In a meeting room high atop Hunter College's East Building, a group of undergraduates are discussing the trials and tribulations of life as a college student. With the shades drawn to block out the midday sun, the five women sit around and swap stories. They talk about commuting, about juggling time commitments, about the long hours of schoolwork that are a college student's lot.
"I literally live in Hunter," says Wankairys Decena, a senior from Queens. "And then at night I get home at 12, 1 sometimes. Sometimes even 3, depending on how long the library's open and how long it takes for me to do all my assignments. I cannot concentrate at my house."
"Yeah, mine too," replies her classmate Sharon Jones. "It's just constant. But where do you go? And kids need to be taken care of."
The conversation turns to other topics: How to study on the train in order to make it from class to your job without being late, dreaming of being able to afford to move into an apartment or even the dorms. Someone mentions the latest round of CUNY tuition hikes that came with state budget cuts: an extra $150 per class.
"It's a hole," says third-year student Jannelly Lahoz. "It's like you're digging yourself deeper into the hole."
Jones nods in agreement. "I feel like I'm in it, and the dirt just keeps coming."
The students are of various ages and from different backgrounds, but they have one thing in common: They have been brought together this semester for the Community Leadership Program, a two-semester credit-bearing Hunter seminar taught by members of the Welfare Rights Initiative, a student group started in 1995 to support low-income CUNY students. They've just spent their last class role-playing how to lobby a state senator; now they've turned to discussing the methods they resort to in order to make it to class in the first place. Two decades ago, 30,000 students attended CUNY while receiving welfare benefits, but that number plummeted to about 6,000 after the city, citing the 1996 welfare reform law that limited welfare recipients to one year of postsecondary education, began cutting benefits for students unless they spent 35 hours a week on "work activities."
The exodus sparked bitter complaints from welfare advocates, particularly WRI, that the new policy was closing the most proven road out of poverty for individuals receiving welfare: higher education. HRA officials respond that they believe the most effective way to avoid being on PA long term is employment, though agency spokesperson Carmen Boon allows that "once employment is obtained, a person might decide to supplement it with training and education."
Though no one in the meeting room receives public assistance, almost everyone gets by with the help of low-income benefits of one kind or another. Decena lives with her parents, who receive food stamps and Medicaid. Stephanie Benjamin, a senior sociology major, gets food stamps to supplement her part-time job; she tried to apply for PA but changed her mind when she learned her husband would need to attend HRA's Back to Work program because his part-time job at a day care center didn't meet the 30-hour-a-week threshold. Jones lives on about $24,000 a year in Social Security income. "I don't get food stamps," she says. "I don't get book money. I don't get transportation money. I have no computer."
With that money, Jones is the primary support for herself, four children ranging in age from 16 to 27 (a fifth has moved into his own apartment), two grandkids and two dogs in a four-bedroom rent-subsidized apartment on Roosevelt Island. ("I feel like I live in a zoo sometimes," she says.) A wiry 51-year-old with short hair dyed black, she is three semesters away from finishing her B.A. after getting her associate degree at LaGuardia College. "I have no family—they're all dead," she says. "So it's not like you can call Mom. If I don't have it, I don't have it. It's not like I can say, 'Do you have some bread? Do you have some toilet paper?' "
A working life
Jones grew up on East 38th Street in Manhattan, the oldest of six children; her aunt, who lived next door, had 11 of her own—"and my grandmother lived with me as well—one big happy Irish family!" Her father worked for Blue Cross Blue Shield, while her mother stayed home and took care of the kids. Both died young from cancer when Jones was in her 20s, as did her grandmother and aunt. "It goes back to the health insurance—they really didn't have access to it at the time," she says. "And also, with that stigma of not going to the doctor for whatever reason, you just waited. So by the time they went, it was too late. So yeah: city life!"
With five siblings, Jones says, she felt lucky that her parents had been able to pay for Catholic school for her, and she never thought about college. Instead, she spent several years working as an administrative assistant and legal secretary, eventually landing a job as a social-work case manager for homebound seniors for Lenox Hill Neighborhood House, a social service agency on the Upper East Side. On weekends, she moonlighted placing home care attendants for the same agency.
For most of that time, Jones was the primary breadwinner in her household. Her husband, formerly employed by Blue Cross Blue Shield, was told he needed a heart transplant at age 36 and had to go on disability. After eight years, though, she says, "I got tired of training social workers out of school with degrees—and me with my experience teaching them, I was getting less than them." She briefly tried nursing school—if she paid her tuition out of pocket, she could get reimbursed by her union, Local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union—but soon realized she didn't have the money to front the tuition costs. "Unfortunately, college doesn't call for one class here and one class there," she says. "Especially when you have to do the core classes, it just doesn't work. But I didn't have the money, and I wasn't eligible for ¬financial aid."
Jones quit her job in 2004 and relocated to her sister-in-law's house in New Jersey, where she worked in a day care center for several months—"that was hell"—before returning when her sister-in-law died. Back on Roosevelt Island, reasoning that "when you're 50, you have to go to the market with something," she enrolled at LaGuardia College for her associate degree.
Then her husband died at age 49, leaving her with a little over $3,000 a month in Social Security survivor benefits as her only income. It took Jones four years to ¬finish her associate degree.
Back to school
After graduating in 2010, she entered Hunter to pursue her B.A. "e day before school started, I didn't even know if I could start," she says, as she waited on word for what ¬financial aid she'd be eligible for. "I don't get book money. I don't know why—I'm still learning!" Two semesters in, she has yet to choose a major, though she's thinking about sociology, with an eye to eventually doing social work. She needs to do something soon, she knows: "If I don't grab a major, TAP isn't going to cover anything."
TAP, the Tuition Assistance Program, which provides up to $5,000 a year in state tuition aid—enough to pay for two full semesters of Hunter tuition, though not mandatory fees or book costs—is a lifeline for New York's low-income college students. At LaGuardia, Jones says, she wasn't eligible for TAP (she never got a satisfactory explanation why); at Hunter she is, but it comes with strings: She can't use it for four- or six-week classes, meaning she can't enroll at Hunter for summer or winter courses—"which really sucks for me, because I'll graduate when I'm 100."
It's a calculus that is likely only to get more difficult in the future. On top of the CUNY budget cuts—more than $300 million over the past three years, according to the faculty union, even as enrollment has risen more than 18 percent over 2005 levels—the Obama Administration recently eliminated federal Pell Grants for summer courses, as a budget-cutting measure.
Jones commutes daily to Hunter from Roosevelt Island, where she has lived since a chance acquaintance suggested she and her husband apply for housing there, allowing their family to move out of its railroad apartment on the Upper East Side. She initially hated the island's insular life—"after a while, you get tired of the same sandwich shop"—but has since grown to appreciate the pluses of a place where everyone knows her by name. After three decades as a working mom, though, she's ready for life on her own again: "I dream of a studio and a Murphy bed … and one fork—because two implies somebody has to stay.
That's my goal."
Her two oldest daughters both work in food service, one at a bar and grill near her apartment on Roosevelt Island, the other at a McDonald's. Even with two incomes plus the Social Security benefits from the death of her husband, she says, it's not really enough to get by. She doesn't get food stamps, she explains—she asked an HRA caseworker once but was told her household income was too high. Instead, she frequents food pantries but complains that the Salvation Army referred her to one in Harlem based on her ZIP code, though that's more than a three-mile trip from her home.
Wrestling over the rent
Until a few years ago, Jones' rent was pegged to her income under the federal Section 236 program, which gives low-interest financing to developers in exchange for providing below-market rents. But then her building, North Town Roosevelt, paid down its mortgage and opted out of Section 236 in order to begin charging market rents. It was decided that low-income residents like Jones would instead receive what are called sticky vouchers under the federal Section 8 program—sticky because they continue to provide rent subsidies based on household income even after a building leaves an affordable-housing program.
In May 2010, Jones' youngest daughter turned 18, bringing to an end that share of the family's Social Security survivor benefits. As a result, the household's income suddenly dropped more than one-third, from $3,087 to $2,008 a month. Jones says she made sure to immediately note her newly reduced income on her Section 8 recertification forms. "It's a packet of like 50 papers to sign. So I sent it in, saying we no longer get this income. I sent the proof from Social Security." However, the state Division of Housing and Community Renewal (DHCR), which runs New York's Section 8 program, kept charging her the same rent: $1,080 a month. She paid her rent in June and July, then stopped, she says, "to get somebody's attention."
At that point, she began a months-long battle with DHCR and her private landlord, returning time and time again to Housing Court in attempts to untangle what her legal rent should be. Twice, she says, the DHCR Section 8 representative didn't show up to court and had to be subpoenaed. On another occasion, Jones says the Section 8 representative informed her that her problem was that she was too poor to live in New York City. "You know what she told me? 'Go to Virginia, or down South.' "
Finally, in March, DHCR agreed to lower her rent to $738— but only retroactive to January. So Jones prepared for her date in Housing Court, where before she faced o with her landlord she hoped to convince the DHCR rep to make the reduced rent fully retroactive.
The day of her court date dawns clear and preternaturally blue. After scrounging up train fare, Jones enters 111 Centre Street, the 1960s court building erected on the site of the old Tombs jail. She's already stressed about missing class, which begins in an hour and a half uptown at Hunter; she has already been absent twice for previous court dates and once for an appointment to try to get one-shot housing aid from the city, and she is afraid of failing. She finds a seat and cracks open Borderlands/La Frontera, the book by feminist theorist Gloria Anzaldúa. "I have a six-page paper due tomorrow."
The slightly shabby courtroom, with its fixed rows of plastic chairs and water-stained ceiling tiles, is filled with a cross section of New Yorkers that wouldn't look out of place on any city bus, all appearing vaguely bored and anxious, as if awaiting a medical exam. The lawyers, recognizable by their suits and harried air, occasionally call out softly for clients: "Ms. Guzman? Let's step outside for a sec." Jones hasn't been able to get a lawyer. "They have drop-in [appointments]," she says, "but with the trains …"
Finally, she is called to huddle with the DHCR Section 8 rep and a young man in a black polo shirt who turns out to be a paralegal for her landlord's attorney's firm. The Section 8 rep tells Jones she has made a mistake: She should have filed a request to see her case file, which would include proof of her recertification application. (Jones didn't make a copy for herself at the time, a decision she now regrets.) She can make an appointment to do that at a future date to try to get the retroactive rent fixed.
In the meantime, the paralegal explains, he'll write up a stipulation that she agrees to pay her back rent. When the stipulation papers arrive, well past the 11 a.m. start time of her class, Jones looks them over with a frown. If she signs, she sees, she will be agreeing to pay $6,113 in two installments over the next two months.
The paralegal, it's clear, is concerned only with getting Jones to agree to pay her landlord her full back rent; it would then be up to Jones to get Section 8 to pay its share of the rent subsidy. Jones decides not to sign. Instead—after hours more of waiting— she is given a June 2 date to return for an actual trial. Still, she breathes a sigh of relief. Now she has time to go make copies of her case file and maybe even to ¬find legal counsel. And even if she loses her case, she still has the possibility of going to HRA for a one-shot deal that will pay o back rent, so long as she can show the ability to keep paying future rent.
A heavy load
Jones's biggest constraint right now is time, especially since her two oldest daughters each have a child—one 6 years old, one 4 months old—and Jones is their main source of child care when they're at work. She drops o her 6-year-old grandson at school then must be home by 3 p.m. to take over caring for her other daughter's baby girl so she can head to work. "And you know, a newborn is just nonstop."
"I feel like I'm always running and I'm out of breath and I never catch up," she says. Dashing down the subway stairs from Hunter to run home and send o a wire transfer—she has a court order to pay her landlord $1,200 in back rent—she notes, "You know what's hard too? Squeezing in time to do laundry." After finishing her associate's at LaGuardia, she says, "I didn't even go back for my degree. There just aren't enough hours in the day."
Despite the time crunch, she thinks about getting a part-time job, if only so she can stop having to worry about having enough food to get through the month. "I think it's worrying about eating, really, for me. Not even so much the carfare money. At the beginning of the month I'll get checks, then by the last week of the month, you're hungry. Most people have to get up and worry about themselves—I have to worry about the whole house." Clothes, too, are a problematic expense: "I had an internship—I couldn't buy myself clothes. Until my friend said, 'Sharon, dress for success!' You have a certain pride and dignity about you too, and you want to stand straight."
The previous semester at Hunter, she says, was especially difficult. Her daughter was pregnant, her cell phone broke, then her computer did too, and it was costing her an arm and a leg to print out reading assignments on campus. Her professor was sympathetic, she says, but still couldn't quite relate. "Here I was, dealing with a professor who was talking about doing things on an iPod," she says. "I just got so tired of hearing myself say I was poor to her. She's not going to get that I don't have a smart phone. Some people just don't get it. They know the reality is there, but they don't think for a second that you don't have a computer, a smart phone, carfare money, any of that." It was embarrassing, she says, then corrects herself: "You're not embarrassed, but you kind of don't want people to know. It's hard to say, Hey, I ain't got no money to get to school today."
This article is the fifth chapter in our July magazine exploring the complexity of low-income life as it is lived by individual New Yorkers. To read the sixth chapter, click here. To read the rest of the feature, begin here.