“The armrests are all gone, the wheels are rickety, and the sides are all busted up,” Edith Williams, 51, said. “I’ve only had this chair for a year and a half and it’s already falling apart.”

Edith’s wheelchair bears the battle scars of her long struggle to leave the shelter system and find a stable home where she and her daughter can find peace.

Her wheelchair has taken her across New York City to far-flung government offices — even City Hall — in search of help. Despite having worked her entire life, Edith has struggled with homelessness and has rarely had a stable roof over her head.

Born in the Bronx to a single mother in public housing, Edith’s struggles began when her mother passed away when she was just a teenager, leaving her and her six siblings to fend for themselves.

“Just like that we were all homeless,” she remembers.

So Edith dropped out of school and began working.

“I made about 200 dollars a week, which was pretty good money at the time,” she said.

Life wasn’t easy, but she made it work. For the next decade, she shuttled between the couches of different friends and family. At 32, her life changed dramatically when she became pregnant. She was living with her sister at the time and there wasn’t enough room for both her and her daughter, so she had to move out.

homeless_1

With nowhere to go she entered the shelter system for the first time, starting her long struggle with homelessness just as she gave birth to her daughter, Dorothy, who she named after her mother.

For the next decade, Edith did everything she could to protect Dorothy from the dangers of street life and provide stability, but without a home that was nearly impossible.

They were moved from shelter to shelter across New York City. Whenever possible they couch surfed, staying at friends’ homes, and when she became desperate Edith would find creative solutions, like staying in the emergency room during a snowstorm.

“The birth of my child gave me the strength to live and keep going,” Edith said. “Everything I did was for her.”

Edith worked constantly, but without a high school degree, the jobs barely paid enough to scrape by each month. As much as Edith tried to shield her daughter from the pain of being homeless, their transient life and financial anxieties left their mark on her young daughter.

Edith remembers Dorothy coming home from school one day and saying, “I have no friends. Every time I make friends we have to move.’”

homeless_2

“I wanted her to have a normal life — tea parties, sleepovers, a sweet sixteen, going to the mall with her friends,” Edith said. “I wanted her to grow up like I did. I wasn’t always homeless.”

Edith made the difficult decision to send her daughter to Suffolk County to live with one of her sisters, who offered to take her in.
Though she missed her daughter, she began to find more stability. Edith had married and was living in a cramped studio with her husband. He was a maintenance man who got a job as a building superintendent and was offered an apartment on site.

Life was pretty good, until 2013 when once again things took a sudden turn when her husband passed away. She was unable to afford the rent on her own with the money she made working at a bar, so she found herself homeless once more.

To make matters worse, she got into a serious accident that would leave her in a wheelchair. Edith is diabetic and has high blood pressure, so one day as she was climbing the stairs, she fainted and fell. She woke up several days later in the hospital with a broken shin and several of her teeth missing. Unable to walk, she was unable to work.

For the next two years, she bounced from nursing home to nursing home.

Last year, after graduating high school, Dorothy offered to rejoin her mother and enter the shelter system so they could be together once more. Her daughter got a part-time job at a nursing home, while Edith began her long crusade to find stable housing.

She would leave the shelter in Brownsville at 6am, cross a heavily congested nine-lane intersection to take the bus to the nearest train station and head to different agencies scattered across the city — all in her wheelchair. For months on end, she waited countless hours in line, filled out stacks of paperwork, and was sent from office to office in a bureaucratic maze.

homeless_3

Frustrated by her lack of progress, she planned to use all the money she had saved, 290 dollars, in a desperate attempt to lobby the state directly for help.

“I was going to buy a bus ticket up to Albany and get a motel room and I was going to get help,” Edith said. “Someone is going to hear me.”

Fortunately, there was no need for that. The long hours of waiting in line and filling out paperwork had paid off. Thanks to Come Home NYC, a Robin Hood-funded program that helps working families living in shelters move into homes of their own, Edith and Dorothy got an apartment.

So instead of spending that 300 on a trip to Albany, Edith used it to help her daughter enroll at Fordham University where she will start in the fall. Dorothy is studying to be a social worker, inspired by those who have helped her mother along the way.

“This is the first time I’ve been proud of myself in years. I haven’t smiled in a long time. I feel like a little girl,” Edith said as she bounced in her wheelchair. “For the first time in my life I can say I have my own apartment.”

The toxic stress of constantly worrying about how to eat, where to sleep, and staying safe on the streets has taken its toll on Edith. She has long struggled with anxiety and depression, but with a stable home, she can begin to heal.

In September, Edith and Dorothy moved into their own home in the Bronx.

By: Eugene K. Chow


Come Home NYC is a Robin Hood-supported housing program run by Enterprise Community Partners. The program helps families with income move out of the shelter system and into permanent, affordable housing of their own. Currently, there are over 10,000 families — including nearly 23,000 children — living in New York City’s shelter system. While many of these families are working, the sky-high housing costs have kept them homeless.

iconPage 1Fill 1Fill 1Fill 1 copyatargetFill 1Fill 1Fill 1Page 1

Thank you!

Please check your email to confirm your subscription.