What’s it like have a baby – to start a family — while living in a homeless shelter?
Author Lauren Sandler lets us know by taking us on a painstakingly reported journey through a young mother’s life, from the birth of her son through his first birthday. Readers ride along as Camila navigates the mountainous red tape piled all around her, fighting for her child and her dignity. There are crushing blows after crushing blows — Camila wins an affordable housing lottery for a place in Brooklyn, only to later find out her income is too low to qualify — yet still somehow she is an inspired and inspiring hero. If you aren’t asking yourself, “Could I do as well as Camila?” after reading This is All I Got, your soul is missing something.
The book was four years in the making — I rode along for that too, Lauren and I are friends — and its publication was almost postponed by Covid-19. But cooler publishing heads prevailed, as the book has a lot to teach us about our crazy time. With millions of Americans experiencing government red tape for the first time, Camila has a lot to teach them, and all of us.
In my conversation with Lauren, I was most struck by her stark impression of the role luck plays in homelessness and desperation in America. As the lottery story above illustrates, even luck fails many people. Watch Lauren explain for yourself in this video.
Or, if you prefer a podcast, I’ve pasted the audio below as well. Below that, you’ll find a Q&A with the author provided by her publisher.
THIS IS ALL I GOT is being published in an unprecedented moment of crisis. Is it relevant for the time?
An appalling number of people live in poverty in America: 40.6 million in the best of times, four million of them homeless. When I was reporting and writing this book, I was motivated by the absolute belief that people need to know how it feels to live Camila’s life so they can similarly feel the lives of millions more people in similar circumstances. With the current and unfolding catastrophe of COVID-19, millions more Americans are soon to experience Camila’s struggle firsthand. Navigating public assistance, the shelter system, the hunt for an affordable home, all while holding fast to ambitions and hopes and raising a child: this is the story of my book. In the age of coronavirus—and its aftermath—it is, sadly, the shape of things to come for many. THIS IS ALL I GOT is a diagnosis of our past mistakes and, in a way, a narrative prophecy of the future—a real-life dystopia from the best of times, describing our sudden worst of times.
Why did you decide to focus on the issue of homelessness?
When I moved to New York City in 1992, homelessness was considered a national crisis; there was an average of one or two stories about the issue in the New York Times every single day. When I started the reporting for this book in 2015, the problem was much worse: more than 127,000 people spent at least a night in New York City’s shelters that year. Despite that, there was hardly any news coverage of the issue at all.
Any of the women at the shelter where I reported would tell you that their foundational need is a place to live. The rest of it matters: childcare, healthcare, accessible education, a living wage, a measure of public assistance that can permit a person to do more than barely tread water. But without stable housing, you don’t stand a chance.
All of that said, I don’t think THIS IS ALL I GOT is about homelessness per se, but rather the entire constellation of factors that could leave one remarkable, determined, tenacious young woman homeless. The book is about the failure of our entire system: who gets to thrive and who scrambles to survive. And why it is that women, and in particular, women who have become mothers, have it the hardest. It’s a marker of who we are as a society that the problem only gets worse.
Why did you choose to write about the experience of an individual in addressing that issue, and why did you choose Camila in particular?
My goal was to write a gripping narrative that conveyed the reality of how these issues are experienced on the ground. I like to read stories in which a protagonist is a window into a larger aspect of the human condition. The myriad factors that shape Camila’s life—homelessness, welfare, systemic barriers—tend to be discussed in data sets, in terms of a vast crisis, but rarely in terms of how that crisis is actually lived. Individuals are not sociology, even if they are governed by social systems.
In Camila I found the sort of complicated heroine that I long to read about, and one who seemed uniquely poised to make it out of the system: dogged, stunning, with a lawyer’s mind and a diplomat’s poise. She was determined to break the cycle of her mother’s dependency, to make a life of agency and ambition. It struck me that if she couldn’t rise up from where she was when I met her, perhaps no one could.
As a journalist, my curiosity leads me into a situation, but it takes a subject who chooses to lead me further into her quandaries, her desires, her struggles—to make that situation a story. Every time, there’s an alchemy between a journalist and a subject. While our backgrounds are very different, as much as I chose Camila, she also chose me. In focusing on one story, one close observation, it is harder to get it wrong, to generalize, to type. It doesn’t eradicate the issues around power, and who gets to tell whose story, but it specifies them.
It’s primarily homeless men that I see on the street. Is it really such a big issue for women?
It’s true that the majority of homeless people we see on the street are men, but that’s because women who are homeless tend to be mothers, and sleeping on the street with your child instead of in a shelter, no matter how bad that shelter might be, is hardly an option. I tend to resist language like “invisibility” about a population, because I think it can be erasing: invisible to who? But there is a massive homeless population that showers, puts on lipstick, drops their kid off at day care, and goes to work, or school, or a welfare office. We sit next to homeless women on the bus and would never imagine the reality of their lives.
Most people in poverty are women of color; furthermore, they’re single mothers. Three quarters of the American homeless population are made up of families, primarily mothers raising children alone. One in 30 children in the country are homeless, a population of 2.5 million kids in total.
Each of the single mothers I met ended up at the shelter via a different path. One had a drug-addicted mother who couldn’t take her in. One had witnessed the violent death of every close member of her family in the United States. One had parents who could no longer live with her mental illness, who perhaps saw her pregnancy as a last straw. One was evicted. You could be served by one of them at Applebee’s, have your elderly father cared for by one who is a home health aide, have your purchases rung up by another at the Gap, and you’d never know she was living in a shelter with a baby and no hope for stable housing.
Why did you change the names and some identifying characteristics of the people featured in the book?
Camila offered me the privilege of witnessing her life, but she’s a very private person. For her to expose herself, in all of her complications, was a risk. Because poverty carries so much shame, no matter the systemic and inherited factors that lead to it, she understandably did not want to be defined by who she is in this book. Furthermore, her whole nexus of relationships is revealed in this book; some of them knew I was reporting this story, and others didn’t. They are entitled to their own privacy. The person in THIS IS ALL I GOT who had the least agency of all in consenting to the public telling of this story is the one who arrives in the first chapter: Alonso, whose first year of life is the timeline of this book. Almost five years old now, I want him to be able to define himself in the world, as he is already doing.
What did you find to be the most maddening or frustrating parts of the bureaucracy Camila had to deal with in trying to get aid?
What wasn’t? The endless, monotonous waits and baffling paperwork. The maddening miscommunications. Managing life on public assistance is truly a job in itself, requiring all the time, patience, skills, commuting, and so on that any other job would require. “It’s not worth it,” Camila would say over and over, and I saw why: the benefits don’t allow any reasonable stability, not enough to actually move ahead in life, and what it takes to secure them is a never-ending journey of frustration. The checks get smaller, the wait times get longer, the futility is draconian. Furthermore, in every waiting room, mine was almost always the only white face. No doubt white poverty exists too, but the social services system in major American cities lays bare the truth that racial inequality is inseparable from economic inequality. And the whole system isn’t just dehumanizing to people who rely on it for aid; it’s also misery for people who rely on it for employment.
To truly see if a young homeless mother could make her way in the system, you had to refrain from helping Camila. How did that feel? When was it hardest not to intervene in her life?
My daughter learned the word “hypocrite” while I was reporting this book. She was eight at the time, close with Camila (and obsessed with baby Alonso), when I told her that the shelter was going to evict them. She couldn’t understand why they weren’t coming to stay with us. In some ways, I couldn’t either—except, of course, I could. I needed to see what moves Camila would make next if someone else didn’t solve anything for her; what she’d be able to sustain within our failing social services system, what she’d manifest out of determination.
The longer I spent time with Camila the closer we got, and the more dire her situation became. I struggled with how to manage my role as a journalist while caring deeply for her. Some journalists I know were scandalized when I bought Alonso a snowsuit during that brutally cold winter. Other reporter friends were horrified when I didn’t try to co-sign for an apartment and give Camila her first and last month’s rent.
But the truth was, and remains, that there’s only so much I could do to help her anyway. She’d be the first person to tell you that some help with the rent is only a stopgap, and when you don’t have an income to qualify for so-called affordable housing, it’s often not a stopgap at all. I couldn’t give her healthcare, or childcare when she lost it. I couldn’t get her off the public housing waitlist, where other mothers had been waiting their turn for over a decade. I couldn’t heal the wounds that generations of poverty have inflicted on her. Yes, I had to put the notebook away after the narrative of this book closed. But even now, with Alonso in school in New Jersey, Camila and I have been seeing how Bergen County, one of the wealthiest zip codes in the country and where she’s recently navigated Social Services from a bed in a shelter, makes her think she had it made in New York City. The crisis Camila and anyone in similarly dire (and usually inherited) straits faces is a suburban issue as much as it’s an urban one. In rural areas the homelessness numbers nearly reach those in our cities, too, even if people tend to crash on couches, not in shelters or on sidewalks. What Camila has faced is a scourge of the gilded age, and she knows that as well as anyone.
How is Camila doing now?
It’s been up and down. She’s married now, but that hasn’t solved the trenchant problems she encounters in the book. When she felt she needed to separate from her husband during a tough period of post-partum depression, she found herself in a shelter, one far worse than the one in which she lived in Brooklyn, because she had no money, no job, and a second child—a newborn. She got her college degree, but online, and not in her chosen field. She’s back with her husband now, but he has some fairly strict faith-based rules about everything from birth control to women’s work, all of which have major consequences for her freedom and independence with or without him. The year I chronicle in the book, and the one following, really extinguished her fire; she’s lost her spark and drive. Once in a while I see it flare up. But I don’t think the person I met, weeks before she became a mother, would recognize herself now. No doubt, there’s another significant story to be told about her life in its current phase, but that’s not the role I have in her life anymore. I’ve left the reporting behind, and the parameters it required. Now we’re just close. None of which changes her circumstances: only shifts in policy and culture can do that.