In 2005, I found myself homeless for three days in Garfield, N.J. My single parent couldn't afford the rent, and we had 30 days notice to get out. Things went from bad to worse, and I soon found myself on the street. After those three days had passed, my mother and I managed to get into a shelter in West Milford, N.J. The shelter is a small area of poverty surrounded by an otherwise middle-class population.
On the outside, or upon the impression of a first visit, West Milford seems like an ordinary rural town. There are plenty of trees, lakes, deer, and the place seems like a safe community with large, respectable-looking houses. It is in truth a town where prejudice, drug abuse, and a very closed-minded, nihilistic outlook on life are encouraged by the local Republican power establishment The result is a great deal of ignorance and resentment toward people in unfortunate circumstances, or those who simply have less money.
The shelter was established in 1987. Part of its mission is, according to its web site, to provide safe supportive shelter for battered women and children. What it does not mention is that they have a rule: any male over the age of 18 cannot be in the shelter. Because this is the only shelter in the county, this essentially means that all adult men who are homeless or in need of help are denied this help. This included me when I turned 18. For a shelter that preaches equality and concern for the less fortunate, it seems prejudiced this way. Luckily, when I first went there I was 16.
When I went to the West Milford Township Library to get online and converse with hometown friends and read books, I found that I was unable to. The library has a peculiar rule: if you live in the shelter, you are not considered part of "the town." Library director Deborah Maynard told me that since I didn't technically live in West Milford (because the shelter is somehow, while located physically in the center of the town, not considered to actually be there) I had to use a special Shelter Library Card. This card could only be used by one person in the shelter once a week, and if someone owed a fine for unreturned books on that card, all others who used the card were banned from utilizing it until said fines were paid. Because people lived in a shelter, they were discriminated against and made to feel alienated by excluding them from the town population.
If that wasn't bad enough, someone who lived in the shelter at one time was arrested for shoplifting at the local grocery store (ShopRite), and the manager then told other shelter residents who were desperate for work that "people from the shelter" were no longer allowed to work at ShopRite. Based on the poor judgment of one person who stole, that manager decided to discriminate.
What I'd like to convey, however, is that the shelter itself was of little help, whatever good intentions might have been present. They provided a bed to sleep in and a small room, for which I'm grateful, but there were certain requirements for living there. My mother frequently had to attend meetings in which she would be instructed on how to raise children, how to stop abuse, and other "get-togethers" in which people would share their experiences. Now, there is nothing wrong with that - those are good things to support; however, these meetings were mandatory. It was almost as though they assumed that everyone there was a poor parent, and unwillingness to attend these meetings was considered grounds for eviction from the premises.
Another mandatory exercise was "clean-up duty," in which your name would randomly be selected from a list each night, and if you were chosen you would go to the main house area to clean up the kitchen, wash dishes for everyone there, and watch other people's children; no pay was provided for this, it was considered your duty. It got worse: if you left the shelter to go anywhere, whether it be job-hunting, me visiting my hometown, or even walking down the street, you had to write down, on a piece of paper at the main house where you would be going, approximately how long you would be there, and when you would be back. You also were not allowed to be away from the shelter overnight, a rule that nearly everyone there, myself included, frequently broke.
Food, living assistance, job opportunities, and transportation are the vehicles of help the shelter offers on its web site; it fails to mention all the restrictions, which you receive in the form of a large pink notice pushed underneath your door within days of moving in.
It is one thing to offer help to someone, but it is another thing entirely to control every aspect of someone's life. In trying to help the less fortunate, the shelter has fallen victim to the intolerance and discrimination which it says it opposes, in that it treats its residents like animals, forcing them to place restrictions upon their lives in order to keep a home for themselves.
The transportation is also unreliable and biased (it's all about "who you know" in the shelter), and assistance with finding a job is deeply limited, to the point where my mother only scraped up enough money to get an apartment afterward because she did it almost entirely on her own.
When we moved out we were reportedly still eligible for food and transportation assistance, but the shelter denied us this help. As a result, I struggled for a year without transportation in a town with no sidewalks, unreliable once-or-twice-a-day buses, and very few businesses in the area, thus very few job opportunities. I would often go for four or five days without eating any food at all, which people incorrectly assumed was an exaggeration. Famine is in fact a terrible thing to endure, and a biased food stamp system and an uncaring shelter refused to help out with sustenance until employment was found.
Establishments that wish to help people must decide where a line must be drawn: if, in, trying to help people, we treat them with the same restrictions and disrespect as rich, uncaring capitalists, are we not dabbling in the very elitist dogma which we claim to oppose? Why do we only think of authority and restriction, but never morality or humanity?
Some food for thought from someone who once had an empty plate.
Blake Deppe, now 20, currently lives in the South Shore section of Chicago.
Photo: The author, second from left, and friends. (Courtesy Blake Deppe)