Wayne was 26 years old when his mother passed away—not a child, but far from ready for the responsibility of managing the two-family home she left him. He had a background in customer service and worked primarily minimum-wage jobs, recalling proudly his first job at Stern's at the age of 19. But none of his jobs paid enough to cover the mortgage, taxes, and upkeep of the home, and he began to fall behind on payments. “It gets heavy,” says Wayne. In hindsight, he recognizes that he should have sold the home early on but, ill-prepared emotionally for the loss of his mother so early in life, he held onto it for as long as he could. “The real reason was I didn’t want to let my mother go. I was trying to hold on to her.”
The house went into foreclosure and Wayne began receiving flyers in the mail from people and companies saying they could help. “They turned out to be scams,” he shares with regret, and in 2003, he lost the home, with nothing to show for it. All the while, though he wasn’t fully aware of it at the time, his own health was deteriorating.
Wayne looks back at that period of his life as the beginning of a “downward spiral.” He stayed with friends for a time and continued to work—his last job was as a parking attendant at the airport—but over the course of the next five years, he was hospitalized several times, ran out of savings, and could no longer work. By the time he reached 40, he had an implantable cardiac defibrillator and a laundry list of diagnoses, including Class III heart failure, hypertension, thrombus, adema, asthma, obesity—with symptoms including chest pain, shortness of breath, fatigue, impaired concentration and attention. “Unfortunately, life happens,” he says, with a smile that deceives the seriousness of the subject. “I guess when I was younger I should have tooken better care of myself.”
Wayne was approved for welfare benefits, including temporary rental assistance (TRA), so he was able to rent an apartment again while waiting for his SSI claim to go through. When he was eventually approved, his rental assistance was terminated, due to the condition that TRA is supposed to be for people with a reasonable future plan to pay their own rent without assistance. Those on a fixed income that doesn’t allow them to carry their full rent going forward become immediately ineligible. In Wayne’s case, the time it took for his retroactive SSI check to arrive was just long enough for him to fall behind on rent and be served with an eviction notice. Desperate to avoid homelessness, he brought the SSI award notice with him to the eviction hearing as proof that he would very soon have income to catch up on his rent—hoping that the landlord or the judge would find it in their heart to give him a bit more time. While his limited income might not be enough to stay there long-term, at least he would have some time to search for a new apartment. No such luck. He lost the hearing, was promptly evicted, and has been living in a Newark shelter since, doing his best to keep up with his medications and stay positive, while looking for a new apartment. He still owes the former landlord, who has now filed a claim against him in civil court. "I’m just trying to make sure that I am being independent and taking care of myself, and I am struggling while doing so."
“There used to be a time that you could walk in front of a store front and see a Help Wanted sign; you go into that store front, you take that sign to the manager, [say] “hire me,” and it’s done. Those days are gone. You can’t do that. Sometimes you need a high school diploma just to scrub floors. It is reality. I don’t mean it to scare people, but it’s the truth. The truth isn’t always squeaky clean, it is what it is."
Wayne continues to send out resumes despite the fact that his doctors agree he is not able to work—in his words, “hitting the pavement real hard and things aren’t happening for me.” He is not alone. According to the Bureau of Labor of Statistics, the unemployment rate in Newark in May 2015 was 9.8%, well above the state's 6.3% and nearly double the national average of 5.5%. Still, he loves his home town—says it is almost as much of a melting pot at New York City—and has never known anything else. Newark has not always been kind to him but, he says, "My heart is here.”