Joe Donahe: Journalist Lauren Sandler's new book "This Is All I Got: A New Mother's Search for Home" is an immersion in the life of a young homeless single mother amid her quest to find stability and shelter in the richest city in America. Camila is 22 years old and a new mother, she has no family to rely on, no partner, and no home. Sandler chronicles a year in Camila's life from birth of her son to his first birthday, as she navigates the labyrinth of poverty and homelessness in New York City.
Lauren Sandler as an award winning journalist. She is the author of three books, including the brand-new "This Is All I Got: A New Mother's Search for Home."
I will note that this book officially came out yesterday, I read it last week, and it is one of the, it stays with you. It's one of the most amazing non-fiction books that I've read all year. And it's a great pleasure to talk to Lauren this morning. How are you?
Lauren Sandler: Well, after hearing that, I'm much better. Thank you, Joe.
It's just an amazing piece of work. And I'm curious as to how you came to the idea, and ultimately met Camila.
Living in New York City, homelessness is not something that you can simply shy away from. You either choose to distance yourself from what you feel all around you or you don't. And it's an issue that has been in my heart for a long time. I first moved to New York, for college in 1992. And there were just over 20,000 people sleeping in city shelters, and it was considered a national crisis. There were between one and two stories in the Times about it every day. And the year that I met Camila, there were 70,000 homeless people in New York and it felt like we never talked about it. So I felt like I needed to change that, and I felt like I needed to change it not just through more data graphs, or an ideas book about our policy issues, or even possible solutions. But how it actually feels. You know, I'm, a real narrative reader. I'm a real novel reader, even though I'm a non-fiction writer, and I really wanted to write something that people could experience almost as though they were pulled into a novel, in which every word could be true. So- is true, not could be absolutely true.
Yes, is true. Correct.
Every word of it. Really important. And so I found a shelter in Brooklyn that let me in and said, "All right, see what you can do". And I started spending a lot of time there. I was there both leading a meeting for the homeless moms in the shelter, and also reporting, and there were a number of women who were willing to participate. They are all characters in the book, but amongst them, one woman was clearly, to me, the protagonist. And that's in part because in non-fiction, I think there's a lot of talk about how we choose our protagonists. But honestly, they choose us just as much. There's a lot of alchemy and chemistry involved. And especially for something that's a work of immersion reporting like this, you have to want to spend a ton of time with someone. But Camila and I did want to spend a ton of time together. And so that began a long process of navigating the system by her side. Part of why she was the person I thought really was worth putting at the center of the book is, she's one of the smartest people I've ever met. She has an incredible, organized, legal mind. I mean, this is someone who sued her parents for child support and won as a teenager. She's a criminal justice student. And any one of her caseworkers could tell you, or her professors, that if she could not make it work in the system, so she would not need it anymore, then no one could. And I wanted to find out if she could.
You write that she is she is impulsive and profoundly smart, deeply savvy. And you, you say quote, "her mind revving, her thoughts lurching forward as she composed herself. From that first meeting, I sensed that she was a woman who was hell bent on propelling yourself out of the shelter, away from the circumstances of her past toward something solid, ambitious. And as I came to experience her within and beyond her story, one thing was clear to me, if Camila couldn't use her wits and her persistence to make the system work for her, no one could." Does it matter- I was going to ask you of how she came to the system. Does that matter, ultimately?
It does matter. It matters because the way that most people come into the system is they are born poor.
That is our rigged game in America. It is an inheritance game. It means that if you are not born into a position of privilege, you're probably never going to get there. This notion of bootstraps is a fantasy. And it becomes more of a fantasy all the time, especially as housing costs have just skyrocketed. You know, the most foundational need, as any of the women at the shelter could tell you, is to have housing, without that nothing is possible. And once stable housing exists, things start to become a little bit more possible. But Camila is someone who didn't have any family help to rely on. And so when she found herself alone at 22 with a baby, you can't crash on someone's couch with a baby. You can't even get a Craigslist room in a crowded apartment with a baby, for the most part. No one wants a screaming baby in their house. In fact, family doesn't even want that for the most part, no matter how much they might love you. And so it just, I think that it matters because we tend to look at the homeless I believe with a mixture of pity and blame. And the blame is squarely in my mind on the shoulders of our structure that says that this is all, a winner-takes-all society and that the most you can get for an apartment is what it's worth. Whereas other countries treat housing as a human right. And I think that we absolutely need to too. This is a human rights crisis.
You, you write in the book about these encounters that she has and whether it be for rental assistance or any number of things that she is looking for, and they're just infuriating. I mean, you just can't believe that anybody has to go through this much stuff. To, to get something as easy as ultimately what she is looking for. The thing that comes from how you write about her, is that she seems to take it all in stride. She doesn't take that humiliation personally.
She's an incredibly disciplined person. And she's frankly, grown up not knowing anything different. Her mom is on welfare, she was able to have some stability as a kid through a Section 8 check that she now can't get herself through her own- for her own kid and her own stability, because New York doesn't give any more Section 8 checks to people who don't already have them. So I think that there is that aspect of her saying, "Yeah, this is how it is. What am I going to do about it except really try to navigate it and make it work?" Which of course is impossible. I mean, I must say this thing that you're pointing out about the absolute maddening aspect of how difficult and time consuming it all is. It is the thing that stuns me the most. I mean, I knew, I knew that part would be hard but I think often about this one moment that occurs early in the book, and early in this year, where she needed to get proof that a rental subsidy was coming from the welfare office to pay for private shelter. And she had to go to the welfare office five times and spend almost five entire days there just to get a slip of paper to confirm something.
Right. And wait for hours-
Oh, hours and hours. Maddening hours, and hours in which you can't even like get up to pee because you might miss your number. Hours in which your baby is crying, hungry in the waiting room. Hours in which you're missing work or school. It's just it's stunning to me. And ultimately, she loses her benefit. She loses everything that's been given to her because of tiny mishaps in the system. And there's this concept called "administrative burden", which I've been thinking about a lot, which is this idea that our policies and our system are intentionally draconian and intentionally unnavigable. So that people will give up and use these things less, so that we will need to pay less in welfare, so that we will keep people out of those offices because they just can't handle it, because it's not worth it. And I watched someone get to the point where they couldn't handle it anymore. And this is a woman who was better equipped to handle it than anyone I could imagine. Certainly better equipped than myself.
She, she understands that to do it and to make it work you have to be listed as a high priority and how you get to be a high priority. She's got, she's got that.
Yeah, so public housing, which is for some people their worst nightmare right? For many privileged people, nothing you could imagine that would be worse than living in the projects. For other people, it is their absolute greatest dream. It will not- I don't want to say greatest dream but the hope for stability, some form of salvation. In New York right now there are- and this is pre-COVID, I should say not right now, it's about to get much worse. There are 175,000 families on the waitlist, 250,000 people on the waitlist, for a NYCHA apartment, for a New York apartment in the projects. And one of the only ways that you can get moved up that list is if you have a domestic violence case. And it's not just one episode of domestic violence, you have to prove that there have been at least two episodes within a certain period to show that it's chronic. I mean, this is the insane society that we live in right now.
As strong as she is, and as persistent as she is. And as good as she is of working the system- You do, and that's really one of the heartbreaking parts of the book- is that she's just looking for love and, and affirmation ultimately from her dad.
Of course, I mean this is part of why I think it's so important to tell stories about people. And not just numbers, right? She's, of course, she's incredibly relatable. Who wouldn't be- who doesn't want love who doesn't want connection? And who doesn't have ambitions and desires, and poverty doesn't erase those elements from a person. I know that I don't have to say that, but I also feel like I maybe do, because I think that we, as a society, have created such a barrier to eliminate any sense of responsibility that I think in the end, what we mainly only feel is guilt. There's no action connected to it, from seeing people, in dire straits as no different than ourselves. I want my dad's love. Why wouldn't Camila want her dad's love? I want partnership and intimacy. Why wouldn't she? Why wouldn't anyone?
The thing that you do that is incredible to me, just from the reporting standpoint is it never seems as though you are away from your subject. It seems like you are, are there for the entire year?
Well, we spent a lot of time together. And when we weren't spending time together, we spent a lot of time texting, which is a pretty great tool for journalists because you have a transcript.
So, we did spend a lot of time together. I was very careful in the book to try to subtly flag where I was telling something that I knew because she had told it to me, versus me experiencing it firsthand. But because we were so tethered, either in person or via our phones, there was a, there was a real constancy there and because she has such an extraordinary memory and is such a good storyteller herself, and would repeat things over and over, I really came to trust her telling of things, for example, from her past or occasional moments that I couldn't witness myself, so that I felt like I could tell her story with a lot of confidence even in the moments that I hadn't witnessed.
I- we only have, we have less than a minute left but I- without giving anything away of the book, but how is she doing now amongst all that's going on?
You know, she's doing okay. The good news is that she's doing okay. She has a husband who she loves, they have an apartment, they have a new baby. That's great. What isn't great is that that happened completely outside of anything that we could do to help her. She should have been okay without having to get married to be okay. And that's not why she got married, she married for love. And yet this story should have been able to end with her being okay because as a society we thought that she deserves to.
And, and as we should point out- I mean this, of these horrifying conditions, and again, we have about 30 seconds- but these horrifying conditions that you talk about that- of what she was going through, can only, we assume- are 10 times worse now, during a pandemic.
We shredded our safety net in the best of times. And now we are in the worst of times, and it is going to be very, very bad, I'm afraid.
Lauren Sandler, I can't tell you how much I enjoyed- just, I was riveted by this book. And, man, you're an amazing writer. I thank you so much for sharing the story. The book is "This Is All I Got: A New Mother's Search for Home". Thank you so much for being with us and congratulations.
Thank you so much, Joe.