Picture the Homeless

        

   Picture the Homeless is a grassroots activist organization composed entirely of homeless people. I first became aware of them through a flier that I find lying on a bench in Tompkins Square Park advertising a free legal clinic for the homeless. When I attended my first group meeting in the basement of Judson Church on West 4th Street, I was one of only four people in the room who aren't actually homeless. The other twelve are either still sleeping on the street or living in shelters.

      The meeting proceeds in a whirlwind of heated debate. The members are discussing plans to protest the overcrowding of city homeless shelters, and they're sharing their experiences within the shelter system. One woman tells a story about how guards had taken physical advantage of her. She then takes out a petition that had been signed by a hundred people who had been crammed into a roach infested EAU (Emergency Assistance Unit). The next man holds up a picture of a mold-covered sandwich that had been his dinner. Everyone is bursting with energy to add to the gory list of details, and the members' eagerness to speak creates a chaotic, competitive environment.
       My initial impression is somewhat skeptical, but after a few days I begin to rethink my experience. Compared to the misguided debates that I've witnessed on college campuses, the meeting was rather tame.  But what I heard in that basement was not the egocentric bantering of armchair activists, but explosive release of frustration from those who had learned their lessons without sociology books.
 
 

Anthony Williams

Cofounder: Picture the Homeless


born: Baltimore, Maryland 1963

          I never knew my mom or my dad, so I went directly into the foster care system. My first foster mother was in her late seventies. She was a very loving woman, and she gave me a lot of freedom. I basically had free reign of the neighborhood, so I was very good at making friends.
           School was kind of rough. It was real hard for me to sit down and concentrate. They put me on Riddlin for Attention Deficit with Hyperactivity Disorder. I'm not really sure why I fit into that category. There were some statements made that my parents were alcoholics and mental illness runs in my family.
         My foster mother had bad cataracts, and when I turned eight, she couldn't take care of me anymore. My social worker placed me with another foster family, and it was a rough transition. My new foster parents were real authoritative as far as what I could do, and I wasn't used to that. Their attitude was really condescending. They used to say that I was retarded. Sometimes we'd get beatings.
           I didn't do too well in school. The classes were crowded, and I felt intimidated by the environment. Eventually I ended up in special education. I wasn't resentful of the fact that they put me in there, but what made it bad was the other students mocking you for being in the retard class. I guess you could say that we developed our own community. We were all misfits, and that bound us together. In later years I'd feel a similar connection with other people who were out on the street.
          Throughout my childhood they kept me on psychiatric medications. The issues that contributed to my behavior were much deeper than what they could handle, so rather than deal with that, they just decided to medicate me. I felt like I was an experiment. It was like I was in some weird zombie world.
          At age ten I ran away. I was afraid to be out on the streets, but I was more afraid to go home. After a few days I decided to go to this group home in Baltimore called the Fellowship of Lights. You'd stay there and do chores, and they'd give you counseling. Each night you had to be in by eleven. I stayed there for two weeks and then I went back to my foster family.
         I never really had a stable family environment. Sometimes my foster dad would be real cool and take me fishing in Chesapeake Bay, but other times it seemed like he only wanted me around to get the social service check. At the time it was really frustrating, because I didn't understand what was happening. I thought that there was something wrong with me. In later years, I realized that the problem was with the system itself.  
           I bounced around between the foster home and group homes a few different times. After I ran away from my second group home I was out on the street again. I was an emotional wreck, and I really needed somebody to talk to. I met this guy on the corner, and I told him my story. After that he took me to this abandoned building, gave me five dollars, and he sexually abused me. I was just overwhelmed. It was like I was numb.
         I remember I took the five bucks and bought a Sprite and a Snicker Bar at the Seven Eleven. I went back to the group home, and I must have showered three or four times. Then I guess at eleven I felt ashamed. I wanted to talk to someone about what happened, but I knew I couldn't talk to my guy friends. There was a girl there whose father used to rape her, so I talked to her about it. I think people share a special bond when we can relate to each other's pain.
           Overall, I don't think that being in a group home is a good thing for a kid who's on the skids. For me, being around troubled peers only contributed to my troubled tendencies. I was always a follower. I wore eyeglasses, and people didn't perceive me as being tough. I wasn't really a decision maker, and I was really susceptible to getting caught up in delinquent behaviors for social acceptance. I had my first drink when I was nine.
          In high school, I got a bit crazier with my social life, but I still managed to keep it together. I got transferred to a vocational program to become a welder, so that made my school experience a bit more purposeful. I was doing good in my classes, but I still had a sense of emptiness about my home life.
           One day I was hanging out in front of Memorial Stadium, and I met these people from the Church of Bible Understanding. They were black, white, Hispanic, everybody all mixed together. When my foster parents made me go to church I couldn't stand it, but these people were so open and ready to listen to me that they really inspired me with The Spirit. They had the sense of unity and purpose that I was looking for.
          At that time, I was living at a group home called Boys Society. I was hanging out with a lot of kids who were experimenting with drugs, and I had been arrested a few times. I was standing on the edge, and I was ready to fall in. The Church of Bible Understanding seemed like a way out. When I was seventeen, I dropped out of high school so that I could travel around the country witnessing with them.
         The people in the church were great, but the leader was so intimidating and condemning that you were living in a sort of fear. Gradually, I found out that I was in a cult. It was a twenty-four-seven commitment. You had no personality of your own. You had to read the Bible. You had to confess all your sins. The worst part was that the leader was running a multimillion dollar carpet cleaning business, and you would work for twelve or thirteen hours a day and never see a cent of it.
          A few times I ran away and went to stay with friends, but pretty soon I'd fall back into my old vices, and I needed to go back to the Church. It was like I was operating on two extremes, either complete brainwashed sobriety, or total hedonism. The activities were completely different, but the reason for them was the same. I wanted something to take away the pain. Both the drugs and the cult could do that, but they scared me with serious downsides. I'd seen people overdose on drugs. I also saw people in the cult who committed suicide because they thought they weren't pleasing the creator.
           In 1983 I moved with the cult to a place in Brooklyn called the Young Sheeva House. I stayed there for a while, but then one of my brothers left the cult and started his own carpet business. I finally got enough willpower to make a clean break, so I went to work for him and lived in his office. After I saved enough money, I got my own apartment in Jersey.
          I lived a pretty normal life up until the late eighties. I was still struggling with my addictions, but I managed to pay rent. Then, in spring of 1989, I just crashed. My foster parents had died, and even though I wasn't that attached to them, it still hit me pretty hard. I just fell deeper and deeper into my addictions, until I couldn't pay rent anymore.
           I ended up sleeping underneath the Amtrak bridge at 39th Street. There was a whole society of people living there, a real circus. It was like a combat zone. You always had to be aware of your surroundings. One minute you could be fast asleep and then the next you'd be trying to fight off a guy with a knife. Anthony rolls up his shirt to show a string of faded scars. The police were always on your case. When Giuliani sent out undercover cops with Operation Condor, they'd come under the tunnels a few times a week to bust people. Basically they were going after addicts and not the dealers. The cops would see you under the bridge, and then they'd start chasing you. You'd try to get enough distance between them so you could drop your bag and your stem. Then they'd tackle you. That happened to me about three times, but luckily I was able to get rid of the evidence.
           Each morning I'd wake up and hit the soup kitchens. Sometimes I'd do day labor jobs to get money for my habits. I'd panhandle. I'd apply for welfare, go on that for a few months, and then they'd cut me off. The hardest thing was when a homeless person died on the street. I remember when Leroy Timmons died. The only reason they found him was the stench. But it's not always an issue of being close to somebody. You feel that bond just because you're all homeless, and that could be you lying there.
          In the fall of '93 I couldn't deal with the cold, so I walked downtown with one of my friends to the World Trade Center to see Volunteers of America. We went in there, and they gave us two bag lunches. They took our names and did some paper work and gave us an HA number. Anthony reaches into his pocket and removes a laminated Housing Authority ID. We waited two hours, and then some vans came and took us to Ward's Island.
           After they check your ID, you give them your bags, and then they take you to the showers. They give you stuff for lice and fresh socks and underwear. It was amazing, like a whole city, a low budget resort for homeless people. Everybody was smoking cigarettes. You saw gay people, straight people, black people, white people, Hispanic people. You'd see people arguing with each other. The staff was inside booths so they weren't mingling with the general population. They gave you a meal ticket, and you'd get a little food. It tastes horrible, but you have to stomach it. When I got in the dormitory, each room held two hundred people. Some guys signed for their bed, and were consistent, but there was always different people coming in and out. My biggest problem with the shelter system was that nobody was working to rehabilitate us. It was just a warehouse. The shelter system shouldn't be designed to hold people in. It should be designed to get people out.
 I lived there from '93 to '95. I started doing a little bit of work as a janitor, and then I moved in with a friend who had an apartment in Harlem. I was still struggling, and I had a lot of issues with substance abuse. Pretty soon I ended up back out on the street.
          One night, in summer of '99, I got really fucked up. I was so far under that I didn't think I was coming back. I went into the Bowery Residence Committee Detox. I had to tell them that I was there because I was an alcoholic, but my real problem was crack.
          One thing that I know is that when you get a bed you can think. When I was homeless in the shelter I read. When I was homeless on the street, I didn't read. I rested up for seven days and really thought about the direction my life was going. After that I went into Bellevue Men's Shelter.
          I used to tell my story to the people at the shelter just like I'm talking to you now. This one guy named Lewis Haggins said that my story was really amazing, and he had a friend who could put it on the radio. Lou was an interesting guy, but when you meet people in the homeless environment, you know that a lot of them are full of shit. I wasn't sure if Lewis was serious about his connections, but he was certainly well informed. He kept giving me all this literature from various activist groups that exposed the corruption in the shelter system. There was one report that showed that it cost $2,000 a month for each bed. At that point there were eight hundred and fifty men in Bellevue, so the cost was enormous. I read another report that said HUD had given the city of New York sixty million dollars for housing. The people on the street were feeling none of that money.
          That week Paris Drake hit a woman on the head with a brick in midtown. A story was going around that he was homeless, and that caused Giuliani to really start cracking down on black homeless males. The front page of the Daily News read, "Get Those Violent Crazies Off The Streets." It basically gave the police carte blanche. Cops were making predawn raids on the shelters arresting any potential warrants. Luckily mine were cleaned up. They were coming in and throwing people against the walls. That week they arrested 192 homeless people looking for the guy who did it. At that point I knew we were under attack.
          One night there was a particularly violent raid where they busted a guy's head open on the concrete. Lou and I started talking, and we decided that we wanted to do something about it. That morning we walked all the way downtown to the WBAI station to talk to Lou's friend, Earl Maitland, the producer of Wake Up Call. Earl agreed to put us on the air for five minutes. I was nervous, and I had a lot of frustration to vent. I talked about the vicious cycle of detoxes, jails, and ending up back on the street, and the reasons why the shelter system wasn't working. I raised the issue about the cost of shelter beds when you could provide private housing for far less money. Before you know it, we were on the radio for twenty minutes. I talked real, and I got my message across without cursing. (laughs)
Pretty soon our activism had become a pain in the ass for Bellevue. We were putting up fliers, and we started going on the radio every other week. We established a show on Night Drum to talk about homeless issues. After a few weeks Bellevue started putting transfer papers on Lou and my beds. They wanted to transfer me to camp La Guardia, which is ninety miles outside of the city. I refused to go, and I went back to the street. I didn't want to get caught up in the bullshit of midtown, so I stayed beneath the scaffolds in Soho.
           Lou and I were tired of being told to shut up and go away, so we decided to found Picture the Homeless. Our vision was to create an organization made up of homeless people that would change public perceptions of the homeless and fight to correct the injustices in public policy. Lou found a meeting space for us at Charas Community Center in Alphabet City, and Chino Garcia and Lynn Lewis helped us organize a protest against the shelter system for moving people upstate. We went to a couple churches on the East Side to see if we could use their steps. They kept on telling us no. I was furious. Then we talked to Peter Lorimer, the pastor at Judson Church. He agreed to let us set up a twenty-four hour vigil.
          We handed out a lot of fliers, and we talked to some people in the media. Some people bought us food, but we refused to accept money, because we were just out there to spread our message. After the vigil, we stayed in touch with Peter, and he offered to let us use some office space in the basement of the church.
          We've been having meetings at Judson Church for two years now, and we've definitely seen a big turnout. We give everybody a chance to share their experiences and talk about the ways that the system could be improved. If somebody has a particular issue that they're interested in, we'll form a committee to specialize in that area.
          It's therapeutic for homeless people to share their experiences with people who can relate, but Picture the Homeless is about more than just talking amongst ourselves. The purpose of our meetings is to prepare our members to share their experiences in other forums. Our members have been to National Organizers Alliance in San Francisco, Students Against Hunger and Poverty in Washington, Lawyers Alliance in New York, NASNA Street News Conference in Canada, The Cry of the Excluded Urban Inhabitants in Mexico City, SAMSA Conference in Washington, D.C., and a bunch of other smaller-scale gatherings.
           These are all meetings that focus on the issue of homelessness, but it's a bit disheartening to see that actual homeless people aren't represented. It's our goal to change that. If we're not there to provide our input, they remain ignorant to the reality of what's on the street.
          The City of New York isn't going to know how to best spend that HUD money unless they get input from people who've actually been homeless. We went to that hearing and gave testimony, and they ended up giving me a seat on the committee that will determine where that money will go. They have to show us respect, because they know that we're going to be a consistent presence.
          People are usually a little bit shaken up when we bring a group of homeless people into these meetings. They always double-check my credentials to make sure that we're allowed to be there. It sucks. Sometimes we've had to resort to going in through the back door.
          I guess the most extreme action that we've taken was when we invaded the Rethinking the Homeless Conference at the Marriott Marquee on 42nd Street. Gary Delgado, a fellow activist, was supposed to speak at the conference, but he was in San Francisco at the time. He was angry because they were going to give the Manhattan Institute an award for it's innovative tactics in dealing with the homeless.
          The Manhattan Institute is basically a Republican think tank that set the policies for the Giuliani administration. They believed strongly in the theory of the bell curve. That's where if police officers start cracking down on minor offences in a particular neighborhood, the big crime will go down too. The implementation of this idea basically gave cops open season on harassing homeless people.
          Gary inspired me to come up with a plan to voice our outrage. On the night of the conference, I walked into the Marriott as Gary Delgado. Before they opened up the ballroom, I did a workshop. When we were escorted into the ballroom, I stood up and said, "The Manhattan Institute is anti-poor! Their policies have been a detriment to homeless people throughout New York City! If you all sit here, you deserve to be shot!" I was a little rough with that last sentence, but some of the people walked out after me.
          One other action that we organized was to videotape a family of six people getting evicted from their building in Harlem. When the police broke the door down, they took me away in handcuffs.
           Picture the Homeless has continued to grow over the past two years. There have been times that we've struggled, but the adversity that we've faced has only caused us to pull together. Right now we're still dealing with a mayor who supports policies that are an absolute outrage to human decency. He can get away with it if we don't fight back. There are a lot of basic civil rights that are being denied to people just because they don't have a roof over their head. I was walking through Washington Square the other day, and the police were trying to wake up this homeless woman who was sleeping on the grass when there were like twenty sun bathers all around her doing the same thing.
          We definitely have our work cut out for us. Right now we're trying to get some funding to move our operation uptown. We'll be a lot closer to shelters, so it will be easier to get more homeless people involved. Basically the sky's the limit. It is my hope that our organization will help pave the ground for a national movement of homeless people.
 
 

Gene Rice and Warren Prince

Picture the Homeless Speakers

Warren Prince

born Boston, Massachusetts 1943

          Warren Prince enters each meeting with a giga ntic bag of empty cans. During the discussions, he is articulate without dominating the conversation, and he often serves as a mediator between members who express diverging opinions. Prince is eager to volunteer for an interview. Together we walk to Washington Square Park where he weaves together the strands of his experience with contagious enthusiasm.

           My mother died when I was six months old. I think she was an addict herself, but I never really knew. After that I was adopted by a great aunt who was a very stern woman. She was an alcoholic, so I was abused constantly. Hence I got a very bad temper. I got tired of being beat for everything, and soon as I got to be fourteen years old, I ran away from home. I never went back. Since then I've been on my own.

          I could have gone to a reform school, but I didn't want that. I slept on the streets a few nights, and then I found this space in the back of an abandoned house in the ghetto part of Boston. Sometimes I used to wait until my aunt left for work, and then I'd sneak back into my house and get food.

           I got lucky. One day I went to a friend of mine's house, and there was a guy there playing cards by the name of Paige Webster. He saw that I was dirty, and he asked me if I wanted to do some work around his house. I was a hard worker, and he knew when I cleaned his place, I wouldn't go looking for no money. We started talking, and he told me that when he was my age, he quit school, and he started pimping and whatnot.

          Even though Mr. Webster was a pimp, he was a very intelligent man. He didn't have any kids of his own, so he kind of took it upon himself to educate me to the ways of the world. After a while he more or less adopted me. In exchange for cleaning up his house and doing jobs in the neighborhood, I got to live in one of his apartments. Mr. Webster hadn't graduated from school, so he wanted to provide me with that opportunity. I enrolled in high school, and Mr. Webster had rules about what I could do and what time I had to be home. He wouldn't let me get involved in his business endeavors, so I didn't get exposed to the drinking and drugs. He was firm, but he was fair. He taught me how to make something out of myself.

           Before I could graduate, Mr. Webster went to jail for selling heroin. When that happened, everything was gone again. By that time I had gotten used to wearing decent clothes and feeling like something, so I decided to go straight into the Marine Corps.

           The Marines was one of the greatest things that ever happened to me. It teaches you structure and discipline and most importantly, mental toughness. I learned to not let things get to me. It also taught a sense of camaraderie. When people are counting on me, I don't let them down. Even though what drugs did to me, I always had that disciplined mindset somewhere inside the back of my head.

           I went to basic training in Paris Island, South Carolina, and in 1959 I got stationed in Navy Yard, Brooklyn as part of the Military Police. That's where I met my first wife. She was a schoolgirl who used to wait for the bus on the corner by my post. We started walking, talking, one thing led to the other. She got pregnantI got married. After we had our first son, we had another son, and then a daughter.

           In the early sixties I was transferred to Virginia. It was kind of rough, because I was away from my wife and my children. Our battalion was ninety percent black. When Martin Luther King was going to speak at the first March on Washington, they wanted to send us there as security in case there were riots. We just flat out refused to go. It would have been bad publicity if they kicked us all out of the service, so the brass just restricted us on the base.

           After a while it got to be hard being away from my family, so I decided I didn't want to stay in the Marine Corps. I got out right before Vietnam got heavy, so I don't have any combat experience. Thank God. Getting out of was rough. I came out of the Marine Corps with four years service, my GED, and an honorable discharge. The only job I could get was working as a dishwasher at the World's Fair in Queens! A dishwasher! That's what it was like to be black at that time. I was disgusted.

          After I quit that job, I went down to unemployment, and they had a big sign up for the social service test. I scored highly, so I was able to find a job working as a hospital aide. After a few years of that, I was hired by the Board of Education as a school security officer. I didn't like that much. My next job was working at the Fineson Institute for the Developmentally Disabled. I liked the job, but there were a lot of kids who died after you became attached to them. In '74 I decided that I needed to make some more money, so I started driving a bus for the MTA.

           Driving buses is a seniority-based system. The guy who gets the worst job is the one with the least time. When I first started driving, I always got the routes going through the ghetto. The Q5 in Queens was the worst. The kids would get on through the back door and raise hell. People would spit at you. I used to have to carry a crowbar on Friday night, because all the guys would be drunk looking for a fight. One time I had a guy get on with a Samurai sword.

          In addition to the stress at my job, I also had a lot of turbulence in my personal life. In 1979 I got another woman pregnant, and my first marriage fell apart. It was a real stressful time for me. That's when I started turning more to drugs to help me relax on the weekends.

           When I first tried cocaine, it was basically a social thing for parties or going out and watching a game. Back in the sixties, cocaine was still illegal, but it wasn't the demon that it became in later years.

           Prince's cousin Gene, who also attends the PTH meetings, is quietly observing our interview. At this juncture, he decides to provide some input.

Gene: See, the federal legislation that formed the framework for the state policies at that time was called the Harrison Narcotics Act. The only drugs that would put you in jail for serious time were opiates. In the seventies some Southern racist politicians in Washington got cocaine attached. They said that Caucasian women under the influence of cocaine released their innermost inhibitions and slept with black men, so we urge you fellow congressman to pass this law to save White Southern Womanhood. (laughs) Gene later tells me that he acquired this knowledge from a course at John Jay University.

Prince: See, cocaine was never a major issue in the black community until it became criminalized. Back in the old days, you'd go to a party and people used to leave lines out on the table, and it was no big deal. You'd go to the bathroom and come back, and every grain was there. Once it became criminalized, it was something to be protected. You only shared it with a few friends, and you got mad when they didn't reciprocate. People became stingy with it, and they horded it. That made the price go up. When the dealing became more lucrative, the dealers had to protect their turf, so that added a violent element. Around 1977 crack started showing up. Once crack hit the scene, it multiplied the problems of cocaine ten fold. Immediately it was all about money. When crack first came out, guys could go and get it so cheap, some of the dealers would even give you a little crack, just to get you started. That's how I got started. "Come on, we're going to a party. Here, take a hit."

          Crack is so potent that one hit can turn you into an addict. It's not a physical addiction. It's a mental addiction. When you take your first hit of crack it's like the first time you had sex. You don't want to let it go. You wanna stay there, but you can't. It's got speed in it, so it shoots it through your system. See, if you snort cocaine, you'll be high for hours. With crack, ten minutes after you finish that bag you're looking to buy another one.

Pretty soon, I was doing crack to the point where it really started to hurt my pocket. I used to get my paycheck on Friday, and on Monday I'd be down at the credit union trying to borrow some money. Eventually I started using it during the week, and that took me further down the spiral. It got to the point where my boss at Transit started to get wise. If he caught me I'd lose my pension. Rather than deal with that, I just decided to step down.

           After I quit my job, I stayed with a few friends here and there. At first there was always somebody who was willing to let me sleep on their floor, but after a while I ended up spending some nights on the subway or the street. I needed to find a way to maintain my habit, so I started picking up cans. I did all right. See, even though I was being totally controlled by my addiction, I still had a sense of work ethic. Since I didn't have to worry about paying rent, I put everything I earned toward getting the drugs.

           Eventually I ended up having to check into the Atlantic Avenue Men's Shelter. That place was like a prison. I couldn't deal with having to be in at ten o'clock every night, so I decided to go back out on the street.

           One night I was in East New York, Brooklyn, and there was a guy who was letting people sleep inside of cars for three dollars a night. I saw that there was this little abandoned shack across Snyders Street, and I asked him about it. He said that I could stay there for six dollars a night. It needed a little bit of fixing up, but all and all it wasn't bad.

           When I went out to collect my cans, I started picking up materials, and little by little I made the place look all right. Each time I went out, I collected extension cords. When I finally had enough to reach the light pole, I opened up the box and plugged it in, then I buried the cords in the ground so nobody could see it. To get my water I'd take buckets to the fire hydrant. If I wanted to take a bath, I'd heat the water up on a hot plate and pour it into an old bathtub. When the wintertime came, I found an electric heater. Girls loved coming back to my place.

           Now, around here in the West Village, the rich people are always throwing good stuff out. One day I was walking down 8th Street with my shopping cart picking up cans, and this girl just asked me if I wanted her TV. I brought it back and plugged it in. A couple months later, I was watching the news one night, and there was a story about this lady who got shot up on 141st Street. It was my aunt.

          When our first session comes to a close, Prince formally introduces me to his cousin Gene, his constant companion for the twelve years that he was without a home. Prince is quick to assert his deep sense of kinship:

          This is my right hand man. During those years, there were times when my life depended on Gene. Not everybody has relationships that are as deep as that.

 Gene Rice

Anderson, South Carolina 1939

          My real father died when I was eighteen months old. When I was three, my mother got remarried to a guy who went overseas to Germany. During the war, we moved up to Harlem so my mother could get a better job in a defense plant and so I could get a better education.

           After the war housing stock was hard to find, so I was sent back to South Carolina to live with my grandmother until my parents could find housing in New York that would accept a kid. After eighteen months, they found a place on West 140th Street.

          My Southern background made it kind of traumatic for me to come back to New York. I was the only kid on the block who wore knickers and Buster Brown shoes. At school I said yes ma'm and no ma'm to the teachers. All the urban kids would make fun of me for that, but after a while I learned to assimilate.

Back then, Harlem was a tight community. There were a lot of relocated Southern blacks, and they brought the small community spirit with them. If one parent saw another kid doing something wrong, he'd tell the parents about it, and the kid would get what he had coming. Today, the kids don't respect their own parents. With all the gains we've made in civil rights, we've regressed in the way we deal with our own issues in our own communities. 

           As I started getting older, I started getting sucked into the street culture of the time. When I started hanging out with street gangs, my mother decided to send me back to South Carolina. I didn't like the segregation down there and the lack of job opportunities, so I decided to join the Army. I was only sixteen at the time, so I saved up some money from my job at a grocery store and paid these guys to go down to the recruitment office and swear that I was born a year earlier. That was good enough for the recruitment officer, because he was more interested in quotas than accuracy. I went into the Army the day before Thanksgiving in 1955. I got my GED from passing a test given through USAFI (United States Armed Forces Institute).

          The Army was a tough transition for an urban kid like me. I didn't really adjust well to somebody telling me what to do at all hours of the day. It was also only a few years since the Army had been desegregated, so you had a lot of COs calling you nigger. It was always the black guys who got picked for the hardest duties.

           One of my hustles to get extra cash was to spit shine the other guys' shoes so that they could pass inspection. One night, we were getting ready to go on weekend pass, and there was a white guy in my company who demanded that I shine his shoes. Me and my friend Earl were just on our way out the door, and we had dates lined up. As we were leaving, the guy called me a racist name, and Earl took issue with that. Next thing you know, the pistol went off, and the guy died. I didn't see nothing.

 The investigating officers determined that I must have seen something. When I refused to testify, they put me in the stockade as a material witness. My mother came all the way down from New York to tell them that I wasn't of age, so I could get out on what they called a minority discharge. Instead, when my mother went back, they sent me to the disciplinary barracks in Fort Gordon, Georgia. I did a year in there, and I came out with a dishonorable discharge.

           That made it real hard for me to get a job when I got out. The only place that would hire me was a company that manufactured staple machines on Junior Street in Brooklyn. After two years, my foreman found out that I was dating an Italian girl that worked upstairs. I got fired, because I was "conducting myself contrary to the company's best interest." When I got terminated, the girl became a prostitute. I became a pimp.

          What was it like being a pimp?

          It was enlightening in a way, but it was also degrading, enlightening in the sense that I got a taste for what life was about in the streets. I learned survival. It was just me and my girls against the world. But I also found out that it's not a good feeling in your soul to exploit another person. At the end of my pimp experience, I got in an altercation with another gentleman, and I shot him on Atlantic and Fourth, Palm Sunday, 1963.

 When I went to Attica, God blessed me to be taken in by a lot of older guys who had reformed their habits. It was like the brotherhood that people have on the street, but on the inside. They said that if I wanted to make it through my sentence, I would have to be kind of righteous. They had like a creed. When I was getting ready to get out, I said that I was going to get my girls together and start pimping again. They laid it on me with the morality and talked me out of doing that. It's hard to believe, but I got reformed from pimping in Attica State Prison, while I was no name, prisoner 25024. I made it out just before the riots.

          My prospects for getting a decent job were zero. I had a dishonorable discharge, and I was on parole. It didn't make sense for me to work a minimum-wage job, because I know I'm worth more than a few dollars an hour. Another thing that I had to take into account was two daughters that I had fathered through an extramarital situation. My mother and my stepfather were raising them, so I needed to be providing financial support. Eventually I met a guy who offered me a pretty substantial amount of cash to transport cocaine from New York City to Connecticut.

           A lot of people have this image of drug dealers as high school dropouts with no intelligence. They don't realize that the qualities you need are almost the same thing as being a commodities broker. You have to understand your market. For example, say one of the key guys in town hit on the number racquet and bought a lot of product. That was the time to stock up on your product, because you knew that he was going to try to get rid of it real quick. After that you'd want to lay low so that you don't flood the market. Then, when he runs out, you'd introduce your product.

           It was all about developing good business relationships. The more you do business with the same people, the more they get to rely on your patronage, so you get a discount. I was originally from New York, so it was real easy for me to go into the city and make things happen. My old neighborhood was Latino, Italian and Black. The Italians that I knew would back me financially, and the Latinos I knew had the commodity. It all came down to the question of trust, and the credo that my cousin and I still live by today: Pay your debts.

           The police tried to pick me up a few times, but I had a good lawyer, Jerome Rosenblum, a Jewish kid. He represented me a few times, and we developed a pretty tight relationship. He lived in rich Westport, Connecticut in a nice house, but every Sunday he used to come down to where I lived in Stamford, Connecticut, the ghetto, to play handball. He was always telling me that I needed to stop hustling and do something productive.

Eventually the police started getting wise to me, and they put me under surveillance. One day they saw me going to this park to walk my dog, and they thought I was making a drop. I had a substantial amount of money with me, so I had my pistol. When the cops came, I restrained my dog and called up a friend of mine to take him away. Then they locked me up for the gun. I did eight months in Bridgeport Correctional Center waiting for my case to be processed.

           It was good that I didn't have any drugs on me, but I knew I couldn't beat the gun rap. Jerome went to bat for me to get the judge to make a stipulation. I pled guilty under the condition that the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation would fund me as a part-time student at Bridgeport College. Other prisoners had received work releases before, but I was the first in the State of Connecticut to receive a student release. I took a little bit of junk for that from the other inmates, but I knew I was lucky to get it. For my whole life I knew that I had the intelligence to make something of myself, but I never got the right break. Now I was getting a chance to prove it.

           When you're dedicated to something that much, you can't help but succeed. I sailed through nine credits at Bridgeport College, then DVR gave me funding to go to Norwalk College. I hit the dean's list. When my prison term was over, the Friends of Norwalk College sponsored me to pursue a bachelor's degree in public administration with a minor in criminal justice administration at John Jay University in New York City. The scholarship would only pay for part of my tuition, but I could borrow some money through the federal government, and I had an aunt in Harlem who said that as long as I could keep my grades up, I could stay with her.

           Aunt Willie Brown, 108 West 141st Street, apartment 52. Aunt Brownie was my real father's sister. She never had any kids, and because my father died so young, I was her boy. She had a beautiful personality. She was a good cook, and she had our family work ethic. She brought Southern hospitality to that block.

           Brownie was like a legend in the neighborhood. She knew The Cadillacs when they were singing on the street before they made it. They used to come to Maxwell's Bar and Brownie would ask them if they were hungry.  They'd say, "Miss Brown, we don't have any money." She'd say, "I didn't ask you about your pocket, I asked about your stomachs, sit down and eat!" Everybody thought that she was their motherI used to get jealous, because I was saying, this is mine.

          I went to John Jay for three semesters and I was doing well. As long as kept my GPA up, I could continue to borrow money to cover my scholastic expenses for a certain period of time. When Regan came in, he cut back on that time period, and I was one of the ones who got caught. I had more credits than what were required for an associate's degree, but I was nine credits short of a bachelor's degree. After I dropped out, I got a job as a tail man riding on the back of a newspaper truck for Metropolitan News in Long Island City.

           Now a few years before I moved into Aunt Brownie's house, her best friend had died, and she was taking care of her daughter. The daughter inherited eighty thousand dollars, and my aunt was the overseer. This girl started getting heavy into crack cocaine, and she started asking my aunt to give her money from the inheritance. When my aunt wouldn't do it, she shot her dead.

 Prince and Gene

Prince: There wasn't nobody in the entire block that didn't know Aunt Brownie, nobody that didn't like her. She was an angel. That's why when it happened, people couldn't understand it.

 Gene: You could go to 141st today and ask the old folks if they knew Brownie, and they'd sit down and talk to you.

 Prince: I had been so close with Brownie that I knew I had to go. I felt a little bit anxious, because most of my relatives knew how my life was going at the time. The reception that I got was a bit cold. See, we come from a very respectable black family. Anybody who stepped out on their responsibilities was kind of looked down on. I've been clean now for four years, and I'm only just recently overcoming that.

          I always knew that I had a cousin named Gene from looking at the family Bible, but that was the first time we met. Automatically we connected. We both had some problems, but we shared the common values of our upbringing. We had a family bond, but more importantly, my intuition told me that I could trust this man. At that point in my life, I had lost touch with a lot of the people who were close to me, and it was good to be able to have that sense of brotherhood. We got talking, and Gene decided to let me move into his aunt's old apartment with him.

Gene: In the wake of my aunt's death, one of the biggest things that I wanted to know was how this drug, crack, could make this girl turn around and kill. I guess I started smoking rock with Prince, because I wanted to find that out. The more I smoked, I found out that it wasn't a chemical reaction. It was something inside the girl that made her do it. But by the time I had that realization it was too late.

           I got a notice from the Department of Housing to come down to the courthouse, because we hadn't paid our rent. When I got up that morning to go to court, instead of being concerned about my apartment, I wanted another hit. Then it hit me, "Oh shit, I'm a crackhead."

Prince: That's exactly how the drug hits you. You wake up one morning and realize you can't go anywhere until you get that first hit. You wake up and you're like frozen. When you're doing crack, there's nothing else that matters. The crack comes first. You're not worried about paying no rent. When they put us out, Gene and I moved into SROs (single room occupancy) at the Glenwood Hotel off Marcy Avenue in Brooklyn.

 Gene: It cost eight dollars a night. Your bed is a square not much bigger than this bench covered in chicken wire. We walked up to our rooms, and we saw people beating each other upside the head. They had prostitutes walking right through the hallways. We walked by one room, and there was a guy laying there with his door wide open with a spike still in his arm.

 Prince: It was like OK Corral. (laughs) When I first got there, I didn't even want to go to the bathroom alone. I said, we better get ice picks, because we're gonna need 'em.

          That first night, we brought our own stuff (crack) with us, but as time passed, we found out that this whole hotel was full of crack heads. The people who ran it weren't ignorant to the financial opportunities of that situation, so they were the ones who were cashing in. There were dealers all over the place. I don't know if I should say this, but

Gene: Go ahead. He was busted for it anyway.

 Prince: The guy at the front desk was dealing the drugs. You gave him your money for the room, and you gave him extra money for the drugs. Five minutes later, he'd come knock on your door and there it was. They had permanent girls who lived in the hotel that just went around getting money for sex. The place was wild. Every night when you laid down, you didn't know if you were going to get up or not.

Gene: One of our so-called friends ended up being a murderer. He strangled eight girls in Williamsburg a few years ago. He was in all the papers. He came into my room one night and asked me if I had some rope. I didn't know he was going out to strangle some girl.

 Prince: It was scary, but after we'd been living there for a while, we earned our respect. I had a guy who thought I had his girl in my room one day, so he went and got a baseball bat and was knocking at my door. I pulled out my razor and I said, "I'll whittle that baseball bat down till I cut your fucking throat!" He never messed with me after that.

           Once I settled into living in the SRO, I really started to make that little eight foot by four foot space my home. People would get desperate to get high, and they'd end up selling whole stereos for two hits. I got a TV with headphones. I got a VCR the same way. Basically, I didn't have to come out of my room. I even had a hot plate that I'd cook on.

           One night we were sitting there looking at the VCR and Gene was tired from picking up cans, so he decided to go back to his room. I took a hit, and I put on the headphones. All the sudden I hear this crackling noise coming from behind the door. Now I didn't want to be bothered with what was going on outside, but the noise wouldn't stop. When I opened the door, I grabbed the hammer that I kept hanging by my bed and I opened the door.

          All the sudden I heard the guys down the hall yelling, "Fuego! Fuego!" I said shit! That's fire. Some junkie was cooking up his stuff and he left the flame burning. The whole place was nothing but a tinderboxflames coming everywhere. I ran down to Gene's room, and I'm knocking on this fool's door. You know what he's saying? "Leave me alone I wanna sleep." I said, "You'll sleep forever, you fool! There's a fire out there!"  Gene wanted to get the VCR.  I said to hell with it, I'm saving my life. 

Gene: The next day we came back into that place, and it was like a swamp. Firemen had doused everything right through. It took two days so there wasn't an inch of water on the floor. We had to get new mattresses and everything. But after a week or so it was back to the same old story.

          How did you guys get the money to support your habits?

Prince: Here's something that a lot of people don't understand. Even though we were crack addicts, we still had work ethic. We worked the worst jobs. This one guy, Jewish guy, would go to the hotel and offer you five dollars an hour to do the hardest work you could find. He knew that he was dealing with crackheads, and they would do anything to get some money. A lot of people still hustle day labor at the Atlantic Avenue Shelter.

But me and Gene didn't work much day labor, because we knew we could do better working for ourselves picking up cans. Three days a week we would wake up at four thirty and take the train to West 4th Street and start picking up cans in front of NYU. No matter how cold it was, we were out here Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. People called me Can Man.

           Was there an agreement with other canners about the territories and times?

Gene: Yeah, the agreement was, you come over here, you get your ass whipped. (laughs)

Prince: We didn't let anybody move in on our turf. You've got to understand that if you're going to be successful picking up cans, you need good relationships with the people on the block. You get to know what time the supers are taking out the garbage from the buildings, and you help them carry it out to the street. You get to know the police officers who patrol the block, and you make sure that you show them respect and clean up after yourself. The police always respected the fact that we were the ones working for the cans every day. They saw us out there in the wintertime hustling. Now when the summertime came, you'd have all sorts of other groups moving in. The police kind of looked away when we had to fight to protect that right.

One time I was helping one of the custodians take the garbage out of the NYU dorms, and when I came back this guy was sitting there stealing my cans. He was a big guy, and he thought he could bully me. I said, "No, man! I carved this out for myself!" He said, "Little mothafucka, I'll whip yo' ass." Like I said, I carry a straight razor all the time. I jumped up in his face so fast that he just ran screaming down the block to the cops. The cops didn't do nothing, because they knew that this block belonged to me and Gene.  

           How much money were you guys able to make?

Prince: Two hundred dollars a day. I know what you're thinking, but there was a little trick to it. Should we tell him?

Gene: Yeah, we ain't doing it no more.

Prince: We used to cheat the machine at Pathmark. We'd take a UPC code and stick it inside and pull it back and forth. We'd take eighty dollars worth of cans and turn it into two hundred dollars. Then sometimes we'd take the same eighty dollars worth of cans and carry them home. All we'd have to do was sneak around the back. Sometimes we'd change the color of the bag. We were creative. A drug addict is always very creative.

 Gene: I was the lookout. I would stand at the door, and if I took my hat off it meant a manager was coming. If he saw my bald head, he'd stop running the UPC and start running regular cans.

 Prince: We did this seven days a week. Sometimes we'd slip the cashiers five or ten dollars so we could cash the tickets in. There was one security guard who we paid off with porno tapes. (laughs) We corrupted the entire store. We did it for five years before there were ever any problems. Nobody even knew we were doing it. They just thought that we went out and hustled cans like hell.

Gene: Now, being that Prince and I each had one hundred dollars or so of disposable income everyday, that kinda elevated our status at the SRO. Everybody knew us. We'd buy a whole cellophane bag full of crack vials for two hundred dollars. We were doing fifty vials everyday from eight at night to three in the morning.

 Prince: Minus what we gave to the girls.

Gene: We got so good at our can hustle that it got to the point where we used to take days off. Then we'd go down to the dealer and ask him if he'd front us for the day.

Prince: That was unheard of for a crack dealer to work on credit. It was five dollars a vial, and they'd advance us twenty vials. See, we were very well known. Back in that time, gangs sold all the crack. Since we were some of their best customers, they all looked out for us and made sure that nothing happened. They called us grandpa. "That's my grandpa, don't mess with him." It was like we were royalty. We were raggedy, stinky, but in that circle we were royalty.

          The prostitutes in the neighborhood knew us. When we came home between eight and nine o'clock, they'd be standing by the door, saying, "Pops, can I go with you today?" "Yeah, come on, what the hell."two or three girls at a time. We thought we lived like kings. The drug scene was fun then. I won't tell no lie. At least on a superficial level, we were enjoying ourselves. In the early years of my addiction, I felt like I had a good thing going on. 

 Gene: The first two years were like that, but deep down inside, you knew that you were messing up. The life you were living wasn't real. You were there, but you weren't there. You could chase that feeling away, but even if you didn't feel that sense of emptiness in yourself, you couldn't help but see it in the people around you. The women showed it the most. When girls first came out, they were still still young and supple, but after one year, they were all wrinkled and used up.

Prince: They go from a plum to a prune.

 Gene: We've known six or seven prostitutes that died of AIDS. It would come out as a rumor, but ninety percent of the time, the rumor is based on facts. The Health Department would get them, and then someone would leak it out. One of your friends would see you with her and say, "Yo man, not her. She's burning."

          But the girls were so creative that they would capitalize on the guys' fear of catching HIV. A lot of times a girl would proposition you, and then after she got your money and smoked all her rock, she'd tell you she's got AIDS. You don't know if it's the truth or bullshit, but would you take the chance?

Prince: One time, a girl came up to me and she said, Prince, "I know you got money." She was shaking. "I got to have a hit, but I can't do it, I got AIDS." Just for that, I gave her ten dollars so she could get high. After that, she'd tell on all the other girls that she went to meetings at the clinic with.

Gene:  When a girl tested positive, she couldn't sell herself no more, so a lot of them started stealing.

Prince: I saw this one girl getting beat down by five guys once for taking a TV. I felt so bad for her. We can break your heart a hundred times with stories of what we've seen people do when they're addicted to crack.

Gene: Like I knew a young kid named GG who was growing up on my aunt's block in Harlem. He was intelligent in a normal state, but then he got involved in crack, first as a user, and then as a dealer. One night he got busted dealing on the stoop two doors from us. After he got out, he sat on the same stoop doing the same thing. We came home from work one night, and guess what happened. The same cop got him on the same stoop. He swallowed a half-ounce of rock, and his heart stopped. He was dead before they got him in the car. That's how far the drug will take you from reality. When you're high, you don't care.

Prince: There were kids on my block who I used to give nickels to to go to the candy store, and by the time they were fifteen years old, they were carrying nine millimeters as a backup for the dealers, saying, "Yo pop! Keep moving!"

 Gene: I watched girls that my aunt used to baby-sit, coming up to us after we came back from work saying, "You wanna go with me, pop?" I've seen pregnant women smoking it when they're going into labor. There's no end to it.

Prince: Around the mid nineties, things started breaking down. By that time, crack started to become a real problem not only in the black community but also for white people. Police started busting people. A lot of shipments would get confiscated, so that made the supply a lot more scarce. After that, two things happened. The price went up, and the quality went down.

 Gene: We were spending twice the amount of money and only having half of the fun. Before we used to share with the people in the SRO, but by that point it got too expensive. That created a lot of tensions.

Prince: To make things worse, other people started finding out how we were scamming the store with the cans, and they started trying to do it themselves. After that, the stores started cracking down, and we couldn't run that hustle anymore.

 I had one night where I got robbed at gunpoint. By the late nineties, I was getting to the point where I started to reevaluate my situation. I started to see what I had become.

          I think the lowest point for me was when I saw my son on the E train one day. It was about 5:30, and I was on my way down here with my bags looking to get some cans. He looked at me, and he said, "Dad, you need anything?"

           I said, "I'm fine, I'm cool." Denying it, but I was hurting like hell. I was looking like a bum. Just to see the look in my son's eyes tore me apart. He looked at me and reached in his pocket and gave me twenty dollars and told me to go do something for myself. I wanted to turn it down, but I just couldn't. That hurt. I was also running into people that were telling me about my daughter. She was getting ready to graduate from high school, and I wanted to see it. I never did.

           After a while, it got to the point where I started feeling sick. I didn't want to get high anymore, but I still needed to. I decided that I was going to limit myself to four vials a day. For the first time in all those years, I started praying to God to help me find a way out of this.

 Gene: Be careful what you pray for, because you just might get it. (laughs)

Prince: January 25th, 1999, I was sitting in the SRO at like eight o'clock. I had already done my four vials, but I decided that I wanted to get just one more. I stepped out onto the street, and there was a girl who asked me to go score for her. She said if I could get her a vial she'd give me a hit. Normally we had a rule not to do that kind of thing for strangers, but I was desperate. When I came back with the crack, cops came out of nowhere and arrested me. They got me for possession and sale, but they couldn't find the marked money.

          They took me in and booked me. I was facing three to five. It blew my mind. It was funny, because out of all the things I'd done, I got busted for a single vial of crack. I stayed in that cell for three days, and I prayed to God. I said, God if you can get me any way out of this, whatever you tell me to do, I'm going to do it.

           On the third day, the lawyer came to me and told me that I had a chance of getting into a rehabilitation program instead of jail. I could have fought the case on account of them not being able to find the marked money, but I still would have been locked up for a year. I knew the first damn thing I'd do when I hit the street would be to get high. I decided to accept the plea bargain. At the hearing, Judge Jo Anne Ferdinand (I love her to death)* offered me the chance to attend Bedford Stuyvesant Alcohol and Drug Treatment Program on an outpatient basis. If I could stay clean, I wouldn't have to go to jail. Hearing that was like a thousand pounds lifted from my shoulders.

          Gene went to the hearing with me, and when we got on the train home, we had a talk. I said what we're gonna do is, we're gonna get some money, and we're gonna get high as hell, then tomorrow, that's it. That night I smoked crack for the last time in my life. From there I started going to the program. There were a lot of people there who were only half stepping about it, because they didn't wanna go to jail. But not me, I was ready, and I was looking to make it.

          Every morning they tested you with urine and breathalyzer. They also had you take classes. The first thing the program did was to teach you what the drug does, how it affects your body and your thinking. Then they tell you how you can turn yourself around. You go through this for six months.

           Now, being that this was an outpatient program, I still had to go home at night to the same SRO that I had been living in for the past ten years. I used to go to sleep at night shaking, because I could hear people lighting up rocks in the next room. I felt like I was going to lose my mind. I knew I had to have Gene behind me on this, or I wasn't going to make it.

 Gene: We had been drinking and drugging every day for twelve years. Right after Prince got back from the program, he told me, "You either give up the crack, or you give up our relationship. If you're going to continue to smoke crack, close as we are, you're going to cause me to fall back, and much as I love you, you've got to make a decision. I love you to death, but I'm not going to jail for you."

          My first thought was, I'm a human being. I like crack. Why should I have to give up crack because he made a mistake? He knew that he shouldn't have been messing with no strangers. That was one of our rules. That's on him. For a few months after Prince got clean, I was still sneaking out and getting high.

 Prince: I always used to threaten to cut Gene out of my circle, but I never could do it. Gene knew he was messing up. I'd just say, "Come on man. See, I'm clean, and I know how it feels. Let me tell you it's a hell of a feeling. I know it's tough, but you're gonna like it."

Gene: One day I got on the train, and I was riding out to my aunt's house in Queens where my welfare check would come. All I had in my mind was getting my check cashed and getting me some more crack and a girl. But then somewhere on that train ride, I started thinking about what Prince told me, and how much he meant to me. He was the only friend I had. Somewhere on that train ride I decided that the drug wasn't worth it. I switched trains at the next station and from that day on, I never looked back.

Prince: My experience with crack is that everybody says they're going to quit when they get broke. The test is to see if you can quit with money in your pocket. When I saw Gene do that I knew he was going to make it.

           I don't think I could have made it without him. If I didn't have Gene to talk to me and come take me for a walk when things got rough, I think I would have ended up smoking that rock. At that point we were fighting the battle together. It was me and him against the world.

 Gene: Nobody in the Glenwood thought we were going to make it. People were putting bets on when we were gonna relapsenot if we were gonna relapse, but when. I had told all of the dealers not to sell to me or Prince, even if we asked them, but people didn't want to see us succeed. Seeing us get clean made them more insecure about their own addictions.

 Prince: I'll tell you a story. One night, I was getting this feeling like I wanted to get high like I don't know what. I was in my room shaking, Gene was out canning and I was hoping he was gonna make it back soon. This girl knocks on my door, and she's got seventy-five vials. She says, "Prince, you wanna get high?"

 I'm, "No, hell no!"

          Then she says, "Can I just stay here and get high?"

           I said to myself, "If I can watch this girl get high, and not get high with her, I can beat this shit." I sat right next to her, and she started cracking it up. I watched the smoke go up, and I could almost taste it. I kept saying to myself, "You've gotta fight it, you've gotta fight it." That was like a turning point. From then on, I knew there wasn't nothing to worry about anymore.

 Gene: When that girl left, she was so high that she left a vial of crack in Prince's room. Prince picked that vial up and put it in a champagne glass on his shelf. He told me that I better make sure that vial was still there every day.

 Prince: That was to remind me that I had to fight it each and every day. I had watched that girl do seventy-four vials, so that one little vial wasn't going to beat me. I kept that vial on that shelf for one year.

           How did you guys manage to overcome the psychological withdrawal?

Gene: We were always on our feet doing something. Every day we were out there hustling cans like hell. We had also begun to renew our relationship with our family, so we were able to spend a lot of nights eating and talking. My aunt seemed to be able to sense when I was fixing to relapse, and she'd invite me to stay at her place so I wouldn't have to go back to the SRO. After a few days, Prince would give me a call and tell me to get back to work. "Come on, you ain't got no money and you laying up on your aunt like that? You know we ain't about that freeloading shit."  (laughs) We kept busy.

Prince: At first our relatives were a little bit suspicious, but after I had been in the program for eight months, they knew that we were for real. I had renewed my relationship with my son, and he convinced his uncle to rent me a room in his apartment.

 Leaving the SRO was a great moment. I hadn't had that much space in years. Then there was the fact that there wasn't any noise. The first night I couldn't even sleep. There was nobody flicking lighters, nobody banging on the walls, nobody fighting. NowshitI'm so happy when I get in there it's sensual. Other than getting clean, that was the best thing that ever happened to me.

 When I first moved in, my uncle watched me like I was a criminal. Every time my key went into that door, he was checking me out. I can't really blame him, because he was watching to see if I was going to go back. After my graduation, he cut me some slack. Then about a year later, he invited me to a church function on New Year's Eve. That was a real turning point, because he had been a long time member, and he had credibility at stake.

           What made the Bedford Stuyvesant Program successful?

          Bed Stuy wasn't successful. I was successful. They've got some good people working there, and I don't want to take anything away from them, but a program isn't the reason why people get clean. You can have all the programs in the world, but if you're not ready to make that change inside yourself, it ain't gonna do no good. At the time that I got picked up I was TIRED. I was sick of fighting all day long to get enough money to get high, to get a place to stay, to get something to eatthen waking up broke every morning. I was sick of my family looking at me like a damn bum. I already had the motivation. Getting arrested forced me to make that change. Looking back on it, I think it was one of the best things that ever happened to me.

 It's true to an extent that the urine tests kept me from getting high, but what helped me out more than the program was Gene. That type of relationship is something that you can't get through the governmnent.

 Gene: After Prince moved out of the Glenwood, I stayed there for a few more months. It was hard without having Prince around. See, every day Prince went to the program. I didn't have a program. Prince was my program. In the winter of 2001 my aunt let me move into her apartment in Queens. Right now, between me and the street, I'm bouncing between her and Prince. I just became eligible for Section 8 Housing when I turned 62, and the people at Picture the Homeless helped me get in the paperwork, so I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

Prince: Since we've gotten clean, it's given us a chance to do all the things that we missed out on for twelve years. Now we do things that we never did, like now we go to movies and laugh and joke. In twelve years that we were together day and night, we never went to a movie. We'd always sit down when we were getting high and talk about going one of these days, but we'd never get to the movie, because we smoked up that money.

 The best thing has been getting to know my family again. In the twelve years that I was on the street, I never saw my grandkids. Now every Sunday I'm on the phone with them, or I go out and visit them. I had ostracized myself, but now I'm back in the loop.

 I'm far from being in the situation where I want to be at. I don't take any welfare money anymore, because I don't want nobody to own me like that. I'm paying $250 a month for rent, and I'm taking care of all of my expenses through picking up cans. It's a struggle. I might end up back on the street again, but I'll never be an addict. Actually, I don't think I'll ever end up out here again. I fight too hard.

 Gene: Sometimes when we're picking up cans we run into dealers. They assume that every canner is a crackhead, so they'll always walk up and say, "Hey pop, I got Red Top I got Thai Stick."*  We just laugh and push our money further in our pocket and keep on going.

Prince: Sometimes it's hard to be canning, because I'll see people I used to see when I was still getting high. It's hard to talk to them, because you know that some of them are never gonna change. Since I've gotten clean, I've had to totally change the circles that I choose to associate with.

           A big part of that change came about five months ago. I was walking around Washington Square with my bags of cans, and Anthony started talking to me about how Bloomberg wanted to cut the recycling program. Right away I liked his energy. Anthony invited me and Gene to the next Picture the Homeless meeting, and we've been going ever since. I'm hooked. I guess you could say I'm substituting one addiction for another.

           The best thing about the meetings is that I get a chance to share my experience with other people who have been in the same situation or who are in that situation right now. In a way it's like my chance to give something back. I'm living proof that you can pull yourself out of the streets. I may not be a millionaire, but I can't tell you how good it feels to see things start falling back into place. I'm reinforcing my new lifestyle.

Gene: At this point in my life it's important for me to keep busy. I can't allow myself the time to sit around and think about getting high. Three days a week I'm down here working on something. We're on the steering committee. We also do a lot of speaking engagements. Sometimes we've been to two or three places a week. It's usually local churches.

           Two weeks ago we were privileged to represent Picture the Homeless at a national forum in Washington, D.C. about the criminalization and dehumanization of the homeless. We were some of the only people there who had actually been homeless, so people listened to what we had to say.

 Prince: They had to open up the folding doors so we could get more chairs. People were sitting in the aisles. That was a good feeling. We had people coming up to us from all over the country shaking our hand. See that pin on my hat? The lady who gave me that was from Alaska.

           Sometimes our schedule gets rough, because it takes away a lot of time from our canning. Once in a while we have to miss meetings, because there's a game at Yankee Stadium and we can't miss out on the money from those cans. The last time we took a full day off from canning was two weeks ago. Picture the Homeless sent us to an all-day training seminar at Hunter College.

Prince: The reason why I keep coming back to Picture the Homeless is that I'm one of the people that call the shots. We're all experts, because we've been there. You can't ask for better people to run a homeless organization. When we talk about the civil rights violations or the corruption in government housing programs, people are going to listen, because we've been there and seen it with our own eyes.

 Gene: My cousin and I shatter the stereotype. The media gives the homeless a negative image to allow the city to perpetrate quality-of-life violations. A lot of people have this image of homeless people as being lazy. Even when we were homeless, we weren't lazy. We shatter that. We're like shock troops.

 I don't want to criticize anybody, but a lot of the people who work for these other nonprofit organizations come from wealthy families. They're heart is in the right place, but sometimes they don't have the presence to get the message across. They go kind of dry and say we need this, we need that. Prince and I tie in our personal experiences to explain to them why we need it.

 For example, I don't see why we couldn't have gotten public housing when we were getting ourselves straight. Prince and I were able to make it out of the Glenwood because we had a strong support mechanism in each other. Other people in that situation don't have that. 

 Prince: Another thing about this organization is that it's action oriented. We're busy interacting with the community on a personal level to get our message across. We're not just screaming and hollering. We're pushing our message at the powers that be with intelligence.

Gene: Now I don't want to name anyone in particular, but there's too many organizations that are what we call poverty pimps. They're taking money from the people, and they're not really doing anything. They're just trying to get their picture on the news, and they're not making any change.

          I remember two years ago I was working as a janitor at One Police Plaza as part of my WEP program.This community organization from uptown put together a protest for Anthony Biaz at city hall. I was cleaning up the command post when they called in for more backup. The people in the command center were laughing at the protestors saying that there was nothing to worry about, "All they're gonna do is walk around the building screaming and hollering, 'No Peace! No Justice!' Then when it's over, they're all gonna be paying the city a dollar fifty for a token."

          That night made me angry, but it also got me thinking. A real political action is about more than just repeating a slogan. It's something that forces the city to do something. Think about why the Montgomery Bus Boycott was successful. It was because it hit the city in their pockets. We need to put together actions like that. Instead of people walking around downtown hollering, maybe we could say, "Hey, all the minimum wage workers aren't going to work today."

 Prince: My last three years have been like a resurrection. Now I've got a place where I can lay my head, and I know I'm going to wake up tomorrow. I've got a whole closet full of clothes that I can pick from, and I can come and go as I please. My son has the key to my apartment. When Gene and I walk down the street, people know us from our speaking engagements. That makes us feel good.

           What do you see happening in your future?

Gene: Right now I'm really hoping that I get that Section 8. Once that goes through I'm going to try to apply to some colleges, because I'm only nine credits short of a bachelor's degree. In two weeks I have a job interview with the Department for the Aging, and I'm feeling pretty confident about that.

 Prince: I'm starting to get paid for doing civil rights abuse surveys for Picture the Homeless. I've also applied for my vendor's license. Other than that, I'm going to be continuing to go to speaking engagements. We'll go speak anywhere.

 Gene: Long as y'all pay for the Metrocards. (laughs)

Prince: If people would stop and talk, do you know how much we could teach people? We got so much to tell that you'd never be able to get it all down. And not only us, but you've got thousands of other people in this city. If you really want to know what's going on out here, you've got to stop talking about us, and start talking to us.  

           Prince and Gene leave to go watch the NBA finals with their family uptown. If you want to hear more about Prince's rehabilitation you can watch the documentary "Second Chance" released by A&E in 2000. If you want Prince and Gene to speak at your organization or school, you can contact them through picturethehomeless.org.

 

 

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