LIFE MAGAZINE
A WEEK IN THE LIFE OF A HOMELESS FAMILY
December 1987
BY ANNE FADIMAN

PUBLISHER'S NOTE

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Mary Ellen Mark helps homeless Crissy Damm get ready for school.
Photograph by Jeffrey Chong


There are fine pictures in LIFE every month, but we want to call special attention to the contributions of three photographers in this issue. The remarkable range of Mary Ellen Mark has never been more evident. On the cover is her portrait of a provocative Meryl Streep. Inside, Mark's powerful picture essay on a homeless California family is gritty photojournalism at its best. Of her session with Streep, Mark says, modestly, "She understands how to work with a camera, so she makes you look good as a photographer." Spending a week with a homeless family is a long way from a studio session with a film star. Mark learned that "the incredible stress of not knowing where you're going to be next is devastating." She shared some of that tension during a night the family slept in their car. Mark, recording the miserable evening, had a sleeping bag in a nearby van.

New York City's Times Square lies just a few blocks south of LIFE's offices. It is famous for its Broadway theaters, the electric billboards that turn it into a carnival midway nightly and its dark underside of seamy allure. Photographer Jan Staller was assigned the job of documenting this fantasy world before it disappears in a vast sweep of urban improvement. For a picture of the elegant Paramount Building, Staller wanted the globe on top lit for a night shot; it hadn't been illuminated since 1959. He got permission to install ten 150-watt bulbs-and they blew the fuse. "We had to wait a few hours until we hooked up to another circuit," he says, but the payoff for persistence comes on page 89.

Geoffrey Clifford was a helicopter pilot during the Vietnam war. On his first postwar trip back to that country, he says, he decided the war had been a mistake. Two subsequent visits enhanced his appreciation of the land. "I find the people peaceful and trustworthy. They do business on a handshake. I always thought it was a beautiful country, even when I was there during the war." He makes his point with a visually rich portfolio.

Any of these photographic essays could be exhibited in a museum. Perhaps someday they will be. But, first, enjoy them in LIFE.

Elizabeth P. Valk

 

A WEEK IN THE LIFE OF A HOMELESS FAMILYA WEEK IN THE LIFE OF A HOMELESS FAMILY
by Anne Fadiman
Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark


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The Damm family: Crissy, 6; Jesse, 4; their mother, Linda, 27, a former nursing-home aide; and their stepfather, Dean, 33, an ex-trucker.

According to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, more than one third of the nation's homeless population--and its fastest growing segment--consists of families with children. The reason for this is twofold. At the same time as the number of families living below the poverty line has increased because of unemployment and cuts in welfare benefits, the availability of low-cost housing has dropped because of widespread urban gentrification and a radical decline in the federal budget for subsidized housing. Once a family is homeless, they are likely to encounter discrimination when they seek emergency shelter. In Los Angeles, for example, only 51 of the county's 215 shelters accept families, and of those only 16 accept families with fathers. Though homeless individuals often live outside--on sidewalks, on park benches, beneath freeway overpasses--homeless families are more likely to be hidden from the public eye, living marginally from night to night in shelters, welfare hotels and cars. The Damms, who moved recently to California from Colorado, are such a family. LIFE spent seven days with the Damms during the fifth week in which they had no place to call home.

WEDNESDAY. The Valley Shelter. It is a half hour before dawn, and on the right-hand double bed in Unit 7, the mound under the dirty beige blanket begins to move. There is a similar, larger mound on the other bed, from which a woman's head and a man's arm emerge. The arm explores the space between the beds until it encounters a quart bottle of warm Coca-Cola. The man sits up and takes a swig. He pulls on a pair of jeans, a pair of socks with holes in the toes and a T-shirt that says, "STRESS: The confusion created when the mind overrides the body's desire to choke the living shit out of some asshole who desperately needs it." The woman, who is four months pregnant, walks slowly to the bathroom and takes a cold sponge bath; there has been no hot water in the shelter for five days. The mound on the right-hand bed undulates furiously. The blanket drops to the floor, revealing two small children engaged in a wrestling match. "Chill out, kids," says the man. "This ain't your home."

The Car. An hour and a half later, the Damms leave Crissy, a first-grader, at the Erwin Street School. The car behind them, which drops off a boy about Crissy's age, is a Porsche. The Damms' 1971 Buick Skylark is missing its hood and all the windows on the driver's side. The trunk must be opened with a screwdriver. The radiator leaks. Most of the upholstery on both seats is gone; when the Damms wear shorts, their legs are indented with red impressions from the springs. The car smells. The interior damage is the work of a pit bull terrier named Runtley, who spends most of his time chained to the right front neck rest. Runtley is a status symbol, a potential weapon, a love object and a form of proof that the Damms, as Dean puts it, "are something, even if everyone thinks we're nothing."
When the Damms moved to California a month ago, the car transported, housed and even subsidized them. Before they left their rented trailer outside Colorado Springs, they sold the Skylark's rims, tachometer and gauges. For nearly two years neither Dean nor Linda had found work in Colorado, a state with a high unemployment rate. They knew that even if they did not find jobs in California, the state's welfare allotments for families were the highest in the nation. They left Colorado on September 6 with $80 in cash and everything they owned stuffed into the trunk. The children bounced up and down, excited by the adventure. The peanut butter and jelly sandwiches ran out by the time they crossed the California border. The money ran out by the time they got to Victorville. Dean panhandled $5, which bought enough gas to get to Palmdale, where they sold eight rock tapes for $3. They rolled into the San Fernando Valley the night of September 8 with an empty gas tank and less than 10 cents.

Dean had been promised a job with a trucking company, but the offer was rescinded because he had no phone number where he could be contacted. "It's a bitch," says Dean. "You can't get a job unless you have a phone. You can't get a phone unless you have an apartment. You can't get an apartment unless you have a job." Before the Damms were admitted to the Valley Shelter, which they had heard was one of the safest in Los Angeles, they moved seven times in 15 days, staying in their car or in cheap motels patronized by prostitutes and junkies, for which they were given short-term vouchers by social service agencies. These agencies also sometimes gave them bags of food, but much of it was inedible, as it needed to be cooked. They opened the cans with a knife and ate with their hands.

Because the points of their compass--the shelter, the welfare office, Crissy's school, the technical college where Linda studies emergency medical care in the morning and Dean studies telephone installation and repair at night--are so far apart, the Damms are completely dependent on their car, which frequently breaks down. Dean has panhandled five times to pay for gas and repairs. He and Linda have also sold a tent for $10 and their car stereo for $20, and pawned their wedding rings for $15.


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Jesse naps under Runtley's guardianship. They both spend most of the day in the car, being carted across the San Fernando Valley on the Damms' chaotic daily itinerary. After one typical 90-mile day, Jesse asked his mother, "Why do we have to travel and travel and travel?" Jesse is too young for school, and there are long waiting lists for subsidized day care, so either Linda or Dean must constantly be with him. This means that the four hours of daily classes each of them takes cannot be scheduled simultaneously and that neither has time for a part-time job. The instability of their family life has made their children anxious and clinging. These are common symptoms in homeless children, who are also prone to physical ailments caused by malnutrition, poor hygiene and lack of sleep. Only Runtley seems immune to the stresses of homelessness, since he regards the car as his doghouse.


The Trimar Blood Center. With the exception of Runtley, whom Dean says he would never sell, the only valuable possession the Damms have left is their blood. Dean has sold whole blood once and plasma six times in the last month. Today he lies on a reclining chair, closes his eyes while 500cc of blood are pumped from his right arm, and waits an hour while the blood is centrifuged and the red blood cells returned to his bloodstream. Dean says he enjoys selling plasma because he is given free Kool-Aid and muffins, and because, with the exception of his school, the blood center is the only clean place he ever goes. When he leaves he gets $10 in cash.

The Valley Shelter. While Dean is at night school, learning the difference between amps, volts and ohms, Linda packs up the family's possessions. In one of the many bureaucratic absurdities they have encountered in their month of homelessness, they are being evicted because they have children. The federal grant that subsidizes shelter fees for families has just expired. If they were childless, the county would pay for an entire month's stay.
The Damms have no luggage. Linda stuffs their clothes into six plastic grocery bags that say, "Congratulations! You're walking out the door with verified savings!" Jesse, who often responds to stress by being especially solicitous of his mother, kneels on the floor and starts folding his T-shirts and pants, many of which came from charitable agencies and fit him only approximately. Crissy, who tends to become hyperactive whenever she sees her parents start to pack, rolls wildly on the bed.
Linda takes Crissy in her arms and rocks her back and forth.
“Where will we sleep tomorrow?" asks Crissy.
Jesse says, "I don't want to sleep on the street. I'll be hit by a car."
“We're not sleeping on the street," says Linda. "We're going camping. We'll hunt for froggies and toast marshmallows. Its going to be real fun."
"I'm not sleeping outside," says Crissy. "A snake will eat me."
"Runtley will protect you, honey."
"The snake will eat Runtley."

THURSDAY. County of Los Angeles Social Services. This is Dean's fifth visit to the welfare department, whose official code reads, "Aid shall be so administered ... as to encourage self-respect, self-reliance, and the desire to be a good citizen, useful to society." Because the office misplaced Dean's birth affidavit, their first welfare check was delayed. Their second check, for their full monthly grant of $753, was accompanied by a mysterious check for $102, the result of a computer error. They were told they immediately had to make the 30-mile round trip to the welfare office to return the $102.
Holding the erroneous check in one hand and Jesse's hand in the other, Dean stands in one line, gets sent to another line and then waits in an office directly under a sign that says, "Courtesy is contagious." Finally a supervisor named Mrs. Finklestein appears, takes the $102 check and tells him she cannot explain why his first check was delayed. On the way out he sits on the security guard's desk. The guard orders him to stand.
"I'm sick of your goddamn system!" yells Dean. "You're jerking my family around! You're treating us like garbage! We are not garbage!"

U-Save Auto Parts. As he pays $1.75 for a quart of brake fluid, Dean tells the man behind the cash register about an accident Linda had Monday night. A Datsun driven by a man Dean calls the Iranian slammed into the Skylark and left a large dent. "I'd like to beat that Iranian's brains out," says Dean. "But I'd go to jail, and then where would my family be?"

She cannot hide her 20 tattoos


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Linda waits for Crissy after school. Determined that no one find out her daughter was homeless, Linda would not let her start first grade until she was enrolled in the lunch program, lest her classmates see her lunchbox contained only a lump of moldy cheese.


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When a charitable agency puts the Damms up in a motel, the children are disoriented by the unaccustomed luxury. Jesse has a crying jag; Crissy, comforted by the warm shower, curls up in a fetal position for an hour.

Big Tujunga Canyon. Fifteen minutes after the Damms arrive in a campground north of the Valley, a sheriff's car pulls up next to them. An officer takes down their license number and asks Dean why his dog is unleashed and how many nights he intends to stay. Since they cannot afford the $5 nightly fee, the Damms drive back dispiritedly to a city park. Dean stands guard while Linda uses the public bathroom, whose doors have been removed so junkies cannot shoot up in private. Then, leaning against the dented fender, Linda toasts marshmallows over a cigarette lighter.

Wino Flats. Violating Municipal Code 85.02, which prohibits using a car as a residence, the Damms spend the night at a nearby roadside breakdown area nicknamed for its customary patrons. Linda spreads clothes on the floor and sleeping bags over the seat springs.
"Do I have to lie on the bump in the floor?" asks Crissy.
"I've made up your bed, and you're gonna sleep in it," snaps Linda.
Linda folds herself onto the backseat. Crissy curls on the floor below her. Dean and Jesse squeeze into a single sleeping bag on the front seat. Runtley sleeps outside, chained to the door handle, and cries all night.

FRIDAY. Jack-in-the-Box. In the rest room, Linda hastily changes into the white uniform she is required to wear to her medical class, pulling a pair of colored shorts on underneath because she does not own any underwear.

Western Technical College. Both Dean and Linda are, according to their teachers, the best students in their classes. There is little in their pasts to suggest that this would be the case. Dean, who was raised on an Illinois farm by his grandparents, dropped out of school after the 10th grade, joined the Army and went AWOL twice. Linda, who was raised in California, Missouri and Michigan by her widowed mother, also dropped out in the 10th grade, married a trailer mechanic, had Crissy and Jesse, left her husband after he started to batter her and took up with an armed robber who beat her as well. Linda and Dean met three years ago when both of them were staying at the same motel. They were married last June. "We'd both been hurt real bad," says Dean, "so we had a lot in common."
Dean heard about Western Tech from a recruiter at the unemployment office, who told them the 26-week courses would help them find $9-an-hour jobs. The Damms have each taken out a $4,500 student loan.
Today Linda takes a three-hour written and practical exam in hematology. "Anyone who does not follow aseptic procedures will fail," announces the professor. "Mrs. Damm, may I inspect your fingernails?"
Linda scrubbed her hands at Jack-in-the-Box, but she cannot hide all 20 of her tattoos, most of which she applied herself when she was a teenager, using a needle dipped in India ink, and tried unsuccessfully to remove a few years later with a red-hot butter knife. The professor frowns. Linda gets a 94 on the exam.

The Burbank Temporary Aid Center. The Damms drive to a private relief agency--the only one in the Valley where they have not already appealed for help-and are given a $5 gas voucher, $19.41 worth of groceries and a $93.40 voucher for three nights at the Scott Motel. The Scott has become a de facto emergency shelter, since 90 percent of its patrons are homeless people whose fees are paid by charities. The Burbank center sends its clients there because, unlike the proprietors of other local motels, its owners do not complain that their guests are wasting electricity if they leave the lights on all night to keep the cockroaches from crawling on their beds.

Western Technical College. Dean takes an exam on the 25 color-coded wires that hook up a business telephone. He scores 100 percent.

SATURDAY. The Scott Motel. The Damms' neighbors are an elderly black woman whose belongings fill a shopping cart and a Hispanic family whose father punched his wife in the head last night. In Room 3, the Damms are lying in bed at nine a.m., savoring the luxury of sleeping late.
"You know, Linda," says Dean, "I'd really like to take you to the Virgin Islands. I've heard you can see all the way down to the bottom of the ocean from one of those Caribbean cruise boats. I just know that someday we're gonna be like those rich people who have five or six months' wages saved up and don't need to worry about a thing."
"All I want is clothes for the new baby that don't come from Goodwill," says Linda.
"Yeah," says Dean. "I want us to be just like All in the Family. We're going to get the hell out of this lifestyle and never look back."

San Fernando Boulevard. Linda is standing at a pay phone, feeding it quarters. She is holding the real estate section of the Daily News, in which she has circled every apartment whose rent is less than $650 a month.
Linda learns rapidly that if she says the family is on welfare, she will be told they "do not qualify." (It is illegal to discriminate against welfare recipients, but the practice is commonplace.) She learns that it is extremely difficult for welfare families to move into an apartment in any case, since most landlords require first and last month's rent--nearly two welfare checks' worth, which no family could accumulate unless they already had some savings. She learns to call Runtley a bulldog instead of a pit bull.

Saticoy Street. At the first apartment they visit, Dean admits he is unemployed. The landlady refuses to show them the apartment. Dean showers her with curses. Crissy and Jesse fight in the backseat of the car.

Vanowen Street. This time, Dean prudently sends Linda, whose temper is less volatile, to scout the apartment without him. She reports that its kitchen has real wood cabinets. The rent is $620 a month.

Sherman Way. This building smells of urine and seems to be occupied largely by shirtless men. One of them tries unsuccessfully to sell Dean cocaine.

McCambridge Park. Dean is in a genial mood, buoyed by fantasies about the Vanowen Street apartment. He drops Runtley down a long spiral slide. "There's a dog coming down," says a small boy incredulously. The children on the slide peel off. Down comes Runtley. He does not slide; he bounces. Thump. Thump. Thump. Runtley flies, off the end of the slide backward, looks momentarily baffled and then leaps up to lick Jesse's face.

SUNDAY. San Fernando Boulevard. The Damms have already spent a third of their welfare check, so Dean decides the time has come to phone the Iranian. "You have severely damaged my valuable race car, sir," says Dean, "and you were very foulmouthed to my wife. Now you're yelling again. But I'll make you an offer. If you can come up with some cash, I'll drop my charges against you." By alternately threatening and cajoling--as well as referring to a nonexistent lawsuit and three nonexistent estimates of the damage--he persuades the Iranian to give him $100 in cash the next night.

Vanowen Street. The Damms stop by the apartment that has the nice kitchen cabinets and try to give the superintendent a $250 deposit. She says she is not authorized to take it but will recommend them tomorrow to the building management company, who might let them rent the apartment with only one month's rent down. The Damms are ecstatic.

The Scott Motel. The Damms are crying. On the way back from the apartment, Dean tried to race another car at a stoplight and spun a rod bearing.
"Let's face it," he says, with brimming eyes. "The car is screwed."
Linda silently sews the head on a Runtley-like stuffed dog that Crissy decapitated. Crissy draws a picture of a house on a paper bag. There are four faces at the windows and a four-legged figure in front. "Look at my house, Mommy," she says. "We can put furniture in it when we're rich."
Dean walks out in a funk. Linda discovers him an hour later lying on the unpadded springs of the car's front seat, staring at the roof.


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In the weekend, knowing they have a place to stay until Monday, Dean and Jesse can finally relax. Many men desert their families when they become homeless, unable to bear the humiliation of being inadequate providers. Dean intends to stick with his. He treats his stepchildren--as he treats his wife, his dog and his car--with alternating love and anger, in direct proportion to the day's pressures. "It ain't no good for my kids to hear me cuss," he says, "but I get tired. I only want the best for them. I tell them we're pawns now, but someday we'll be kings and queens."

“Got those movin' again blues…”


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Crissy has been moved so many times that when her family finally finds an apartment, it seems just another strange stopping place, not a home. Aside from curtains, the rooms are completely bare. The Damms own no furniture, no linens, no cooking equipment and no dishes except for four Cool Whip containers. Food stamps will pay for groceries, but if their rent, electricity, dog food, gas and car repair costs exceed their welfare allowance, Dean or Linda will have to quit school, which they call "the ticket to our future," and find work to avoid becoming homeless again.

MONDAY. The Scott Motel. Even Runtley has picked up the bad mood. Last night he defecated inside the car. Dean heaves a pile of stinking clothes from the backseat into the garbage can. Inside Room 3, Linda packs four plastic bags. "Movin' again," she says. "Got those movin' again blues." She dresses Crissy in corduroy pants three inches too long, and though she rolls them up, Crissy trips at school today and falls on her face.

Western Technical College. The car emits loud bangs but makes it to school. Linda feels dizzy and almost faints in class.

Oxnard Street. Linda calls her mother, a security guard who lives in a small apartment in Van Nuys with another pregnant daughter, an unemployed son-in-law and an 18-month-old granddaughter. The landlord has told Linda's mother that it is illegal to have more than four people in the apartment, but the Damms sneak in and sleep on the floor.

TUESDAY. Linda has had a fight with her sister and must find another place to stay tonight. She and Dean add up their resources. They have $408 left from their $753 welfare check. Even with the $100 from the Iranian, they do not have enough for one month's rent, let alone a security deposit.

Ventura Boulevard. They drive to an appointment with the managing agent of the Vanowen apartment. The car coughs ominously. During the interview, Linda folds her hands in her lap to conceal her tattoos. They say that Dean has a $2,000-a-month job as a furniture mover and they have no pets. The agent tells them that because the month is already half over, he will spread the security deposit over the next two months instead of asking for it up front. The apartment is theirs if they can come up with $620.
Dean frantically calls the director of the Burbank Temporary Aid Center and explains the situation. The Center is occasionally able to offer financial help to needy families trying to make their first rent payments.
The director says she will allot the Damms $120. Dean gives the managing agent $500, promises the balance tomorrow and signs the lease.

Vanowen Street. While Dean is at class, Linda, Crissy and Jesse carry four bags of clothes up to the new apartment, which is unlocked. There are three rooms, all fairly clean, though the toilet is sitting, unattached, in the living room. Jesse starts turning somersaults. Crissy stares mournfully out the window at the bluish image of a neighbor's television set.
"What's the matter, Crissy?" asks Linda, who seems a bit dazed herself. "We got an apartment. We got a refrigerator. We got a carpet."
"The carpet looks like my bear," says Crissy. She lost her toy bear in one of the 12 moves she has made in the last five weeks. "I want my bear."
"Oh, Crissy," says her mother. "If I cried every time something went wrong, I'd be crying for the rest of my life."
When Dean returns home from school and looks at the lease, Linda finds out that she has moved her family into the right building but the wrong apartment. The one they have signed for is across the courtyard. The Damms pack up their bags and move again, for the 13th time.
This apartment looks much the same, except that it has a toilet but no refrigerator. The children fall asleep on the floor, clinging to each other, under the only sleeping bag that has not been soiled by Runtley, who will continue to live in the car. Before she lies down herself, Linda empties the change from her purse. The Damm's total capital, which, augmented by plasma sales, must last 19 days until their next welfare check, totals $6.62: six dollars in Dean's pocket, 61 cents in Linda's purse and one cent that is hidden in a secret Velcro compartment in Jesse's right sneaker. The total would be more than seven dollars if Linda had not walked past a barrel earlier today, with a sign that said "Gospel Mission of America--Help the Homeless," and dropped in a handful of pennies.

END