• A Portrait of Modern Homelessness: Talking with Lauren Sandler

    Lauren Sandler finished the first draft of This Is All I Got in 2017, one year after she completed the reporting for it — reporting that consisted of immersing herself in the life of a woman she calls Camila, a new mother whom she met at a homeless shelter in Brooklyn. Then various factors conspired to delay the book’s publication: a busy editor, her imprint shutting down, transition time to a new publisher, the COVID-19 pandemic.

    But Sandler’s waiting was nothing compared to the waiting Camila endures, which Sandler recounts in the book in poignant, maddening detail: endless days skipping school and work to sit with her newborn son in rooms that reek of urine, unable to go to the bathroom for fear of missing her number being called, only to be told to repeat the ordeal on another floor, or come back another day with a different piece of paperwork.

    Sandler’s acute sensitivity to the divergence between her life and Camila’s is part of what makes This Is All I Got such a compelling read. While Camila’s waiting had no benefit to anyone, other than perhaps the government programs whose coffers remained untapped, Sandler’s waiting meant that her book is an unexpectedly timely one: a warning to the tens of millions of Americans filing for unemployment in the wake of the pandemic, and a wake-up call to those who might be in a position to help them.

    I caught up with Sandler via teleconference at her home in Brooklyn, not far from the shelter where she met Camila.


    CHRISTINE BADER: Your book is an unexpectedly timely warning for the tens of millions of Americans who are navigating social service bureaucracies for the first time now. What would you say to the newly unemployed?

    LAUREN SANDLER: I would say, “I’m sorry.” I would say, “As a society, we’ve set you up to fail.” I would say that in unprecedented prosperity, we could have made radically different decisions that would have equipped us for this moment.

    I would say that now is the moment to organize and feel outrage and be acutely aware that the funding exists to help us all: It’s just locked away in the private bank accounts of a very few people. As long as we still live in what’s left of a democracy, that needs to change.

    That isn’t exactly advice in terms of, “Here’s how you get through on the hotline.” But it is the thing I come back to over and over and over and experienced every day as I was reporting this book, and have been thinking about for years, which is: You can’t have individual solutions to massive structural problems.

    Poverty and struggle is a very individual experience that is a personal trauma. But the solutions to these personal traumas and crises need to be structural, because the reason that we’ve ended up here is a structural problem.

    We look at the UK as our closest possible corollary in the world, and we see Boris Johnson, who’s the closest possible corollary to Trump, saying, “We will pay 80 percent of wages so you don’t lose your jobs.” Instead, we’ve had 30 million newly unemployed people file in the past six weeks — and those are the people who can get through the system and actually get their case counted.

    I am really concerned about this moment being exclusively experienced and messaged in terms of individual struggles; because the way to solve those individual struggles is in massive national change.

    I kept thinking about Tightrope when I was reading your book, and how Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn explained the rise of the personal responsibility narrative in the US as intentionally promoted in order to justify cutting social safety nets.

    You have said loud and clear that you hope that this is a wake up call, but you also sound pessimistic that big change is coming. Do you see any glimmers of hope that we will choose collectively to care?

    You’re talking to a person who, like so many of us, has experienced extraordinary heartbreak in our nation’s politics — and not just 2016 and beyond, pre-dating that. But in the past couple of years, it’s just been a constant experience of standing on the shore and being battered by the waves of political trauma over and over and over.

    I feel like being an American is like being in an abusive relationship; and like an abusive relationship, that means being blamed for the crisis, having the crisis normalized, and then trying to make it okay to remain at home in that crisis.

    Your point about Tightrope is exactly it: We have these American myths that have only grown as our safety net has shrunk. One of the things I heard from almost every woman at the shelter is that those myths are internalized. This story that people in poverty who I have known have told themselves is, “I just gotta get my feet under me. I just got to pull myself up. No one’s going to do it but me. I’m a strong woman, it’s up to me to survive.”

    These are incredibly strong women — who are in quicksand. And we have laid out that quicksand — “we” meaning people in power, people of privilege. This has happened on our watch.

    That was what I found the most heartbreaking: People who were so victimized by the system only blame themselves.

    Because that’s our messaging, that’s our mythology, those are the narratives in our popular culture. Those are the narratives of Calvinism that have trickled in through our churches. This is what we tell people: that it’s all about the individual’s effort and that people get what they deserve from the country.

    You’ve mentioned that we know how to fix homelessness. It would cost us 20 billion dollars annually, which any of our billionaires could easily write a check for. But philanthropy isn’t the answer to this.

    No, philanthropy is not the answer to this. Structural change, policy change — that’s the answer. But as long as we are in the circumstances that we are in now, which is this vast inequality, this incredible concentration of wealth at the top, and a state of emergency, I would think that the one benefit to that situation would be having self-identified liberal billionaires be able to say, ”This is what I’m going to do. Let’s level this out while we advocate for different policy, and make the quickest possible changes to right the ship immediately.” Because we’re sinking.

    You wrote a piece for Dame Magazine about how the CARES Act [the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act] actually hurts many low-wage workers by exempting the country’s biggest employers from the paid leave requirement. First and foremost, people need housing; and people need paid leave. What else do government and employers need to provide to low-wage workers to make work work?

    We need low wages to be higher. We could be thinking about Universal Basic Income. We need housing to be seen as an absolute human right, and it needs to be good housing. We need to have a humane living wage. We need to have health care coverage so an emergency is not even more of a hardship than it already is.

    These are not new ideas. These are the things that people have been talking about for a very, very long time. People who can’t afford housing need to have vouchers for housing. We need to build more affordable housing; and “affordable housing” actually needs to be affordable. We need to think about what sort of life people deserve, regardless of who they were born to.

    We’re the richest country in the world. We can make that happen; we just need to restructure. There will still be wealthy people, but the degree of wealth that exists and that is so concentrated is so obscene; and the degree of poverty that exists and is so vast is even more obscene. These things can no longer live in this balance with each other; they never should have to begin with.

    There’s been a lot of talk in this working-from-home moment about how “now we really see who does what.” Bullshit. We’ve always seen that. We’ve always known that this country is sustained on the backs of women who are willing to do unpaid labor at home and underpaid labor at work. And that just can’t happen anymore.

    You write about how Camila lacked community because she had to move around so much, and has these totally understandable defense mechanisms from all the times she’s been screwed. And you write of the women in the shelter that “judgment is all they have,” so they judge each other harshly. Is stable housing the key to community as well? And/or is community key to surviving homelessness?

    Community is a physical experience; it’s a geographical experience; but it is also a psychological and emotional experience. Community is where we are, but also the people who we’re with and how we feel about those people and how they feel about us.

    The idea of not just stability, not just survival, but something that is solid and nurturing is something that can be addressed geographically in terms of stable housing, but there is also a corollary in terms of relationships. The two things together are what I think make community. The notion of simply having a door to lock behind you, where you’re safe, and you can return every day, and you have your own key — that’s crucial. But that isn’t community.

    This moment is interesting, especially in New York City, where I live on a block where I’ve lived since 2006. I have a whole bunch of new phone numbers from the day that we self-quarantined because it felt really important to know who my neighbors were. When my family got sick, there were people texting me who I hadn’t even met until the prior week, and that’s been really meaningful. There’s a family down the block I didn’t know, and now they have my daughter’s old plastic slide in front of their house, and their 18-month-old now thinks it’s the greatest thing in the world. Those little moments wouldn’t have happened unless we were intentional about it.

    How can you be intentional about building community when you’ve been taught that self-protection is essential? And when you’ve been taught to be on guard for good reasons: because you live in a dehumanizing system, because things feel at risk all the time?

    That is one of the more invisible costs of the experience that I witnessed in writing my book: even for someone like Camila, who is one of the most charismatic instant connectors, one of these people who can fit in in any circumstance, who people are instantly impressed by, and yet has lived a very lonely experience.

    The epilogue was such a heartbreaker. You were heartbroken by the fact that she needed to get married to find stability, even though she married a wonderful guy who she’s in love with. The thing that broke my heart is that it didn’t sound like she was ever going to pursue her dreams of being a criminal justice professional, even though she had the stability to do that. Do you think the system beat the ambition out of her?

    I really watched her change over that year. Then we lost touch for about a year. On the other side of the year that I’d missed, which was frankly a far worse year than the one that I had witnessed, she seemed different to me.

    She and I have agreed that after where the book ends, that’s her private life now, so I’m wary to tread on that. But I do think that what you see in the epilogue is a changed woman. I believe that that woman was changed because of the experience of being so tireless, so tenacious, doing everything right, and still ending up with nothing no matter what she did. I met an ambitious, driven, dreaming young woman; and that’s not sustainable in a society where no matter what you do, you can’t even find a shelter to take you in.

    Your details about the administrators who are part of the system are so compelling: the nutritionist with one of those terrible inspirational posters behind her desk as she cuts Camila’s food stamp allowance; the social worker who tells Camila to relax so she can feed her son “stress-free breast milk”; the complicated woman who runs the shelter where you met Camila. Do you think those people are victims of the system also? Or are they complicit?

    People who work in the system are also people who are underpaid. People who work in the system are tasked with keeping a failing system running. It is a punishing line of work and a completely depressing one.

    It’s not like we have staffed the system with people who are being appreciated financially or otherwise for the work that they do, or who are getting to experience how it feels to really help people and lift people up. It’s a brutal malfunctioning factory. It’s a terrible place to work; it’s a terrible place to spend your days.

    And yet they’re also complicit in the system.

    I put a lot less blame on the workers within the system than I do on anyone who is probably two dozen people above their pay grade. If you want to change the experience of working in that system, then you change the funding of that system. You change the functioning of that system.

    You’re not only sensitive to the questions about who gets to tell whose story, but you’re part of changing the answers. [Sandler leads fellowships for the The OpEd Project, a nonprofit that promotes underrepresented voices.] Were you or Camila ever tempted to have her voice telling her story?

    We talked about it a little bit; it’s not something that she wanted to do. One of the women in the book, Irina, went through a period of time in which she thought that she might want to tell her story and write her own book. That was something that she and I discussed a number of times because I wanted to support her in doing that. In the end she, together with her mother, decided that that was something that they did not want to do. But I thought that that would have been pretty great for her to be able to tell her own story.

    Telling a nonfiction narrative at any length, but especially book-length, is not the simplest endeavor. The notion is usually if you are poor and have a story to tell, you’d better be a brilliant writer to boot. Whereas if you are in our most privileged class, there are plenty of people you can pay to interview you and do research and put something together and put your name on the cover.

    It would be a really good idea if — and this is something I would love to work on myself — one could work on doing funded ghostwriting for people who live under the line to tell their stories in narrative that wealthy people can pay other people to do.

    I think peoples’ stories in their own words are really crucial. Also, it’s really important to have stories that another person can report out and give context to and find additional perspective on. Both modes are essential.

    A few people on Twitter have asked whether you’re sharing any of the proceeds from the book with Camila.

    There’s a GoFundMe site that is set up. Camila has a complicated relationship with what it means to receive any money for this. That’s something that we’ll keep talking about. As a journalist, I could not pay her for her story. But there are plenty of other ways that this book can benefit her.

    You write in the book, “People feel their own scarcity based on the rungs above, not below.” You’re worrying about your daughter’s two thousand dollar braces, which you know is not in the realm of Camila’s universe; but you see your friends “above” you shopping at Whole Foods and so on. Having walked in Camilla’s shoes so intensely for a year, did you have any kind of shifts or revelations about your own inclination to look at the rungs above?

    My first editors really wanted there to be some narrative about my transformation throughout this. The reason that I wanted to write a book like this was because these are things that I already felt and thought — that I was raised to think, that I was raised to feel. This is how I’ve seen the world my whole life.

    The reason I wanted to write this book was because every time I walked down the street, every time I got on the subway, I would feel heartsick. It would feel unbearable. And I knew that as an individual, I could not change a system. But I could write something that could maybe help people in much larger numbers feel what I was beginning to feel. And that might move them in turn. That might plant the seed.

    In the process of reporting the book, I didn’t discover that it’s bad; I wrote this book because I knew it was bad. But I didn’t know how it was lived on a granular level. It was the granularity that was my education, not the scope of it.

    That’s why I wrote a book in such closely observed narrative instead of talking about the vast problem: We know about the vast problems. What we don’t know is how it is lived on a day-to-day basis, how it feels. And that’s what I wanted to learn so that I could share it with people.

    You talk about how Section 8 [the federal housing voucher program] allowed Camila to grow up with some modicum of stability. But there’s some element of feeling like it only staved off the inevitable because of the inheritance game that you describe, that so much of your life in America is determined by what you were born into. Or is it an inheritance game because programs like Section 8 have been cut?

    It’s an inheritance game because there’s no living wage. There’s no Universal Basic Income. Housing goes to the highest possible bidder. Health care is tied to employment.

    It’s always been hard to be poor in America. Always. My point is that it was impossible when Camila was a kid, but it’s only gotten worse. It was really, really bad; but “really bad” didn’t necessarily equal homelessness. Now it often does.

    The system is a mess. But it’s driven by these underlying forces of capitalism and gentrification and the personal responsibility narrative. There are these huge forces that this incredibly maddening system is really only a symptom of.

    This is what happens in unchecked late stage capitalism. [New York City Mayor Bill] de Blasio just slashed his affordable housing program, which wasn’t even affordable for the people who needed it most, because he’s decided that we need to work “creatively” with developers so that things don’t slow down. Can you believe it? That’s where we are right now. This a guy who literally ran on and won my vote for the fact that he was going to solve the housing crisis. Now we suddenly have 1.5 million newly unemployed New Yorkers, and his approach is, “We gotta make sure that the developers are happy.”

    I should have asked: Is your family all okay?

    We all had coronavirus. We all avoided the emergency room, which was really lucky. I had one incredibly scary night, like, “Am I going to die at home? Do I go to the hospital? Am I going to die on the way to the hospital? Is the hospital not going to let me in because they don’t think I’m going to die?” It was rough. But we’re all better now. I’m not fully better, but I’m mainly better. We’re okay.