National News

New Baby Strains Family in City Shelter System

NEW YORK — Baby Antonio was born homeless.

Posted Updated

Nikita Stewart
, New York Times

NEW YORK — Baby Antonio was born homeless.

He arrived at 12:29 a.m. on a warm Thursday in August. He was purple and perfectly formed, weighing all of 5 pounds and 12 ounces. He stretched his tiny arms and legs into the air as hospital staff hovered over him to count 10 toes and 10 fingers. His skin turned from purple to a light brown, and he cried, knowing nothing about his world.

There is a picture of homelessness etched in public perception: a solitary, disheveled man, begging on a crowded sidewalk, holding a cardboard sign. But the largest single population in New York City’s shelter system is children under the age of 6.

Infants carry a disruptive power. Their births can drive entire families to homelessness or lengthen their stays in a shelter.

“Pop quiz. At what age are you most likely to be homeless?” asked Allyson Crawford, chief executive of Room to Grow, a nonprofit that helps poor parents with newborns. “The answer is 1.”

New York City has a list of official causes of homelessness, and high on the list are eviction, overcrowding, family discord and domestic violence. Look closely and pregnancy is often intertwined.

A woman becomes pregnant, and suddenly, the two-bedroom apartment she is sharing with her family becomes too small, advocates for the homeless say. Once burdened with a child, she falls behind on bills and rent. Family tensions rise. She argues with parents or with her partner. She may become a victim of domestic violence. Too often, she ends up moving into a shelter and so does her child.

Steven Banks, city commissioner of social services, said infants are often “the tipping point” for families on the verge of losing a permanent home. “The main driver of homelessness, irrespective of pregnancy, is the gap between rent and income,” he said. “However, the birth of a new child is a background factor.”

When Antonio was 1 week old, he was one of 11,234 children under age 6 living in a shelter system that has about 60,000 people. About 1,160 children were born into the shelter system in 2017, up from about 860 four years earlier.

“It’s absolutely staggering,” said Giselle Routhier, a policy director at the Coalition for the Homeless, which obtained the data from the city. “It shows the dire need for affordable housing.”

— Cramped Quarters and No Cash

In the Brooklyn shelter where Antonio lives, his family stays in what amounts to a studio apartment, with a small kitchen and bathroom and a set of bunk beds in the main room. His 4-year-old sister and 14-year-old brother sleep on one of the bunk beds, the little girl below, the teenage boy above. His parents, Shimika Sanchez and Tony Sanchez, squeeze into the bottom bunk across the room, while he sleeps in a brown crib.

Shimika Sanchez said the couple put nearly all of their belongings in storage, paying $213 a month.

Three strategically placed fans cool the room, though sometimes, on scorching days, they only push the hot air around. Her son does his homework and studies at a small dining table flush against the same wall where his parents sleep.

Sanchez, 34, had a difficult pregnancy and was forced to quit her job as a home health aide after a doctor ordered her on bed rest. Tony Sanchez, 36, is an ex-convict and has trouble finding well-paid positions. He works odd jobs, like demolition, on construction sites.

They have been trying to save enough to move out of the shelter. They argue all the time about money.

The lack of money is exacerbated when a child is born, and can have an even greater impact on homeless mothers. Several studies have shown that homeless pregnant women experience high rates of depression.

A 2011 study of homelessness in 31 cities, including New York, showed that infants born to homeless mothers are at greater risk of longer stays in the hospital. Children begin to show signs of emotional problems and developmental delays by 18 months. They also have poorer nutrition and go to fewer preventive medical appointments, including vaccination, according to the study, published in Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

City agencies have started to grapple with the problem. Officials have taken steps to raise awareness about crib death in shelters. They also have started a pilot program to promote reading to infants and have created a questionnaire to assess birth weight and signs of developmental delays.

— A Baby’s Birth Makes a Crowd

Shimika Sanchez began considering moving into a shelter after Bella, now 4 years old, was born, and Sanchez’s parents, who never married, reunited romantically. At the same time, Tony Sanchez was months away from being released, and Shimika Sanchez wondered how her family was going to fit in her mother’s three-bedroom apartment, where her two younger sisters and a niece were also living.

She had not had a stable home since 2012, when the apartment she shared with her mother and two sisters in Far Rockaway, Queens, was destroyed in Hurricane Sandy.

For several months, the family lived in a hotel, the room paid for through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Then they moved to a house in Brooklyn with a Section 8 voucher, a federal rental subsidy. They had lost everything.

“We said, ‘At least, we had our lives,'” Shimika Sanchez’s mother, Mary Brown, said. “We had rough times. We all did. Me and my kids.”

Shimika Sanchez entered a city shelter in March 2017.

A high school dropout, she earned her GED and then received a certificate in medical assistance from Sanford-Brown Institute, a for-profit college that paid a $1 million fine for misleading its students as part of a court settlement with the state attorney general.

“I pay $300 a month in school loans,” Sanchez said.

— An Alarming Visit to the Doctor

On a Tuesday morning in early August, Sanchez waddled into the Brookdale Hospital waiting room with her husband and her daughter for a prenatal checkup. Tony Sanchez lifted Bella, buried his face in her stomach and spun around.

“They’re going to be surprised I made it on time,” Shimika Sanchez said as she settled into a seat.

Tony Sanchez’s phone rang. It was a call for another odd job. Sanchez has a criminal record dating to 1999 and most recently to 2015. He went to jail when Bella was only 14 months old. He and Shimika Sanchez had a jailhouse wedding ceremony. He was released only last fall and joined his family in the shelter.

His criminal history limited his job choices, and he could not pass up a chance to work. He had to go, he told his wife. He kissed her and kissed his daughter. “You have money?” he asked, digging his hands into the pockets of his khaki shorts as he stood in the doorway of the waiting room.

“Yes, you gave me money,” Shimika Sanchez said. The chilly waiting room had a dozen or so chairs in a semicircle. Everyone joined in one another’s conversations. One woman breast-fed her baby. A man looked at his phone. When Sanchez stepped out of the room to have her blood pressure taken, her phone rang and Bella picked it up.

“Hello, what’s up?” she said. “I can’t get mama on the phone because she’s out there. I’ll call you back.”

“Who was that?” someone in the room asked. “My daddy,” she said. Everybody laughed.

When Sanchez returned, she talked about how much she missed a job she had as a home health aide job. She was proud that she had found ways to befriend elderly white people who had misperceptions, or even racist views, about black people. “You become someone they have to rely on,” Sanchez said.

Bella grew bored. She tried to dance and sang the lyrics of Drake’s “In My Feelings” over and over again though she knew only a few of the words. She took her shoes off and refused to put them back on. Her toenails were covered in chipped white and pink nail polish.

After a couple of hours, a physician assistant called Sanchez in and told her that her blood pressure was unusually high. She had already been diagnosed with pre-eclampsia, a condition of high blood pressure in a pregnant woman that can be fatal for the mother and child. She was scared.

Cyrus McCalla, her doctor, decided she needed to remain in the hospital. Usually, Sanchez could calm herself, slowly breathing in and out, trying to think of anything other than her homelessness and debt. But her blood pressure was not dropping. Her blood pressure grew more serious as the day wore on. Sanchez gave urine samples, had her blood drawn and had her blood pressure taken several times. By 4:05 p.m., Sanchez had been transferred to a hospital room in labor and delivery. “I need to call my husband and tell him I’m here,” she told a nurse.

She called her mother to pick up her daughter, who climbed on the hospital bed and rested her head in her mother’s lap. Sanchez tried not to panic, but she thought about her room at the shelter. She fretted about Antonio’s crib. Win, the nonprofit operator of the shelter, required Sanchez to use a crib it provided. She had taken a photo of the crib, which was metal and painted white. It looked like a shopping cart without the handle. It sat low to the floor, and she worried that mice could get in the crib. “How does that pass a safety test?” she asked.

“I need to clean. I need to scrub the walls. Then Lysol and the bleach strip the walls,” she said, rubbing her stomach, now covered in a hospital gown.

Sanchez did not give birth that day. Naturally petite, Sanchez weighed 97 pounds. Baby Antonio weighed about 4 pounds. Doctors wanted to avoid a premature birth, as Sanchez had had with Bella.

— A Rough Three Weeks

Over the next three weeks, Sanchez experienced early contractions that required her to go to the hospital and derailed her plans.

One day, she got her hair done for naught, thinking she was going to Red Lobster with friends. Sanchez thought it was wasteful to dole out money for a baby shower, but her friends hoped the dinner would make up for it. Instead, Sanchez spent the night at Brookdale Hospital, finding some small pleasure in a bag of spicy, salty Takis corn chips.

Contractions also interrupted a day of shopping for baby clothes at Cookie’s Kids, a department store in downtown Brooklyn, coming as she picked out onesies and socks.

Finally on a Wednesday in late August, her doctor decided that Sanchez should be induced. Antonio weighed more than 5 pounds, close to 6.

Sanchez arrived at the hospital with Red Lobster takeout she had bought the night before. She wanted to make up for the Saturday night dinner she missed.

The next hours were a mix of happiness, anger and sadness.

As the contractions came on, Sanchez joked with friends and family and yelled at her husband on the phone. Sometimes, she joked with him, too. “It’s going down, but not in the DM though,” Sanchez said laughing with her reference to Yo Gotti’s hit about online flirting, “Down in the DM.” Her sister, Chanell Brown, 29, was in awe. “Are you in labor?” she said. “The reason I’m asking, you’re on the phone and in labor. That’s gangster.”

Then Brown began crying uncontrollably, wiping tears from her face. A month earlier, she too had moved into a city shelter with her 2-year-old daughter. And she was pregnant again. “It feels like I’m struggling more now with a kid,” she told her sister.

That night, Brown wanted to witness the birth of her nephew, but she was worried about missing the shelter’s 10 p.m. curfew. “I don’t want to leave, but I don’t want to get in trouble,” she said.

“You gotta do what you have to do, Chanell,” Sanchez said. “You have to get it together, mama. You have no control over this moment. You have to be, like, ‘This is something I’m doing for me and my baby.’ You have to think of the outcome when you’re able to walk into your own house.”

Sanchez told her that someday they would both be out of shelter and their children would spend the night at each other’s houses.

By the time Antonio was born, it was just Sanchez, her husband and the team of doctors and medical staff.

But the moment turned tender and intimate. Sanchez nestled Antonio close to her breasts to feed him. Tony Sanchez took off his tank top and laid Antonio to his bare, tattooed chest. “He’s so small,” he said, smiling and glossy-eyed.

— Bringing the New Baby ‘Home’ to a Shelter

Two days later, Shimika Sanchez took Antonio to the shelter. Right away, she spotted what was missing and what had been added to the room. She had asked the staff for a portable air-conditioner, which was not there, but two identical cribs that looked like shopping carts were in the middle of the room, side by side. “I didn’t have twins,” she said, shaking her head.

Her husband was out looking for work. “Stop telling me you need to stay out to make a few more dollars,” Sanchez said to him on the telephone. “I need you here." Someone had taped a flyer about safe sleep for babies on a wall.

A maintenance worker knocked on the door and took away the extra crib.

“What’s the baby’s name?” the worker asked Sanchez.

“Antonio,” she said.

“That’s my middle name,” the worker said.

As Antonio lay on a bottom bunk, between two pillows, Sanchez cleaned up. She cleaned out the refrigerator. She sorted through clothes donated by friends and the ones she had bought at Cookie’s Kids.

She folded baby blankets and onesies. (More supplies, including a crib, would arrive later.)

“The Jeffersons” played on a small television atop a dresser. It was the episode in which Lionel Jefferson, the son of a wealthy businessman who owned laundromats, and his fiancée called off their wedding after arguing over a prenuptial agreement. At the end of the episode, the couple made up.

Sanchez laughed. If only her real life were as easy. If only her family lived in “a deluxe apartment in the sky.”

She rocked Antonio and kissed him until he fell asleep, limp in her arms. In about a month, she announced, she planned to return to work.

“I’ll make sure before you turn 1 we’re out of here. All of us,” she told a sleeping Antonio. “We’ll bust out together.”

Copyright 2023 New York Times News Service. All rights reserved.