When the System Sets You Up to Fail
Updated: Aug 1, 2020
This is All I Got: A New Mother’s Search for Home
By: Lauren Sandler
In 2003, a well-known journalist named Adrian LeBlanc wrote a book called Random Family, a nonfiction account of the struggles of two Latina women and their families in the Bronx. How they dealt with love, drug dealers, babies, gangs, and prison. Leblanc followed these two women for ten years, immersing herself in their day-to-day activities and doing countless interviews with them and members of their extended circles. The book was extraordinary and because I was living in New York at the time it struck close to home. However, the New York I lived and worked in was very different from the New York that these women were a part of. The book was raw, sad, and distressing: how the cycles of welfare, gangs, and prison continued generation after generation and was impossible to break. When a child is born into welfare, shelters, or the projects, how can they ever break out of the cycle?
This week’s book – This Is All I Got, in many ways, reminded me of this book from long-ago. It is the non- fiction account of Camilla, a 22-year-old Dominican woman who is about to give birth to a baby out of wedlock. She lives in a shelter in Brooklyn for single mothers. The author, Lauren Sandler, followed Camilla for a full year and chronicles her life and the ups and downs of being in the shelter system in NYC. I can’t even begin to describe how much I needed this book right now. After 11 weeks in quarantine wearing very thin on me, my family, my complaints and frustrations all seem so inconsequential in comparison to Camilla’s daily struggles.
Lauren Sandler lives in Brooklyn and volunteered at a woman’s shelter in Prospect Heights on Wednesday evenings. She decided to write a book about the women in the shelter and focused in particular on Camilla. She met Camilla in 2015 and while the story follows Camilla for the first year of her baby’s life, Sandler would go on to know her for much longer. From the moment Camilla entered her first meeting, Sandler knew she was different. She was poised, smart, and she understood the system she was trying to navigate. She was also 9 months pregnant. She presented herself like your average young Prospect Heights mom, as she talked on and on about the importance of nutrition and prenatal care, how she would have a doula for the birth, and how prenatal yoga was helping her get through the pregnancy. Camilla was educated, bright, and articulate.
“But no matter how tall she carried herself, her feet remained anchored in a place she didn’t want to be. She was born into struggle and deeply tethered there.”
Camilla had been born into Section 8 housing in Queens. Her mother had four children with four different men, lived off the welfare system, and was by most accounts mentally unstable. Her father had several other women, wives, and children. Neither had time or interest in Camilla. At one point when neither parent wanted her, she became a ward of the state and was placed in foster homes. And yet, Camilla endured. She started college on a scholarship from the state. She eventually dropped out because she met a man and got pregnant.
What I loved about Sandler’s chronicling and reporting is she gives us many facts throughout the book about the shelter and welfare system. Sandler moved to the city in 1992 when homelessness was considered a national crisis. 23,482 people slept in city shelters at that time. By 2015 – upon meeting Camilla, the number had skyrocketed to 60,000 people in mainstream shelters but over 127,000 spending at least one night in a shelter that year. So, while Camilla’s mother was able to get Section 8 housing as a single, nonworking mother in the 90s, in 2015 it was increasingly difficult if not impossible to get permanent housing. Three-quarters of the American homeless population is made up of families, mainly mothers raising kids alone.
What would it take for Camilla to give her child a different life then her mother gave her, for her to end the cycle? She was trying, but as you will see when you read the book, it was an uphill battle that was close to impossible. And for Camilla, Section 8 housing would become a farfetched dream.
Camilla was able to come to live in the shelter in Brooklyn because it was specifically for pregnant mothers to give birth and stay for the duration of their baby’s first year. The only condition was three months after their baby was born, the mother either had to start school or got a job. Sandler chose Camilla because “Camilla demonstrated a level of determination and resourcefulness that signaled that she might be able to find her way through the labyrinth to make a future on the other side.” Sandler wanted to see if she could.
Sandler protected Camilla’s identity, changing her name as well as other people’s names in the book. She also had to set certain guidelines when embarking on the project. She could not give Camilla money, she could not help her with the system. The point of the reporting was to see if Camilla could make it to the other side entirely on her own. I think this was very hard for Sandler because she followed Camilla to hundreds of appointments for welfare, child care, child support, and Medicaid, and yet she could not help her as she watched Camilla navigate the system so well and yet fail time and time again. When Camilla faced homelessness, Sandler could have helped her with rent, but by doing that, her reporting wouldn’t be entirely factual. All she could provide her with was companionship
This is the story of a courageous young woman who was smart enough to understand exactly what she needed to do to give her son Alonso the best possible life. Camilla was determined to prove that just because she was born with nothing didn’t mean she deserved nothing. Just because she couldn’t afford what’s decent in the world didn’t mean she deserved indecency.
Camilla’s life was made up of waiting on government agency lines for hours. And yet, when she got to the front of the line, she was often told she was in the wrong line and had to go to a different office in a totally different borough. As I read, I just couldn’t even begin to comprehend how unfair this system was. And for someone like Camilla, who was smart and understood how to navigate it, it still was impossible. What about the hundreds of thousands of others who didn’t possess Camilla’s skills. How did they navigate it? A studio apartment in affordable housing was $18,000 a year and yet public assistance only paid $16,000 a year. And what if you were a student like Camilla trying to get her associate's degree? How could she ever find a way to make it work?
And still, Camilla had dreams of finishing college, going on to Law School, and being able to create a nice comfortable home for her and Alonso. But as time went on, she realizes she was just a number in a system with hundreds of thousands of other people, how could she ever break out?
Before Alonso was 4 years old, he lived in six different places. The author ends her story by explaining that the life of Camilla and others in similar shoes could be different if only they had stable housing. Once given a stable home, it is possible to survive. Stable shelter is a fundamental need and as the author says, the simplest fix. With stable housing, one is able to finish a degree, find work, raise a child with less stress because you aren’t spending your days on lines of government offices, or packing up your belongings every few weeks. Stable housing would give many capable homeless people, like Camilla, a chance to succeed and to break the cycle.
I first heard of this book while listening to the New York Times Book Review podcast from May 15th. If you decide to read this book, and I hope you will, please listen to Lauren Sandler answer questions on this podcast. Reading this book, I understand a little bit more about how the system works. It is by no means a fair system, and I don’t think this is the fault of any single person or administration. I think it is the fault of the way the system was set up and has been set up for a long time. It is set-up for people to fail and something needs to change. Just being aware is a step in the right direction. If we all educate ourselves, we will be able to help the homeless break the cycle and find their way.
This Is All I Got: A New Mother’s Search for Home
By: Lauren Sandler
Publication Date: April 28, 2020
Penguin Random House LLC