The road home for the homeless is long and strewn with hurdles. Here is one man's struggle to escape the box that had been his home for a year and take inventory of what was left of his life.
By Patricia Calhoun BibbyTHE CAR WAITED for Kevin Brown, its motor idling. Inside, the heater blasted warm, seductive air. The car was there to take him to a home with real walls and real doors, to a room of his own, to a new life - or a chance to reclaim his old one.For the past year, Brown had lived under a highway, in a box fashioned of cardboard and plywood. This was the day he'd been waiting for - moving day.
The slide into homelessness has been well-chronicled, but advocates for the homeless say there's a less-told story: the struggle to get off the street. And Kevin Brown had made it.
But outside the car, with the temperature just above freezing, his 29-year-old girlfriend, Pat, sat in the darkness next to the box that had been their shared home for eight months. She sobbed, hunched over, rocking ever so slightly, and feverishly sucked her thumb.
Pat was the only thing keeping Brown from spending his first night indoors in more than a year, from taking a hot bath, from being able to shut a door - an act so simple, but one he desperately craved.
Because she had left her home to live with him, Brown said he felt responsible for Pat, who declined to give her last name.
If they were to be separated - he going to the residence to which he had been struggling to gain admission and she to a women's shelter - he first wanted to make sure she was safe.
But when she refused to go, he became resolute about leaving.
"I'm not going to pass up this opportunity," said Brown, 28. "I been homeless way before she even thought about being homeless. Now is my big chance . . . She can't stop it! She can't stop it!"
He bolted from the station wagon and ran into the thicket of boxes, tarps and lean-tos along the Hudson River that are home to about 15 people on an abandoned stretch of road under the West Side Highway in New York City.
"I think he's tired," said Jonnie Scott, one of three city social workers inside the car. "He's tired, and he wants to change his life. He wants to be somebody."
Advocates for the homeless say one of the biggest problems confronting those who want to find a permanent place to live is the tremendous amount of sophisticated bureaucratic maneuvering required by government agencies.
The system, they argue, forces people already overloaded with problems to submit applications, fill out forms, make follow-up phone calls and have patience and faith in a process that requires large amounts of both.
"It's an absolute act of heroism that someone is able to get out of a box," said Carol Fennelly, spokeswoman for the Community for Creative Non-Violence in Washington, D.C., founded by the late Mitch Snyder. It shelters about 1,400 men, women and families.
"They have such a hard time getting back to a regular place because they have no place to take showers, no place to get mail, no place to get phone calls," she said.
But the bureaucracy is necessary to ensure the homeless are sent to the right shelter or home, said Ray Diaz, deputy commissioner of Special Services for Adults in New York, whose various agencies decide the fates of people like Brown.
Brown, a former construction worker who once earned $22 an hour, was homeless for a year, after spending his rent money on his cocaine addiction. His quest to get into Rena's Residence for Adults began in June, when he happened to walk by the home and spotted a sign in the window.
The Harlem residence is funded by the city and state and can accommodate 99 men and women. The city's Human Resources Administration governs who is admitted, which means that once Rena's recommends a candidate, the person's file must be submitted to the labyrinthine city bureaucracy.
Brown said he made five visits over the course of getting his application approved. Although he said he sometimes felt he was getting the runaround, he was determined to be patient.
"I knew deep in my heart this is what I needed," Brown said, "So I always just said, `OK, I can wait."'
Rena Chinhenzva, who runs the residence, says it targets those looking for a permanent way out of homelessness and not just a warm room for the night. She tries to help her residents enroll in vocational schools or, if they want, get their high school diplomas.
"We want to give them back their pride," Chinhenzva said.
The problem of getting people off the streets and into a place of their own is exacerbated by the public's increasing feelings of futility over the issue of homelessness, said Gary Blasi, president of the National Coalition for the Homeless and a Legal Aid Foundation attorney in Los Angeles.
"There is just a certain level of weariness," Blasi said. "If people don't have a sense that things are getting better, after awhile they just give up. And then they turn their attention to things like Saudi Arabia."
So while troops mass in the hot desert sand, he said, more and more men, women and children will be gathering on America's icy sidewalks.
"The forecast for the homeless this winter isabout as cold as it ever has been," he said.
Brown came back. And after about 20 minutes, Pat climbed into the back of the car. She was sobbing and gasping convulsively, all the while keeping her right thumb firmly planted in her mouth.
"I don't want to stay in a shelter," she said haltingly.
Scott had gone for a walk with Pat and persuaded her to go to a women's shelter, at least for the night, a particularly cold mid-December evening; Pat had not submitted an application to Rena's.
One of the reasons Pat was so distraught, Brown said, was that he had worked hard to make their makeshift home comfortable.
The box, about the size of a Volkswagen bus, was insulated with used carpets thrown on top. Electricity tapped from a nearby streetlight powered a black and white television, with a bulb inside that created enough heat to keep them warm, Brown said.
Meals were made over a hearth of cinderblocks. A nearby fire hydrant offered running water, and they took sponge baths inside the box. A bucket was their toilet.
If it wasn't under a highway, it all might be considered cozy.
Brown, a Queens native, said his family would have gladly taken him in, and he did stay with them for awhile. But then he began to feel he could conquer his drug problem only by himself, so he fled.
Now, he was on his way back. One of the first things he planned to do was call his family, he said. During his year of homelessness, he never told them how he was living.
Brown loaded four suitcases and five trash bags full of clothes and his and Pat's most valuable possessions into the car. He then wedged himself into the back seat because Pat insisted on sitting on his lap for the ride to the women's shelter.
"I'm not going to baby you!" Brown told her. "You better straighten up, Pat. I told you a way long time ago that one day this was going to happen."
At the shelter, there was little time to say goodbye. With a brief hug, they parted.
"I feel great!" Brown said as he walked briskly to the car, waiting to take him to Rena's. "I feel great!"
After a weekend of solid sleep in a warm room, Brown said he was setting his sights on the future again. He plans to enroll in a vocational school, study building maintenance and get his high school diploma.
And his new life at Rena's?
"I'm living in a dreamboat," he said with a hearty laugh.