A Journey From ‘Real World’ to Homeless Shelter — and College (New York Times)

A Journey From ‘Real World’ to Homeless Shelter — and College



In a related article, Elizabeth A. Harris writes about why homelessness is pervasive among college students.


Preston Roberson-Charles is studying economics at LaGuardia Community College in Long Island City, Queens. Well spoken and charming, he wears gray Warby Parker glasses and keeps his jeans fashionably rolled at the ankle. Not exactly the stereotype of a homeless person. But for two years, until last December, he lived in New York City’s shelter system, hostels and on friends’ couches. He agreed to revisit the experience with a reporter and photographer, to share the grim reality for thousands of homeless students across the country. “Being homeless, it’s like you’re in limbo,” said Mr. Roberson-Charles, now 29. “You’re in this purgatory where you’re falling in and out of society. You spend a lot of time by yourself when you’re homeless because you get tired of explaining yourself to people.”


Back Story

Growing up in Saginaw, Mich., Mr. Roberson-Charles liked to watch MTV’s “Real World,” which throws strangers together in a house and films the sparks as they fly. One cast member, Pedro Zamora, who was openly gay, made a strong impression. Mr. Roberson-Charles remembers hearing the word “gay” for the first time — a word he would later use to identify himself. He hoped one day to be on the show. So when college didn’t go very well — he wasn’t ready to concentrate on his studies, he said, and dropped out — he grabbed for the brass ring and in 2010 was cast in “The Real World: New Orleans,” pictured above. (One memorable moment: defiling a roommate’s toothbrush, leading to a visit by the police and tabloid headlines.) But reality TV is rarely a career path. He appeared on MTV game shows, traveled, worked as a nanny and lived off savings while trying to figure out what was next. When he sublet a Brooklyn apartment that had bed bugs, his troubles really set in. “The money I was making wasn’t sufficient to rent out another room, and I didn’t have a deposit,” he said, so he started crashing on friends’ couches. “It just snowballed. It was like, all right, this is what I’m doing.”



For about six months, Mr. Roberson-Charles slept at friends’ places, including scrunching his 6-foot-2 frame onto a blue Ikea sectional in this East Village apartment building. Sometimes, when one of the renters in the apartment was out of town, he would pay to sleep in her bedroom (all told, $1,100). It was hard to revisit the building, he said, because he’d “had a bad falling-out” with his friend there.



In the Shelter System

The Garden Inn and Suites near Kennedy International Airport looks like any other cookie-cutter airport hotel. The lobby floors are a creamy marble, the hallway carpets worn. A black-and-gold sign near an elevator directs visitors to meeting rooms with names like the Regent, the Wellington and the Kensington. Then you notice that there are no children around, and hardly any women. The hotel is used as a men’s shelter, the city having run out of space in its shelter system. Hotels are not set up for this purpose; they are often far from a subway, and basic shelter services like laundry are lacking. One roommate at the Garden stole Mr. Roberson-Charles’s laptop, he said, and another took things from his pockets. The pickpocket claimed to have killed someone. Mr. Roberson-Charles did not press the issue. He stayed there about a year, during which time he got a job doing phone surveys. He hated it. He was berated and hung up on, but it was work. He kept applying for other jobs. No one even called him back. He realized then that he needed college credentials, and LaGuardia was right across the street from the survey company. He enrolled for the fall semester.



Mr. Roberson-Charles was moved to another shelter, where he felt even more uncomfortable and desperate. In late October, he left the shelter system but he still did not have money to put down a deposit on an apartment. So he stayed in hostels. One was the Local in Long Island City, with a bar at the front and funky, colorful art lining the walls. He slept in a six-person dorm, the cheapest setup on offer at nearly $50 a night. Some hostels require ID that shows guests live elsewhere. Mr. Roberson-Charles presented his passport, which lists Michigan.


On the Floor

Mr. Roberson-Charles got a job on the LaGuardia campus as a counselor at Strive for Success, a program that helps students at risk of dropping out stay in school. On and off last fall, he slept under a desk in his windowless office to save money on the accruing cost of hostels. He would lay a suit bag down on the linoleum and put his coat on top of it. He picked the desk along the same wall as the door so when security guards looked through a small window in the door, they wouldn’t see him. In the morning, when the cafeteria began to hum with activity, he knew it was safe to go brush his teeth. While homeless students aren’t supposed to spend the night, they are allowed to shower at the gym. Rhonda Mouton, program director of LaGuardia’s Single Stop program, which connects low-income students with services, said, “If you ever get to college early in the morning, at like 7 a.m., you find students grooming in the bathroom.”



Today, Mr. Roberson-Charles rents a room in Woodside, Queens, for $850 a month. He found it on Craigslist. LaGuardia helped him secure a loan so he could put down a deposit. His bedroom, tidy and bright, is carved out of the living room, separated by a flimsy wall cobbled together out of cheap wardrobes, bookshelves and paper blinds. He padlocks his door — a closet door — to another piece of the partition when he leaves the apartment, which he shares with four others. With his new home, job and school, he said, he is starting to feel more like himself. But he can’t shake the feeling that the other chapter of his life may not be entirely behind him. “I’m on the verge of being back there,” he said. “All it takes is one wrong thing, and I’ll be right back there.”




Monday, April 10, 2017