Vernell Ransom, 48, is a study in contrasts. She has the resigned look of a woman who has lived a grim life, sometimes on the Jersey City streets. But on Wednesday, she was heartily eating a hot meal and also seemed to be ingesting the spirit of hope that permeated the room.
Ransom has been living at the Belmont Shelter in Jersey City for two months. But on this snowy morning, she and more than 300 other homeless people have come to the Bergenview gym on Bergen Avenue to take advantage of Project Homeless Connect, a one day, one-stop shop where homeless people can access information about vital services, as well get food, clothing, and other essentials.
“When it was so cold I couldn’t stand it, I’d go in the hallway of vacant buildings.” – Vernell Ransom
Stories of the mean streets
Ransom agrees to have her name used and photo taken. She carries with her a sense of surrender, as if not much could be worse than the last two decades of her life.
Before the Belmont, she was at a halfway house in Paterson and before that on the streets — specifically 16th Street and Erie in Jersey City.
“I was raised in that area,” she says. “My daughter lives there. She’s a stay-at-home mom with two kids on public assistance.”
She goes on, “Living on the streets was terrible. It was cold in winter. When it was so cold I couldn’t stand it, I’d go in the hallway of vacant buildings.”
How did she survive? “I panhandled a lot,” she says. “I could make $20-$30 a day near the A&P on 16th Street. I was also turning tricks. I was afraid for my life, afraid I might take the wrong drug or get in the wrong car and get killed. I’d jump in and go anywhere he wanted to go and make $30 to $40.”
Ransom admits that she was afraid of getting AIDS. “But nothing ever happened,” she says. “I was lucky. God smiled at me. He had a crown around me.”
How did she get to this place in her life? “I was a drug addict,” she says, “on crack cocaine for 20-something years. I don’t know why. I was depressed.”
She attended Dickinson High School through the 11th grade.
“I got pregnant,” she says. “My mother had seven kids, and I have seven kids, three in Jersey City, two in Baltimore, one in Camden, and one in prison — for drugs. If I had it to do differently, I would never use drugs.”
Ransom says she’s been clean for a year. But she also suffers from sickle cell anemia, which leaves her weak and achy.
“God still has a crown around me,” she says. “He’s the only reason I’m still alive.”
Range of reasons
Many here are “product-of-environment” casualties whose road to homelessness is paved with illness, injury, alcoholism, drug addiction, pregnancy, prostitution, and prison.
Fifty-seven-year-old Perry Jones is a disabled vet, wounded in Vietnam. Laura Wallace, 47, and her friend Wayne Bennett, 60, have been living in a friend’s basement. Wallace had a job at a factory, but “the work was too hard,” she says, “the mop was too heavy, the sink was taller than me, and they didn’t give me a man to help me.”
Maricruz Gonzalez, 22, has a 6-year-old son and another child on the way. She was taken to court for allegedly beating her mother and taking drugs. The second was true, she says, but the first was not.
A Jersey City woman in her forties looks teary when asked how things might have been different. “I don’t want to get into all that,” she says. She hangs out at a self-help center where they “play cards, listen to the radio, and get in fights.” Her son is a nuclear engineer in the U.S. Navy.
Deborah C. Carberry O’Brien talks nonstop. A brilliant woman, her patter ranges long and wide, channeling Ayn Rand, Dick Cheney, David Letterman and seemingly everything in between, as she compares bank rates, plays the stock market, and speculates on what she would do with a million bucks.
When they bring her a toothbrush at the event, she jokes, “Thanks very much, but where is the wrench?”
The wrong side of the law
Buddy Lucchese is 58. He’s from Hoboken but currently lives at the Belmont shelter, which he calls transitional housing. He’s hoping this event will help him get into permanent housing.
He’s been disabled since 1989 when he fell 60 feet off a building. A construction engineer, he graduated from the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken in 1974.
“I work now and then – people call me – as a consultant in construction,” he says. “I want a place to live, anything, as long as it’s mine.”
Lucchese’s wife, who was a nurse practitioner, died 18 months ago. He has six daughters, ages 24 through 37.
“I envision myself better off than I am now,” he says. “To be honest with you, much better.”
And why isn’t he? “I went to prison for 12 years,” he confesses — “for being stupid.”
“I took the law into my own hands,” he says. “I tried doing it the right way and lost.”
At Wednesday’s event, one room is set aside for medical screenings and haircuts. The basketball court is filled with folks seeking information on shelters, welfare, and other social services. Project Homeless Connect is organized by the Hudson County Alliance to End Homelessness, along with representatives from local government, nonprofits, and the business community.
The homeless people are served a stick-to-your-ribs meal of chicken, rice, and macaroni and cheese. Volunteers roam the crowd passing out tooth brushes, tooth paste, toilet paper, socks, and hygiene kits. Also available are coats, hats, gloves, and scarves. The recipients seem overjoyed with the hot lunch and much-needed supplies.
The event – held on Jan. 26 this year – generally occurs in tandem with the point-in-time count, an annual street count of unsheltered homeless people. The weather was so bad on Wednesday that the street count, set to take place that evening, was cancelled. Instead, figures will be tallied from the number of homeless people who showed up in a 24-hour period at shelters, social agencies, and the PHC event.
In past years, homeless people counted around Hudson County numbered in the thousands. Volunteers found them everywhere – from shelters to makeshift encampments on cliffs behind Hoboken and Union City.
It’s estimated that between 300 and 400 attended Project Homeless Connect.
Susan Milan is with one of the participating organizations, the Jersey City Episcopal Community Development Corporation. She says the turnout was the highest they’d had in the event’s five-year history.
“It’s bad news because more people are in need,” she says. “But on the other side, our efforts to do outreach and get the word out have improved over the years, as well as our ability to get more agencies and community members involved.”
Most of the middle-aged homeless people at the event will tell you their dream is simple and short range — to live in a home.
Younger ones tend to aim higher. They want to be fashion designers, hairdressers, juvenile detention officers, interior designers, or hotel and airport workers. One young woman says she wants to “train for customer service.”
But in this toasty gym on a blustery winter day, many of the older people find cause for hope as well.
Vernell Ransom says, “I’m grateful to be alive and have a warm place to go.”
Kate Rounds can be reached at email@example.com..