The View from Camden, N.J.: Homeless and Missing the Recovery

Patrice AcheyThe economic recovery seems painfully slow to many. But for the 656,129 U.S. residents who -- according to the National Coalition to End Homelessness -- are homeless at any given time, the advances can seem nonexistent.

Patrice Achey is one of the homeless people who have yet to see any benefits from the improving economy. All of the talk about growth expanding again fails to resonate with the 39-year-old mother of four, who resides at the Anna M. Sample Complex, the largest shelter in Camden, N.J., the second most violent city in the U.S. She has a firsthand understanding of the struggles many Americans face as unemployment remains high and the housing market continues to struggle.

"The economy is not getting better, because if it is I am not seeing it," says Achey, who acts as an unofficial surrogate mother to some of the children in the shelter. "They say that [the economy is getting better] and then you hear about how half the Camden police force lost their jobs the other day. It's pretty messed up. . . . My best friend, she just lost her house. She works 50 hours a week. Her significant other is out of work. He has worked at the same place for I don't know. . .10 years."

Just When Things Started Looking Up

Many factors push people down the slide to homelessness. In Achey's case, it was a combination of bad luck and poor decisions. The native of Westville, N.J., ran away from home at age 17 and wound up in Central Florida, near Walt Disney World. Achey moved back and forth, and then last year returned her family to New Jersey to help take care of her mother -- with whom she's had a strained relationship -- after she got word her mother had been in a serious car accident.

But daughter and mother later had another falling out, and Achey exhausted what little money she had getting her family back to New Jersey. She was stuck. Then, she got a reprieve: One of her friends offered to take her family in for six months. Achey landed a job as a cashier in a convenience store. Things began looking up.

Just two months later, her boyfriend of 25 years got into a car accident while driving her to work. Achey had no insurance and soon owed thousands in medical bills. Her boyfriend has had difficulty holding down jobs because of mental issues and the economy, she says. Then she lost her job, too.

In addition to these troubles, Achey's six months were up. For the next two months, Achey and her family -- including her boyfriend, four children and two dogs -- camped out in state parks in New Jersey and neighboring Pennsylvania, picking their next location by looking at pictures in brochures. Occasionally, law enforcement would kick them out.

Finally, a social worker from the New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services got wind of her family's unorthodox living arrangements and told her that she could either move to a shelter or lose custody of her kids. Achey chose the shelter. "I don't blame her for that," Achey says, referring to the social worker. Achey realizes she made the right decision, adding: "Your kids are all about sacrifice."

The Long, Difficult Climb Up

But moving to the shelter has hardly solved Achey's problems. For one things, it split up her family. She lives in the shelter with three of her four children, including 14-year-old Paige, who wants to graduate college early to become a paramedic, a title she likes better than Emergency Medical Technician; shy and studious Ceiara, 11; and Dylan, 9, who wants to be a baker like the guy on Cake Boss and also wants to drive race cars.

But Achey's oldest, a 16-year-old boy named Randy, resides with his girlfriend and her parents because he was afraid of "being shot at" in Camden, Achey says. Her only contact with him is through her cell phone, paid for with her welfare benefits. Randy wants to join the Air Force.

And the children's father rents a room from Achey's 90-year-old grandmother in a two-bedroom trailer, which isn't big enough for the rest of the family. He sees the children regularly and uses Achey's van to drive to work at a bakery. Achey has not been able to speak to her sister, who has also been homeless, because her phone was disconnected.

Always Hitting Walls

"Nobody understands someone who has been homeless unless you have actually been homeless yourself," Achey says. "As soon as you think you are getting somewhere, there is another wall."

One of the walls has been the difficulty finding a suitable job. While she says she does want to work, an injury makes some jobs -- like her previous cashier work -- nearly impossible. "I don't know how I would do standing eight hours a day because what happens is my ankle swells up really bad," she says. "I was in physical therapy, but when I became homeless. . .I pretty much stopped." She hopes to restart therapy soon.

Aside from these issues, stereotypes that label homeless people as dirty and crazy don't help. Achey doesn't take drugs and has no serious mental-health issues, although she says she sees a therapist because she has trouble sleeping at night.

"Do I Look Homeless?"

She's articulate and has managed to keep her sense of humor despite her misfortunes. For example, a few months ago at a Target, she overheard a man complain that a shirt he was trying on made him look "homeless." Immediately, Achey says, she went up to the stranger and asked, "Do I look homeless?" The man and his companion were left speechless.

But the clock is ticking. Achey can live in the shelter for only a year. And she has a tough road ahead. She dreams of working in the medical field, such as becoming an X-ray technician. But that dream seems unlikely because she lacks a high-school diploma. And landlords are reluctant to accept either her large family or the rental assistance that she's entitled to.

Then there are her children, who need to be assured that they're not going to live in the shelter "forever." Says Achey: "That's why I pray every day."

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downeyl978

I had the priviledge of knowing Patrice for a short while when she lived here in Florida. She is a a very hardworking person (she worked TWO) jobs, always was upbeat, you would never know the trials and tribulations she went through. I hope some good things come her way, she deserves it. The "girls" and I miss your smiling face Patrice. May God bless you and keep you and yours safe.

February 01 2011 at 12:26 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to downeyl978's comment
basic4logicu2

downeyl978...I hope you are not among the homeless in the Orlando area, the fears of retribution by the GOON squads **police and government**, make trying to overcome homeless is hard enouh without the beatings, having your worldly belongings, getting a record because you can not afford basic living needs! If those people visiting these parks knew what role they played in forcing councils come down upon the social have nots...when in other countries they have programs in place to help vs. harm these individuals! God bless all the infirm, destitute, sick and pray that someday we can find a way of getting this country upon its feet once again!!!

February 04 2011 at 2:06 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
basic4logicu2

downeyl978...I hope you are not among the homeless in the Orlando area, the fears of retribution by the GOON squads **police and government**, make trying to overcome homeless is hard enouh without the beatings, having your worldly belongings, getting a record because you can not afford basic living needs! If those people visiting these parks knew what role they played in forcing councils come down upon the social have nots...when in other countries they have programs in place to help vs. harm these individuals! God bless all the infirm, destitute, sick and pray that someday we can find a way of getting this country upon its feet once again!!!

February 04 2011 at 2:06 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
basic4logicu2

Have to Love Floridas laws especially Orlando on making it illegal to be homeless, but you can be an illegal alien and get housing and not even have to learn the language! I still think a Bi-lingual mandate is wrong and seperates this country...yes I think everybody should learn others languages but this was the glue of the melting pot of Ellis Island, you came here learned the language and that is what you spoke in public, unlike these rude imagants who do not even seek naturalization, just pop out a kid and this is your ticket to live for free!
INS does not only have boarder problems along the West Coast how about the East coast? What the visitors to McMouuse land, TV Studios theme park, Ocean World(I would hate to use their real names as to ruffle anybodies Ronnie Duck Feathers) do not see or know it is illegal to feed the homeless population!
• Orlando, FL. In 2006, the Orlando City Council passed a law that prohibited groups sharing food with 25 or more people in downtown parks covered under the ordinance from doing so more than twice a year. A member of one of the groups that shares food regularly with homeless and poor people in Orlando parks was actually arrested under the ordinance for sharing food. A federal district court found the law unconstitutional; however, the City of Orlando has appealed the decision.
Vistors Please feed the animals in the parks, but BEWARE do not feed the homeless!!!
This is one among many and let the cops catch you camping... you go to jail any any belongings you may have will be destroyed by them!
Fortunate to have a car that you can take shelter in.. again illegal...do pass go, pay two hundred dollars you did not have in the first place and go directly to jail and you car is impounded!
Try and get a job thanks to the laws having a record now...even better yet, they have day labor which the homeless try and pickup on, though you have to compete with the illegal aliens!

January 29 2011 at 8:17 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
Jonathan Berr

Rebecca Fuller

Volunteers of America Delaware Valley

Communications Manager

235 White Horse Pike

Collingswood, NJ 08107

(p) 856.854.4660 x140
rfuller@voadv.org

January 29 2011 at 11:28 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Aminah

Ok so how can we help her? Is there a number to call? An address to send money? What can I do to help?

January 29 2011 at 12:03 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Jonathan Berr

Readers:

Many of you seemed to be missing the bigger issues here.

First, Patrice's boyfriend is the father of all her children. He is involved in their lives. The fact that they never married is irrelevant. She has made bad decisions in her life, but so has everyone. Wall Street has screwed up royally and gotten trillions of dollars in bailouts. Don't average people who have fallen on hard times deserve help as well?

Jonathan Berr, DailyFinance

January 28 2011 at 10:17 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
cceo1st

HOW WOULD YOU LIKE TO BE SELF-EMPLOYEED FOR 35 YEARS ONLY TO FIND OUT AT AGE 59, YOU CANNOT EVEN DRAW UNEMPLOYMENT. WHO DID I PAY FOR ALL THOSE YEARS. NO INSURANCE, NO UNEMPLOYMENT.

January 28 2011 at 9:26 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
maxdan2345

Does anyone have seen a rich become homeless???

January 28 2011 at 8:53 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Jim

Wow. I'm generally empathetic, but only to a point, I guess. She grew up in an area with decent schools, but didn't show up. She picked the wrong guys. She then bred with them, without legalizing the union first. She has dogs, when she can't care for herself or her family. She has run out of friends and relatives to sponge off of. No skills, and the wrong choices at every step of her life, bringing down others, and many excuses not to just show up. In your case, it's NOT the economy, stupid. It's your libido. Whatever your brain and loins tell you to do, for God's sake, do the George Costanza oppposite.

January 28 2011 at 8:31 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Barb

I was homeless for 13 months and like the other woman, I was no drug addict. Circumstances out of the blue can happen. The real shame is the homeless shelters. They are not helpful and treat each person with no respect. I was rapped and robbed while under the protection of Social Services. I was 58 and alone. I will live with this the rest of my life. I now have a small apartment but if you can warn one person, be wary and avoid homeless shelters if your alone.

January 28 2011 at 8:30 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
flilguy

Just like when George W. Bush was in office, it's a jobless recovery.

January 28 2011 at 8:22 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply