When I was homeless: How it scarred me, and what the city must do to help more people lift themselves out

(DAILY NEWS) August 27, 2018 —  “Forget this. I’m going home.”

It’s the little things that remind you how big your blessings are. As much as I wanted to go to ShopRite and get the one-pound bag of baby carrots on sale for 50 cents, it had been a long, hot day and I was tired and sweaty. But when I told myself “I’m going home,” the magnitude of my words really hit me.

Wow, I’m not homeless anymore. I actually have a home to go to. If only everyone could say the same.

“Getting out of the shelter system … it’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever seen anyone do,” my therapist told me. I thought my therapist would have used kicking heroin, or defending your doctoral dissertation, as examples of things that are really hard to do. But no, he said, “getting out of the shelter system.”

Major depression hit me during my first semester of law school and I never recovered, ultimately becoming homeless as a result. All of my repressed childhood trauma, much of it stemming from abuse I suffered in foster care, came roaring to the forefront. Then: Five years, nine months, four weeks, and three days — that’s how long I was homeless, living as a second-class citizen.

Homelessness stripped away my dignity. I forgot I was a college graduate with a degree in journalism, someone who’d performed at the world-famous Apollo Theater, a whole human being. The system broke me down with its “show me your socks” searches, its feces-covered floors, its arctic-cold showers and pre-heated oven rooms, its security-checkpoint confiscation of a 79-cent bag of peanut M&M’s purchased with my last dollar, its fly-dropping death rate.

Bounce, Miller, Shorty, Mustafa, Juan, the new Spanish guy on the third floor, Jimmy, Big Man, Mr. K: all men who died homeless.

All that pain, suffering and misery is the reason why I have a therapist (as well as a psychiatrist, and a mental health organization support system, too). Being homeless drives you crazy. Living in a constant state of danger, filth, violence, despair, hopelessness, dysfunction and oppression tests the limits of your sanity.

I could give you a laundry list of things suffered, but I won’t because it’s damn near impossible to get your clothes washed in the shelter: Either the machines don’t work or the staff person with the key is serving food in the cafeteria. But worse than dirty clothes is the frustration of knowing that housing would cost the city less than half the amount it pays for the privately owned shelter.

What frustrates me even more is that New York is spending billions of dollars on an “affordable housing” plan that will do nothing to alleviate the suffering of homeless men and women.

Just as Mayor de Blasio is touting a plan to create or preserve 300,000 units of affordable housing, barely 5% will go to people who currently have no place to call home. That’s why I am taking action as a member of the House Our Future NY campaign. We are calling on the mayor to immediately increase the number of housing units created for homeless households to 30,000 — that’s 10% of his total plan — including 24,000 units created through new construction.

We can finally become a society full of people lifting themselves out of misery and doing better. If the mayor listens.

Dennis graduated from St. John’s University with a degree in journalism.