subject’s problems or society’s ills, but it’s not unreasonable to expect more than just going along for the ride.