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

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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.

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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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