What if Homeless Prevention Services Actually Worked?

homeless services

It’s true we should not play the game of “what if” because it prevents us from moving forward. And perhaps this game that I often play is the source of my bitterness, resentment and inability to move on with my life. Nevertheless, I can’t help but think about what could have been, perhaps what should have been if I was never homeless.

If I never stepped foot in those shelters, if I didn’t drop out of college, if I had spent these past few years of my life differently, who would I be? Would that version of me be better, happier, more successful? What about the lives of my children whom haven’t yet been born? Did I rewrite my destiny? Have I been changed forever? Will I take these memories with me for the rest of my life?

Every homeless person or formerly homeless person I’ve ever met has asked me similar questions while expressing the same sentiment, which is: Homelessness changed me. I am different because of this experience and I will never be who I was before homelessness happened. Not everyone feels bitterness or resentment as I do, but almost every homeless person I know feels sadness or longing for a former self. For a time before it happened.

Although I am housed today, employed, and truly experiencing a rebirth, and living a new life, sometimes I can’t help but imagine what could have happened if we were never homeless — if we never made it to shelter in-take, or we never went to housing court, or even moved into that apartment my husband and I were living in, at the time of our eviction.

A Cold, Scary Reality

The morning we officially became homeless, it was so cold, and I was so afraid. I remember tears swelling up behind my eyes and it permanently being stuck like this. Sometimes the swelling would reduce and be replaced with fits of rage.

In those moments of intense emotion, I wanted to burn down my apartment building, burn down my landlord’s house in Long Island (Yes, I did look up where he lived, I did find his Facebook account, saw images of his wife and children, and contacted the Department of Housing and Urban Development to find out everything I could about this building and every building he owns, when he purchased it, and the amount of the loan he got from the bank…), and then, eventually, the judge’s house, the courthouse, and really, just the entire island of Manhattan, up in flames of redemption.

As we carried what was left of us in a duffel bag and headed for shelter in-take, I turned and asked my husband, “How could the beginning of the rest of our lives be so bleak?” How dangerous of a thought that was. The future seemed so uncertain at this point, and really, that uncertainty solidified my rejection of hope, my rejection of life itself — but, as they say, nothing happens overnight. The build up to this moment was long, grueling and tiresome.

Nonexistent: Homeless Prevention Services

Moments after the sheriff’s came to remove us from the property, Homebase, New York City’s homeless prevention program, called us back. It was the biggest slap in the face I’d ever received from the Universe. For the last six months, my husband and I have been going back and forth to their Harlem location, between court visits, bringing our stipulations in hand, and working through a process that was intended to prevent homelessness for us.

Before, during, and after we started working with Homebase, I called, emailed, and even sat in with hundreds of different homeless service providers. Over the course of almost an entire year of consistent, daily, outreach, not one offered homeless prevention services. We needed to come back after we were on the streets. No one was able to offer any kind of service that could turn the tide for us.

And, so, we became homeless.

Granted, my husband and I still arrived at this day, housed and safe. But so much of that process was not at the hands of homeless services. In fact, it was the last and the only thing that did not help us.

I am housed today because I found one person, an apartment broker, who was willing to help us. I told him everything. Knowing how impossible this task was, knowing how terrified we were, knowing our rental history, all of it, he still promised to find us a place to live, and find us a kind and just landlord. He did. It took five long, stressful months, but we believed in him. And he believed in us, and we did it together. He never gave up on us, we never gave up on him. Together we worked tirelessly at something we all thought was impossible.

Along the way, I received so much love and support from new friends. Many homeless or formerly homeless people went out of their way to be there for us. In many cases, they were there in place of homeless services. I wouldn’t have met any of them if things had gone differently – if homeless prevention worked. But the thing is, it’s not all about me, either, is it? There are millions of people who rely on homeless services to work, and to work efficiently and effectively.

Homelessness Is Different for Everyone

The fact of the matter is, not every homeless person is me. Homelessness is caused by a multitude of reasons; a complex series of events. Not everyone is going to find a broker like Jay. Hell, I’d argue that no one will, because a case like mine, for a broker, doesn’t get the bills paid. Furthermore, not everyone is going to be an able-bodied, 25-year-old, college-educated white female. Not everyone is going to be in New York City, where access to shelters are more readily available. Therefore, homeless prevention services must work, and we must do whatever it takes to make it work. We must keep those who are already housed in their homes.

I still wonder, what could have happened if Homebase worked as it were meant to. What if the service providers I called had called me back? What if I received needed legal representation in the courtroom or if I never made it to that courtroom because relocation services kicked in before it was too late? I wonder what my life would be like today if another path was presented to me. I wonder what would have happened if homeless prevention services worked and I never experienced homelessness.

Jocelyn Figueroa


Jocelyn Figueroa studied Creative Non-Fiction at The New School and is a blogger and freelance writer based out of New York City. Formerly homeless, she launched her own blog discussing shelter life in New York City. Today, Jocelyn is on a mission to build connections through storytelling and creative writing.

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