Home From Iraq, and Without a Home
By DAN BARRY
April 24, 2004
THIS is how Nicole Goodwin travels these days: with her 1-year-old daughter pressed to her chest in a Snugli, a heavy backpack strapped across her shoulders, and a baby stroller crammed with as many bags of clothes and diapers as it can hold. When you are a homeless young mother, these are the things you carry.
And tucked away somewhere are the documents attesting to Ms. Goodwin's recent honorable discharge from the United States Army, as well as Baghdad memories that are still fresh.
Two months ago, she returned to Bronx circumstances that were no less difficult than when she had left them three years earlier; no yellow ribbons greeted her. Now, every day, she soldiers on to find a residence where the rent is not covered by in-kind payments of late-night bus rides to shelters and early-morning rousting. All the while, she keeps in mind the acronym she learned in the Army: Leadership. L is for loyalty; D for duty; R for respect; S for selfless service; H for honor; P for personal courage. "And I is my favorite," she says. "It's integrity."
On Thursday morning, Ms. Goodwin wheeled her heavy-duty stroller into the Lower Manhattan office of the Coalition for the Homeless, a nonprofit organization that is trying to help her. For the last couple of nights it has put her and her nuzzling daughter, Shylah, up in a hotel.
"She needed a breather," said Mary Brosnahan Sullivan, its executive director.
Ms. Goodwin, 23, has perfect posture and a steady gaze. She graduated early from Morris High School in the Bronx, the alma mater of another soldier, Colin L. Powell ("They made sure we knew that," she says), then spent a couple of years attending college classes sporadically and quarreling with her mother.
One day in January 2001, she entered an Army recruiting station and signed up, giving little thought to the chance of war. "I needed to leave," she said. Life moved pretty quickly after that: basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C.; classes in supply support at Fort Lee, Va.; and then a flight to Germany, where she was attached to Company B of the 501st Forward Support Battalion at a post in Friedberg.
A relationship with another soldier ended after she became pregnant, and in early 2003 she flew to the California home of some friends from the military - the Bronx was not an option, she says - to give birth in March of that year. A few weeks later, she did the hardest thing she has ever had to do: she left Shylah with her California friends and returned to Germany to complete her service.
Four months after giving birth, Ms. Goodwin was sent to Iraq.
She served food rations at Baghdad International Airport for
Nicole Goodwin, a homeless Army veteran who served in Iraq, & her 1-year-old daughter, Shylah.
Ting-Li Wang/The New York Times
several weeks, then spent a few more weeks at the sports arena known as the Olympic Stadium, helping to supply soldiers with things like toilet paper and small armaments.
These are among her memories: "the mortar rounds, the gunfights, the car bombings."
After nearly four months in Iraq, Ms. Goodwin returned to Germany to finish the tail end of her three-year hitch. "I wanted to get back to my daughter," she said, "but I didn't want to leave Iraq."
Her Army career now over, Ms. Goodwin returned to California to pick up Shylah, who looked "amazingly different," and headed to the Bronx, where her mother, two sisters and a 4-year-old nephew were now living in the two-bedroom apartment in the Patterson housing project. "We were good for a week," she said of her relationship with her mother. "But after that. . . ."
Ms. Goodwin and her daughter moved in with a good friend's mother, and she began planning her next step in life, one that would provide more than the $250 a week she was receiving in unemployment benefits. But a heated argument abruptly ended the living arrangement, and late on April 6 - a little more than two months after being honorably discharged as a private, second class - a war veteran and her small child hit the darkened streets.
She pushed her stroller a few blocks to the Emergency Assistance Unit, the city's flawed point of entry for homeless families. She explained her situation to a staff member who, she says, yelled at her for not having the proper paperwork handy. "I killed her with kindness," she said. "I've been yelled at before by the best."
"I got that attitude from Iraq," Ms. Goodwin added. "If this isn't life and death, it's not that serious."
She filled out an application for transitional housing, and after a while a bus arrived to take the Goodwins and other families to a one-night shelter on Powers Avenue. She thinks it was about 4 a.m.; she knows that Shylah's eyes were wide open.
For the next several days, the Goodwins rode the city bus of homelessness - two nights more at the Powers Avenue shelter, and then several nights at the Skyway Hotel in southeastern Queens - while the city determined whether she was eligible for housing. Her life became a blur of riding late-night buses, maneuvering the subway system, filling out forms and comforting Shylah.
On April 17, the Department of Homeless Services denied housing to the Iraqi war veteran on the grounds that she could live with her mother. Beyond the overcrowding that such a return would create (four women and two small children in a two-bedroom apartment), she says that the decision ignored the untenable situation between mother and daughter.
Moving back was not an option, she said. Not an option.
MS. GOODWIN immediately reapplied, thus entering a limbo world known as fast track, in which families who have already been denied housing return within 48 hours to the Emergency Assistance Unit to apply again, and to wait, again, for that late-night bus to somewhere.
City officials say that under the fast-track process, the applications of the recently rejected are expedited to see whether any new information might make them eligible. But according to Ms. Goodwin, fast track seems designed to generate so much frustration that the applicant gives up and goes away.
Two days into her fast-track odyssey, Ms. Goodwin got a four-hour pass from the Emergency Assistance Unit - keeping her application active - and made her way to the Bronx Veterans Affairs Medical Center. The Department of Veterans Affairs does not have housing for homeless veterans, but it does have a comprehensive plan for homelessness that includes assistance with employment and counseling.
Jim Connell, a spokesman for the Bronx center, said staff members tried to find housing for the Goodwins. "They started calling alternative shelters, but a lot of them don't take women," he said. "One was full, another wouldn't take a child." He added: "They were not particularly successful."
Before the staff at the medical center could help Ms. Goodwin further, Mr. Connell said, she had to leave "because her pass was running out." But someone in Veterans Affairs managed to call her cellphone and refer her to the Coalition for the Homeless for legal help.
By last evening, officials in Veterans Affairs were vowing to make sure that Nicole Goodwin receives the assistance she needs, and Jim Anderson, a spokesman for Homeless Services, was delivering the official city explanation.
"It is a disgrace that soldiers experience instability as they return home and, sadly, hundreds of homeless vets today call municipal shelters their home," Mr. Anderson said. "That having been said, the facts support that this particular family has an alternative to shelter."
A war veteran wearing a backpack, pushing a stroller and carrying a baby stayed in another strange hotel room last night, mostly because the city of her birth does not know what to do with her. Welcome home.
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company
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