Duane Sergeant and Easter Johnson feel trapped. For nearly a year-and-a-half, the young teen couple has shared a single room and a double bed with their two small children in the Jackson Avenue Family Residences, a homeless shelter in the South Bronx.

“We’re really just down about it because we need to get out of here,” said Sergeant, 21, a Brooklyn native with a wide grin. “We want to get something we can call our own. This one room just ain’t cutting it.”

Sergeant and Johnson, a creamy-skinned 19-year-old, have been actively looking for an apartment since October of 1999, when they became homeless. They have yet to find a suitable apartment they can afford. Landlords tend to distrust them because of their youth.

“As far as apartment searches go, it’s really hard with our ages,” Sergeant said. “It’s like wow. They’re really young. They hold that against us. They automatically think you’re gonna party and tear up the place.”

Shelter directors are seeing more and more youngsters having a harder time finding a permanent place to live. “Teen parents don’t know how to negotiate the system,” said Joseph Esheyigba, director of social services at the Jackson Avenue Family Residences. “They lack the basic social skills. They don’t know how to talk to a landlord.”

And the problem goes beyond the Bronx. More teenage parents turn up in the city’s shelter system, said Patrick Markee, a spokesman for the Coalition for the Homeless. Squeezed by rising rents and fewer family-sustaining jobs, many of the city’s youngest couples are forced to start their adult lives in a homeless shelter.

“I think a big problem now is accessing affordable housing, in contrast with the 70s and 80s, when the homeless family crisis emerged,” Markee said.

Sergeant and Johnson are part of a burgeoning population of homeless families across the country. According to a recent study by the National Conference of Mayors, requests for shelter by homeless families alone increased by 17 percent since 1994. And in New York City, the shelter system has swelled to over 25,000 people for the first time since the 1980s.

Among the rising homeless populations, women and children are the fastest growing segments. According to a study by the Homes for the Homeless Institute for Children and Poverty, homelessness among young, single, female-headed households increased five-fold between 1986 and 1996 nationwide.

Sergeant and Johnson became homeless in the summer of 1999 when Johnson’s grandmother made them move out of her house when they couldn’t contribute enough money to pay the bills. Sergeant’s parents refused to take the young couple in. As Jehovah’s Witnesses, they disapproved of the couple living together out of wedlock. So Duane and Easter had no other choice but to enter the homeless system, they said.

Money is a perpetual issue, of course. Right now, the family of four lives on Sergeant’s part-time $6 an hour job at Lerner’s Department Store in the Bronx. Welfare kicks in $118 a month in food stamps, and $70 cash for the babies. The food stamps last only two weeks. Scrounging up enough for diapers and clothes is a constant challenge, they said.

Still, Johnson and Sergeant are luckier than most. Both of their families provide financial support, approximately $250 per month combined, according to Sergeant. It’s the only way they can remain above total destitution. Most of the families in the shelter don’t have family to lean on, Johnson said. And that is how they usually end up homeless.

A family in need of shelter must first report to the Department of Homeless Services Emergency Assistance Unit at East 151st in the Bronx. Each family is assigned to a case manager, who investigates whether or not the family is truly homeless.

For many, rejection is common. “There was this one girl, she came back 17 times,” Johnson said.

When Johnson and Sergeant entered the system they were deemed eligible within 48 hours of visiting the EAU. They lived temporary shelter on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx until October of 1999, until their permanent room was available at Jackson, one of the city’s 76 family shelters, which houses 95 families.

As the months pass, life in Unit 109 becomes even more unbearable. One February afternoon inside their cramped space, Johnson and Sergeant’s 2-year-old daughter, Tiahni, pressed her face against the window above the bed. She stared out into the gray sky past the wire fence topped with barbwire to the Bruckner Boulevard, which looms ahead above the fence.

Sergeant unwrapped a burger and sat on the bed between Johnson and Duane Jr., their 2-month-old son, feeding Tiahni pieces of bun. A small cockroach scurried across the floor. Since there are four people living in 109, and only one chair at the table, Duane eats on the bed, the same bed where Duane, Easter, and Tiahni have slept for over a year. Duane Jr. sleeps in a playpen in the corner.

Unit 109 is hot and reeks of urine and sometimes excrement smells emanate from the overloaded plumbing system in the shelter. At Jackson, it is impossible to turn the heat down in the stifling units or to get rid of the stench that is always present.

Johnson said she rarely leaves the confines of 109 for fear of violence or other drug-using tenants. “There’s always a fight. Almost every night the cops come in here,” she said. And even inside 109, things can get tense. A green faded, tattered sign that reads “Listen First” is taped to the wall, a remnant from couples counseling they received in the shelter.

Sergeant has gotten better about listening, he said. But, things are still stressful. During a recent interview, Sergeant said he feels like he’s living his life as a 50-year-old man. Johnson immediately responded, “I don’t know why he feels that way, because as the mother, I does everything.”

“I’m a family man at the age of 20. I do feel that way,” Sergeant shot back.

“She’s boring,” he added. “She doesn’t do nothing. She don’t like going out or anything. I still miss out on teenage things.”

Johnson got up from the bed, started to walk away and said firmly, “It’s not that I don’t like going out. It’s just that I don’t mind NOT going out. Before I had kids, I used to go out. And you go out when you want to.”

Johnson and Sergeant have been close to getting two apartments, but each fell through because the landlord was not experienced with Section 8, the federal low-income housing subsidy that will pay for their rent. “The first apartment was so beautiful,” Sergeant said. “We thought it was so easy, we would live happily ever after and that was it. It’s been downhill ever since.”

Even though there is an incentive for landlords in New York City to rent to the homeless (They receive a $500 bonus for each homeless person living in an apartment they rent), Johnson and Sergeant still face the stigma of being homeless.

“They like it [renting to the homeless] better because they know they’re gonna get their money,” Sergeant said. “They feel good about that. But then again, they do look down at us too. ‘Oh they’re homeless, they don’t know how to act.’ When we go, we wear our best so they know we’re not the stereotypical homeless people.”

Time is running out. In the New York City shelter system, if a family has not found an apartment after 18 months, it must leave the shelter system temporarily and reapply to re-enter the system. Recently a family of three in the Jackson Avenue shelter was forced to leave after 18 months. “I just don’t want us to have to go through that,” Sergeant said, “I really don’t want that to happen. We have two kids and all they had was them and their son.”


article courtesy KATIE MELONE