A Bag of Cans

I picked up Janet hitchhiking this morning. The first time, I’d driven past her at 55mph down Route 9W. Thumb out, cigarette dangling from her lip, she stood shivering close to the metal guardrail — it was 46 degrees. She looked like she had slept in the woods – no doubt, she had. 

I drove past thinking, “Where is she going? Wonder what’s her story?” She looked worried, as if she was late for work, or that she wished she had a job to be late to. I found that to be the case. She lost her job, and her apartment, after breaking an ankle. I didn’t ask how, but from the smell of the bag of cans she lugged with her, I envisioned a cadre of circumstances: a miscalculated stride off the curb, stepping into a groundhog hole, or simply not paying attention. I’d done those  myself over a lifetime, some with, and without, the help of a bag of cans.

After a mile, I turned around. I half hoped she’d be there, half-hoped someone else had stopped for her. Flashers blinking, I pulled over gradually, giving the 18-wheeler behind me time to decelerate and pass. I stopped. She opened the door and thanked me. She wondered why I had my flashers on, what was my story: was I running out of gas? Or was I actually stopping to pick her up? She passed in her cooler, a bag of cans, and climbed in. She’d missed her bus by three minutes. Three minutes, she said, she couldn’t catch a break. She thanked me again, and told me I was one of her “Turnaround Girls.”

Trembling, she clutched a makeshift cup from an apple juice can, sharp aluminum edges folded over made for softer sipping. She cradled a second cigarette in icy-bent fingers, blue with cold and chipped nail polish. Ten minutes in the highway-side wind coupled with a night in morning dew-lined tent had frozen her to the bone. She huddled on the passenger side. I cranked the seat heater and blower motor; she defrosted.

In 5 minutes 23 seconds, from roadside to her destination, I got a glimpse of her story. I’d heard parts of this before, from people in need, some homeless, living in the woods, couch-surfing at a friend’s, tent-dwellers and those in-between on their way to permanent housing. They’d been to my office asking for help, help out, help up, any help.

Why the woods I asked? To save money for an apartment, she said, it was the only way to get ahead. But someone stole her pocketbook yesterday with $400 in savings. A friend had found her purse contents, but not before she’d cancelled her bank account; the bank charged her $30 to do so. She was back to zero. Luckily, she bought a tent two days ago; the Catskill cold had set in this week and she needed protection, but still needed a tarp. She’d been out there 10 days. She couldn’t afford a tarp. She cried, reset.

Janet would charge her phone at the convenience store. Her phone, a needed expense was her lifeline to work prospects, a human connection, a promise of another life, a home. Her battery barely holds a charge longer than an hour, she said,  but she’d make it work. She’d recycle the bag of cans she’d collected while walking and spend a dollar on coffee. She’d warm up, cry, recharge, reset.

Her warm clothes stored 30 miles away, her Kingston apartment belongings in limbo; she had no way to get to her stuff, to move them, to store them. She cried through our brief talk about support services, how a system tough to navigate was cruel and offered little help and no hope. She couldn’t access the support she needed. Anger reset her composure. She was not letting this get her down. Her sporadic surveying gig in Tug Hill provided inconsistent income that disqualified her from most services. We talked about 12-step meetings, asking for help, holding onto hope that things will turn around. She thanked me again and closed the door.

I crossed the street to get my car serviced. In the back seat, I found the bag of cans. Shame-filled, I clutched the stale-beer promise of 5-cents-on-redemption. I cringed, wondering what the Service Desk employee thought. Did he think that clanking smelly bag of cans was mine? Disgusted, I wanted to toss the bag of cans, ditch them inside the warm waiting room recycling bin, or maybe stash them out-of-sight outside under a dealership bush. Would this bag of cans really matter to Janet if it weren’t returned? What if it were her clothes bag and phone? I cried inside, reset.

I climbed into the warm shuttle van and asked the driver for two stops. Walking into the convenience store, I found Janet charging her phone, making small talk with another semi-defrosted companion. I gave her a bag of cans. She smiled, thanked me, hugged me. “It’s gonna get better, right?” Yes, I said. And walked out.

In the passenger seat, I cried, reset, and went to work… for housing for those most in need.

Do you want to share your perspective? Email Tara Collins with your story.

Building Blocks of Change

Colorful Building blocks of change blogI grew up privileged. I always had ample food, clothing, resources and quality education from prestigious grade schools as well as colleges. I never had to worry if my parents could afford an unexpected expense, such as a doctor’s visit or replace a new electronic item that my brother, sister or I might have broken.

However, my father and both grandparents grew up in poverty. They experienced firsthand what the throes of destitution without familial support. Fortunately, they were able to work to where they are now, which includes having a steady income and being able to raise a family in comfortable means. However, this does not mean that people who can’t climb out of the cycle of poverty are lazy or undetermined to make a change for the better. Maybe they are missing the opportunity of a new job promotion because they have children to take care of during those hours of interview or work. Or maybe they don’t have a strong support system to fall back on for help. Maybe motivation just isn’t in the picture because circumstances have depressed their efforts to look for alternative solutions to save money or to search for better-paying jobs.

I haven’t experienced this type of traumatic situation, but I do know how it feels to live on a smaller budget that easily runs out if I spend a few dollars more on laundry for this week. Going to college, I made a personal goal to only spend the money I earned on rent, food, gas, and travel. This new habit cost me much more than I would have imagined—not just my finite cash source, but the emotional energy to hold back from spending money on needed expenses, such as healthy food for breakfast, versus spending money on fast food trips and unhealthy options. Being prudent for the first time in my life definitely robbed me of pleasures that I now consider luxuries. This spend-thrift habit enlightened me on what it means to work hard for money and not being able to save or spend. This lack created an endless worry over finances and fear of the black vortex of indebtedness.

Coming out of my senior year of college, I was determined to help others and make a difference in the world, but I wasn’t sure which career path to take in order to do so. The VISTA program was my opportunity to see other’s lifestyles and gain a humbling perspective of what it means to live in poverty without the fallback of family or savings. As I am making my way up into the economic and business world, I am doing so alongside the people I am served. It’s is amazing to hear about the challenges and milestones that are now a part of RUPCO’s family history, such as Give Housing a Voice community response to Woodstock Commons resistance. During my time here, I hope my writing offers you a peak through into the gems of what would otherwise remain undiscovered in RUPCO’s large network, and to give a voice to individuals with incredible stories to tell. Though I can’t provide the homes or make sweeping decisions that determines program eligibility, I can write our people’s narratives to promote awareness. That is often enough to set in place building blocks of change.

Monique Tranchina is an AmeriCorps VISTA member and RUPCO’s editorial assistant. A SUNY New Paltz graduate, Monique holds a Bachelors in English, a concentration in Creative Writing and minor in Theater. Look for more storytelling from her in the coming year.

Dorms and Domiciles

Stephanie A. Lopez, the authorMy relationship with home hasn’t changed much in my twenty years of living. Born in what was once called St. Vincent’s Hospital (now Richmond Memorial Hospital), my parents raised me in a small, modest apartment by the Staten Island Mall. The apartment occupies the lower level of a two-story home, the upper level of which my aunt and landlady occupies. My parents, who were born and raised in Manhattan, elected to raise their children in Staten Island twenty-two years ago, and it was then that they settled down in my now-Home.

My Home is nothing like my dorm room, or what my relatives affectionately call my “home.” Often, when I am returning to school after a long break, my mother will kiss me goodbye and say in a sing-song voice, “Have a safe trip home!” Moments like this stick out in my mind, times when my mother could not be more wrong.

Don’t get me wrong.  I do love my residence hall and the SUNY New Paltz campus as a whole. Nonetheless, that is not my home; that is my school, the rock that grounds my studies and the work that I tirelessly undertake everyday. But the dorm, that is not my home. Home is where my mother makes arroz con gandules, or rice with beans, and pernil, or roast pork, around the holidays. Home is where my siblings and I poorly play Mario Kart 8 then swear that we will come in first place next time. Home is where I hang up the hand-drawn Marvel’s Avengers poster my dad drew for me last year.

Still, I know I am very fortunate to readily conjure a vision of home. Some people, like the same man who drew me my Avengers poster, are not so lucky. For the past three years, my dad’s been couch-surfing after a less-than-civil separation from my mother rendered him homeless. My siblings and I watched helplessly as our father migrated across Staten Island, exhausting his reserve of friends and relatives who could afford to house him. Currently, he is residing with one of my uncles and his family, but there is no telling where he will end up next.

RUPCO’s daily work helps people like my father secure safe and affordable housing. Their initiatives have touched countless lives in the city of Kingston and beyond. Because of my work at RUPCO, I’ve facilitated important conversations with my father about his future and finding the help he needs to secure that future. Every day, when I see the faces of those who have benefitted from RUPCO’s mission, I think of my father. It is my pleasure to assist in RUPCO’s efforts and to be a part of their goal of creating homes, building communities, and impacting lives.

Stephanie A. Lopez is a graduating senior from SUNY New Paltz and is currently the Editorial Assistant in RUPCO’s Communications and Resource Development Department.

 

No Place Like Home

Snapshot of Tom Hansen's homeI have called Ulster County home my entire life and I have never thought of it as otherwise. No matter where I went in the world, no one location was drawing enough to keep me away from the place I called home. No one location was ever enticing enough to make me want to leave Ulster County behind. The world is undoubtedly filled with beauty, but Upstate New York has a special place in my heart that will always make it my home.

I grew up in at a secluded stone house nestled in Stone Ridge. I have many memories of this house from all seasons of the year. I would spend my springs watching the heavy rain and thunderstorms from my porch. My mother and I always used to call thunderstorms “giant bowling tournaments in the sky.” Watching storms with her is one of my best memories growing up. I would spend my summers and autumns exploring the woods behind my house and scouring my stream for frogs and crayfish; my dog would always follow me everywhere I explored without fail. No matter how deep into the woods I went, he would always be right behind keeping an eye on me. I would also walk to my grandmothers or jump into the river using a rope swing tied to a tree. I would spend my winters walking along the frozen stream or building snow forts in the giant snow banks made from my dad’s snow plow. There was always beauty to be found at my house.

As I grew up and left childhood behind, things began to change; the harsh reality of life began to press down on me. My favorite tree was cut down while we were away on vacation. I was furious with my parents because I never got to climb it one last time. The dog I had grown up with, my partner in crime, passed away. Hurricane floods took away the tree holding up the rope swing. I did not get into the college I had dreamed of going to in high school. I drifted apart from my childhood best friend and my mother passed away. As much as these events changed the way I remembered things, they were never able to take away the beauty of this area that I call home. I still hike to the top of Bonticue Crag every summer to see the entire valley stretched out beneath me. I still swim in every river I can and ski every mountain possible. This area will always be my home, no matter what hardships I endure, because every day I make new memories. Ulster County will always be a place I can return happily to.

 

Tom Hansen is RUPCO’s Assistant Event Coordinator. He is currently a student at Ulster Community College majoring in Business Administration.

The Home in Community

Shot of Alison Simmons in her communityHome is more than just a house, or an apartment, or a bedroom, it needs a community to be whole. My family was always very involved in our community, which means I was very involved in my community. My parents coached almost all of our town sports teams, we attended the local church, and my brothers and I were in Scouts. The whole town knew my family, so we always had people looking out for us. Whenever I was out with my mom, everyone said hello and came up to talk, even all the kids at my school knew her; my school was pretty small but I think that says something about my community.

When I was thirteen, I could walk into town after school with my friends; I always felt safe because wherever I went, people knew me and I knew them. I did not always like it when I was younger because if I did anything I was not supposed to, my parents always knew by the time I got home. I felt it was unfair because my friends never got caught and I nearly always did; I see now that it was a great thing. It kept me out of trouble, it opened opportunities for me, and I met so many people.

Most of my free time was spent in town just hanging with friends. There were multiple times when my phone died or it rained and I needed to be picked up, but I had no way of contacting them. I always found someone I knew who could help me out. People get shaped by more than their housing situation and that is why I believe community is so important to the home.

Today I live in an apartment complex and I miss knowing all of my neighbors. The only person in the complex I talk to is one woman who lives two buildings down. It could just be because I am a college student in a complex of mostly new families and older couples, but it is a lonely feeling not being a part of the community around me. I never realized how important it was to me until I was no longer part of it.

A lot of people try to be independent and believe that they can rely solely on themselves or their families when times get tough. If we stopped to think about how many people in our lives actually affect us, it would become obvious that it is more than just those few. No one is alone in this world; as long as you look, people are out there to help. Being part of a community is about being “home.”

Home Away From Home

Lazo_MTS1My mother took me to El Salvador for the first time before I was old enough to talk. Every summer she would pack us all up – my two siblings and I – and we would journey to my favorite place in the world. El Salvador is heat and more heat, it is living with sweat and dirt, it is bugs on bugs on bugs. It is hammocks and rubber rocking chairs, pupusas and pollo campero, it is where my family lives; it is home. How it is that a country that I wasn’t born in, that I wasn’t raised in, could be my country? For me, it just is.

The word “home” doesn’t always have to be taken so literally. My home lies in the memoires of happier times when I, my two older siblings, and six cousins would journey to our parents’ home country for the summer. Home is about being together. We made friends, played games, scraped our knees and ankles and arms. We ate our favorite food – tamales, carne asada, tortillas, choco sandia, arroz, jocotes, the list goes on – and walked around barefoot on the dirt road in front of my abuela’s house. We showered with cold water and got bit ALL over by pesky mosquitos and mutant ants. We went to the beach and played in the black sand where we caught tiny crabs by the rocks. We withstood torrential rains, mini earthquakes, and even a sandstorm where my brother lost a shoe and a neighbor lost a roof. Best of all, we exploded all. Kinds. Of. Firecrackers! All of our free spending money went to buying various types of “cohetes.”

ILazo_Boat1 am proud to have a connection to my people and I am joyous that I have my memories to fall back on. My home matters to me because in its shelter, I became the person I am today. Though there are less of us who visit at a time now, and less places for us to visit due to the rising gang violence that is taking place, El Salvador holds a really special place in my heart. It is my sanctuary. It is my home. Away from home.

Emily Lazo is RUPCO’s Editorial Assistant to Communications. She is a student at SUNY New Paltz double-majoring in English and Communication and Media with a concentration in Intercultural/Interpersonal.

What Home Means To Me

Susan Cagle, guest blogger “Time is a sort of river of passing events, and strong is its current; no sooner is a thing brought to sight than it is swept by and another takes its place, and this too will be swept away.” ~ The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius IV, 43

As in a swiftly flowing river, we are led along by life and time whether we like it or not. In order to not just survive but thrive, we try to create as much stability and certainty as we can in an uncertain world. Home is a bulwark in the midst of all of the uncertainty.

My relationship with the concept of home is a strange and multi-faceted one. My parents were missionaries and musicians in a small Christian sect. They had 10 kids, of which I am second oldest, and as we came along, we were added to the family band. We travelled around the world singing and performing, each of us born in a different place (Aruba, where I was born, London, Miami, New York, Texas, Puerto Rico). We have lived in every kind of structure you can imagine. During our London stay, we had a beautiful three-story house with a rose-filled garden in the back, one of my favorite places we ever lived. We lived in hotels en route of our travels, in vans and buses that my father would gut and convert into campers, in a Swiss chalet at the top of the mountains with a view of a cascading waterfall and lake, and in trains and buses that would take us to the next town.

The river rolls on. When I was 12, we lived in a school bus that my dad converted into a camper. We would park on the a New York City side street and sleep. In the morning, we would wake up, unload our instruments, and busk on the street corner. I remember looking out of the window early in the mornings and watching the river of businessmen and women rushing to their jobs on their morning commute with their nice clothes and briefcases. In southern Germany, my little brother was born in Mainz. I was around age 5. Near where he was born, we lived at the top of a snowy mountain in what could only be called a ski resort. My mom and older brother, with me in tow, would sled down the hill to go to the main town below to buy supplies. It was scary, with a lot of trees on the hill on the sled down. Other times, and times less scary, we would live in hotels along our tour and performing route, with simply whatever we had on us — our instruments and our backpacks. In my teens, I started stuffing civilian clothes into my guitar case, so that I could have something to wear that wasn’t a costume. It was my attempt at being like a normal person during the times we weren’t performing.

When I finally left the family band at the age of 21 and struck out on my own, I experienced a tumultuous reconciliation of the two extremes of my developing environments. There was a necessary acclimation period to living in just one place. Although I do like to travel, visit different countries and places, and meet new people, having a home base allows me to fulfill the wanderlust that I have been imprinted with since birth. This desire will never go away, along with the certainty that — at the end of the day, at the end of whatever periods of curiosity I fulfill — I can come back to a checkpoint, a stable environment where I feel safe. Having a home base has been my guiding star, the prime directive of my life, the thing that is my ballast in a river strong and swift.

When we look at the history of mankind, we see that progress towards higher and more intricate thought processes and motivations, as compared to a more instinct-driven lifestyle, developed once we embraced the concept of a stable home. We experienced the kind of progress where subsequent generations could build upon the storehouses of knowledge of previous generations. We created concepts, morals and societies. Having a home is a necessity for growth, development and the manifestation of intricate interior qualities. When you are wondering where you are going to sleep and how you will shelter yourself, you cannot create beauty and make a long-lasting imprint. Unhoused, you are a frightened, scrabbling creature with basal thoughts led by instinct alone. But when you have a place you can call your own, you know you where you will end up at the end of the day. Your days are connected. You can bring your head out of survival mode and think about creation, beauty and adding higher qualities and concepts to this world.

RUPCO is doing the best work that one can do on this earth. Helping those who cannot afford a place to live to have a place they can call their own. Providing resources and information to people interested in owning their own home, being the last bastion between many and homelessness. I am honored to have been a part of RUPCO in their mission to strengthen homes, communities and lives.

Susan Cagle is RUPCO’s Assistant to Communications and a student at SUNY-Ulster majoring in computer science.

A Perspective on Homelessness

IMG_3695Imagine living in an apartment with two windows which were constantly covered with blinds, no kitchen, a small bathroom, all the size of a walk-in bedroom closet.  Most people would think this impossible in Ulster County, New York.  But it was the life I was living ten years ago.  I used to dread my bike ride home from the local fast food restaurant, to sleep on my uncomfortable futon, and to wake up hungry, depressed and alone in the dark.

I got stuck in this living situation after leaving home at a very early age.  Forced to leave an abusive family, after getting my ass beat and then locked out of the house one too many times, I decided that sleeping on whatever couch I could find was much better.  In my opinion, this is the untold story of homelessness.  Many people believe that the homeless are drug abusers who are too lazy to get and keep a job. In many cases, it couldn’t be farther from the truth.  Many young people are forced to leave home because living on a couch is better than being abused.

Now flash-forward ten years, and I find myself working an internship for RUPCO, a nonprofit organization that helps provide affordable housing in the region.  RUPCO believes that housing is a critical component of improving communities and providing people with better lives. This bedrock of comfortable, safe and affordable living is what drives positive impacts throughout a person’s entire life.

A few weeks ago, I saw the difference that RUPCO makes first hand while on a tour of an affordable housing project on Cornell Street in Kingston, called The Lace Mill.  I was standing in one of the smaller units in the building, but it didn’t feel small at all.  This beautiful studio apartment has seven 12-foot windows, a full kitchen, and all the space that a single person would ever need. The most impressive part was that it was similar in price for what I was paying to live in a closet.

From that moment in time forward, I knew that RUPCO was making a difference and I was glad to be a part of it. Even though I am the part-time intern, I realize that being part of a company like this is a very fulfilling career path and I’m the happiest I’ve been in a long time.  I encourage those who can, to volunteer or donate to a nonprofit like RUPCO; they deserve all the help that they can get.  From this experience, I’m continuing to learn why “Home Matters.”

Dan Hanson is RUPCO’s Communications Assistant and a student at SUNY-New Paltz.