Young and homeless during Covid-19
One day around March 20, the day Bill de Blasio issued a shelter-in-place order for New York City, Lala Bradley headed to her usual spot at the Wendy’s near the Port Authority Bus Terminal. She’d been going there almost every day with her boyfriend Corday Bradley and girlfriend Princess Archer since November 2018, when they’d been evicted from an apartment in the Concourse Village neighborhood in the Bronx. (Lala, who is bisexual and polyamorous, prefers to use Corday’s last name.) Other homeless or unstably housed young adults hung out at Wendy’s too: it was one of the few places where workers let them “sit in there and chill and charge our phones until it is time for the place to close.” That day, Lala had just gotten off the E train, where she and Corday often slept. Princess slept at her mother’s house in Bed-Stuy, with her and Corday’s 2-year-old son, Amyr.
The seating area in Wendy’s was closed. Lala had a distant memory of the Ebola virus from when she was in high school, and until that moment Covid had seemed similarly vague. But now, seeing the Wendy’s chairs stacked up in the corner, she said she was taken aback. “They want to close everything?”
In a matter of days, most of the other stores and drop-in centers where Lala spent time closed indefinitely. BOOM!Health, a drop-in center in the Bronx she liked, stopped accepting clients. The doors were locked at the Times Square H&M. Soon, Princess’s mother, a Guyanese immigrant who worked as a home health aide and whom none of them got along with, began to insist that Princess and Amyr stop leaving the apartment. Lala and Corday retreated to the 57th Street–Seventh Avenue subway station, where they sat by a pair of blinking flat-screen kiosks and listened to a squawking announcement overhead that only essential workers should be riding the subway. An MTA employee handed Lala hand sanitizer in a miniature bottle.
Corday “knew how to handle himself out here,” he said of the streets — he had been homeless before, for the first time at 18, after he left the aunt’s house where he’d lived since 13, when his mother died — but the shutdown felt different, like “scavenging for survival.”
“Usually it’s easy to find a place to sleep, to go into programs,” Corday said. “Now there’s really nowhere to wash your hands.” Even the public bathrooms in Port Authority were closed, which Corday had never seen before. He tried sneaking underneath the barricade, but guards soon started keeping people out.
A group of homeless adults occupied the corner of West 40th Street and Ninth Avenue, sitting or sprawling in front of a corrugated metal gate. Lala, who rarely talked to people who appeared visibly homeless, ignored them. Instead, she walked down 40th Street toward New Alternatives, an organization for LGBTQ youth that shares space with Metro Baptist Church. On the first Sunday after lockdown, Lala had made an important discovery: New Alternatives was giving out free meals.
Lala ran away from her mother’s apartment in East Brooklyn for the first time at 16, when her mother told her to “get the fuck out” after a fight. Lala’s mother “did not want to be a mother,” Lala said, and had told her, “I wish I never had you.” Lala had ended up at Covenant House, a youth shelter, which she hated, and after a few months she returned home. She left for good shortly after her 18th birthday, when a friend of Corday’s moved out of his apartment in the Bronx with time left on a prepaid lease. Corday and Princess showed her how to apply for food stamps, then reapply at six-month intervals. Her aunt, who worked in a hotel in North Carolina, also sent occasional transfers from Western Union. But the aunt wasn’t going to work during the shutdown, and her local Western Union office was closed.
A 2018 count of homeless youth conducted by New York City found 4,564 youths between the ages of 16 and 24, 85 percent of whom identified as Black or Latinx, living in shelters, couch surfing, or on the street — about a 16 percent increase since 2015. Slightly more than two hundred were counted as being completely unhoused, although advocates often question the results of counts like these, given how difficult youth homelessness is to track. Young people are thought to be less likely than adults to appear homeless to workers conducting counts, and they often avoid adult shelters, where they are eligible to stay after they turn 18. Lala had vowed never to stay in an adult shelter or to sleep on the ground, where people urinated. “I was not made to sleep outside,” she said.
In regular times, New Alternatives serves one sit-down dinner for about sixty young adults in the church basement every Sunday and offers HIV/AIDS support groups, counseling, and case management during the rest of the week. The age window for their aftercare services extends from 24 to 30, since obtaining stable housing after becoming homeless as a teenager can easily take a decade to achieve. Corday, who is 29 — and who, although he is straight, appreciated the more accepting environment at LGBTQ institutions — has been coming to New Alternatives for ten years.
According to Darrell Wimbush, a security guard at New Alternatives, an influx of new clients started showing up to the drop-in around early March. Some messaged him anxiously over social media to ask if New Alternatives was still offering on-site services, he said, “combined with something to eat.” Darrell, who was homeless himself between the ages of 18 and 25, asked for permission to spearhead the impromptu lunch program during shutdown; by the third week, he and a small group of volunteers were preparing up to two hundred meals per week. At the height of the pandemic, in April, that number hit three hundred.
She assumed she would not receive a stimulus check, since she had no bank account.Tweet
Darrell’s mother kicked him out of her Harlem apartment the day before his 18th birthday, on Christmas Eve. In the years that followed, Darrell stayed at, in order, Covenant House; the LGBTQ shelter Sylvia’s Place; another LGBTQ shelter, Ali Forney Center; Sylvia’s Place; Ali Forney Center; his aunt’s house; Sylvia’s Place; Ali Forney Center; a friend’s house; Ali Forney Center; a family friend’s home; and finally his aunt’s place, where he currently lives and helps with bills, although he soon hopes to move into his own apartment with a friend.
When the shutdown started, Darrell kept encouraging homeless clients to “deal with what was happening in their lives,” but he knew actually accomplishing this would be “much harder now.” By late March, none of the city’s shelters for homeless youth were functioning normally. Access to food was limited; showering or using a public computer was virtually impossible. For about a week, even Covenant House, which is the city’s largest provider of shelter beds for homeless youth, had temporarily suspended its intake process; both Sylvia’s Place and Trinity Place, another shelter for LGBTQ youth, had stopped accepting new clients completely. (Sylvia’s Place began intakes again on June 26; as of that date, Trinity Place had not yet resumed them.) The Door, a 50-year-old youth services organization, had halted in-person services; Ali Forney Center closed its nine-thousand-square-foot drop-in center in Harlem. The Coalition for Homeless Youth, an advocacy group with one full-time staff member, had begun circulating a nightly list of open beds, but in late March, New Alternatives’ executive director Kate Barnhart said that it was “just zeroes down the line.”
In late March, Lala and Corday started going to New Alternatives every day. Corday weighs only 116 pounds and proudly fits child-size shoes: he, Lala, and Princess are all about the same size. Without the usual Midtown crowd, he and Lala, who has bright blue hair, registered suddenly on the horizon down the block from the church, the way they might if walking across an empty field.
While they chatted with Darrell on the church steps, Lala privately made other inquiries, texting him from a couple feet away to see if there were any donated backpacks. She and Corday each took long turns inside the church, freshening up. Darrell sanitized the bathroom at the end of the day.
“How do you feel about UFOs?” Darrell asked Lala one sunny afternoon in late April.
“Take me to your leader!” she said, reaching out her arms.
By then, subway ridership had plunged 92 percent, and the cars “smelled,” Lala said. She blamed the MTA, suspecting they were failing to clean: she wore her face mask more to keep out the smell of the cars, she said, than to protect herself against the coronavirus. New Alternatives had ceased offering donated clothing — Barnhart said she didn’t know of any drop-ins at the city where homeless people could get clothes. Lala was wearing a pink sweatshirt over a buttonless cardigan, both earlier New Alternatives finds, and rainbow Crocs. She stored spare clean clothes in a tote bag at Princess’s mother’s house.
Lala watched a postal worker unloading parcels on the curb. She assumed she would not receive a stimulus check, since she had no bank account, but like many New Alternatives clients, the church was her only stable mailing address, and she was hawkish about envelopes. She was waiting for a PayPal card she planned to use for cash, so she didn’t misplace loose bills. “The mailman moving devious,” she said.
The packages piling up on the curb all seemed to be from Amazon Prime. “When you see it’s from Amazon? You know it’s not yours!” shouted Corday. He was waiting for a couple of tracksuits he’d bought online, but the coronavirus had caused mail delays all over the country. Some clients, Darrell said, had grown so frantic that they broke down in anger on the sidewalk.
On April 7, Lala turned 21, an age for homeless youth that represents a kind of terminus. Homeless young adults are still technically considered youth until 24, but it becomes much more difficult to get a youth shelter bed at one of the city’s six youth crisis shelters after your 21st birthday. Only a handful of beds are available for the 21–24 group, which, in 2018, made up 61 percent of the street homeless youth population.
Even though it seemed unlikely that they’d be able to find a rental during a pandemic, Lala and Corday spent a lot of time looking for places on Craigslist and Apartments.com. They called phone numbers they saw on the sides of buildings. Corday’s phone was shut off, so it was Lala or Princess who usually made the calls, but landlords rarely picked up or called them back.
After their 2018 eviction, Princess had gone to a family shelter with the baby to become eligible for a $1,580 rental voucher, the maximum allotment for a family of three or four, which is below the median rent in every neighborhood in every borough. They had been hoping to find an apartment ever since, renewing the voucher every four months. Most New York City landlords refuse to accept rental vouchers; others weed out poor renters by demanding credit checks and proof of income, neither of which Lala, Princess, or Corday could supply. In 2019, researchers at the University of Chicago wrote that the homeless youth, shelter employees, advocates, and researchers they interviewed about the city’s shelter system frequently compared finding affordable housing in New York City to “winning the lottery”; Barnhart called Princess’s voucher “Monopoly money.” On April 28, de Blasio proposed a nearly 40 percent reduction in the 2021 budget for affordable housing. But Corday, Princess, and Lala tended to see their failure to find a new apartment as at least partly their own fault. Some people they knew had found places, after all. Princess thought landlords didn’t rent to them because of how they sounded on the phone — “like kids.” Corday blamed the shutdown.
Most of the time, after leaving the sidewalk outside New Alternatives, Lala and Corday returned to the F train. They would ride the subway to visit with Princess and Amyr on the sidewalk outside her mother’s house or, occasionally, to see their friend Tiffany, a 26-year-old Black transgender woman who lived at a friend’s subsidized apartment in the Bronx. In between short visits, they sat by the kiosk in the 57th Street station, charging their phones.
At night, when they were ready to sleep, Corday and Lala boarded the F train and rode it to the E train, which stays underground for the entire length of the line. Lala kept her headphones on, ignoring outreach workers and police, unless the police banged on the pole, demanding a response. It is not illegal to be homeless nor, technically, to sleep on the subway, but lying outstretched on the train is an arrestable offense. Last year, five hundred additional cops were hired to police the MTA, and de Blasio instituted a “Subway Diversion Program” that allowed homeless people to avoid summonses for minor infractions if they agreed to leave the train. The program was highly ineffective: even if people could theoretically avoid the summonses by going to a shelter, most people just accepted the summonses instead.
On April 30, Andrew Cuomo announced at a press conference that the subways would begin closing down nightly from 1 AM until 5 AM. Joining the conference remotely, de Blasio called the subway closures a chance to “disrupt” homelessness in “a new and powerful way,” since closing the subways would drive more people to the city’s congregate shelters for adults, where, by mid-April, more than forty adults infected with Covid-19 had died. The number had risen to eighty-five by June, and the Coalition for the Homeless reported that the rate of Covid-19 infection among New Yorkers in shelters was 61 percent higher than for the rest of the city.
Darrell tended not to mention his clients’ homelessness directly, but he didn’t avoid it, and he listened carefully as Corday vented on the steps outside New Alternatives the day after the announcement. Deep cleaning was the stated reason for the subway closures, but Corday knew better. Cops had already become more aggressive about ejecting homeless riders from the subway during the shutdown, he said; closing the subway was just an escalation. “The cops have been waking us up more,” he said. “They are saying, physically, out of their mouths: Go outside.” When this happened, he and Lala got up, got off the train, and waited on the platform for the next one to arrive.
Lala claimed not to be worried about the train shutdown — “I don’t get on the train till late,” she said. “When everyone gets on the train, that’s when I’ll get on.” She did sometimes shirk the question of where to sleep completely by staying out until the sun came up, but this was much more doable during warm weather, and spring had not yet arrived. Corday’s tracksuits had finally been delivered, and he wore one zipped up directly on top of the other. Early May had been cold enough to keep Lala waiting in Bryant Park alone while Corday went to the drop-in, her legs under one of the two blankets they usually carried, one in each of their backpacks. While she kept warm, he fetched the lunches, walking past a hotel on 40th Street that had been turned into housing for health-care workers. A car outside the hotel had a sign in its window that read RN from the Heart of Dixie!
Corday said he’d seen the nurses posing outside for selfies, which he found distasteful. He thought hotel rooms should be given to “the homeless people,” he said, meaning, as he usually did when he used the word homeless, older adults who had been living unhoused for years. Then they could “see what it’s like,” he said, to live inside.
On May 6, the first night of the subway closure, Lala sat with Corday in the 57th Street station and waited to see what would happen at 1 AM. Lala took note of the time on her phone — 1:11 AM — when police rushed in and began telling people to go. There were no outreach workers in sight; it turned out later that they’d only been dispatched to the ends of subway lines, not every station. Lala assumed they had just stayed home.
Lala and Corday migrated north, heading for Columbus Circle. Adjacent to the station is an underground seating area where Corday thought they might be able to sit unnoticed for the night, but police caught up with them shortly after they arrived. Lala and Corday retreated aboveground with a few older men who seemed especially disoriented — Lala said they were “the people who are never outside” the subway, and didn’t have coats. The low was 53 degrees. A few of the men sat down on benches. Police stretched orange tape over the steps and retreated across the street to keep watch, shouting at anyone who tried to duck underneath. Some people simply sat down to sleep right at the subway entrance, immediately beyond the taped-off entrance.
Lala consulted the bus schedule. She thought they should try a Queens-bound route, figuring that the trip would be as long and quiet by bus as it usually was by train. The Q32 they boarded was packed with riders escaping the train shutdown. “No six feet,” Lala said. They tried to sleep in the far back of the bus, then switched to the Q60, which Lala’s phone said would take them to the end of the line in Jamaica, Queens, to a residential area about ten minutes by car from John F. Kennedy International Airport. They thought about getting a snack when they arrived, but it was the middle of the night and they couldn’t find a bodega that accepted food stamps. “I didn’t even know the 60 went over there,” Corday said. The express bus for their return trip was just as packed. It was 5 AM when they arrived back in Manhattan.
The following day, when de Blasio declared the subway closure a triumph, saying “We’ve never seen so much success in one night,” Lala and Corday decided that the best thing to do going forward would be not to sleep during the night at all. Homelessness often obliterates normal sleep patterns, but this was a new level of disruption. Corday had never before been unable to board the subway for even a fitful night of sleep.
Before the sun went down, he and Lala shed an acquaintance who Corday thought spoke too loudly; they wanted to stay discreet. At 1 AM, they exited the 57th Street subway station and began strolling like sightseers through the shuttered city, sticking largely to the blocks between 34th and 42nd Streets. They had considered walking around Harlem, but when Corday checked it out during the day he had deemed it “too full of drug dealers.”
Lala made sure her phone was charged so she could listen to music on Soundcloud while they walked. She expected the streets to be full of people — less than 4 percent of the city’s sixty-thousand-strong adult homeless population spend the night on the subway — but the sidewalks were empty. Eventually she passed a large group of homeless people sleeping in a seating area in Bryant Park, spread out in the night air, “under a sign that said ‘public.’”
It was just getting light when they descended into the station to catch the first E train. Lala was feeling wide awake, but as soon as they boarded — “the minute your behind hits the seat, and the heat hits you,” she said — her exhaustion overcame her. She slept covered up, with her sweater thrown over her, so no one could see her face.
The next day, Lala called about an apartment listing Corday had found in amNewYork, but the person on the other end asked for her income and credit score. “I was like, ‘Do you take vouchers?’” Lala said, imitating a nervous, high-pitched voice. She thought the listing was in New York City, but the voice on the phone said he only took SOTA, a one-time rental assistance program for homeless families that, in late 2019, was the subject of a lawsuit alleging that families were being sent to live in unheated apartments infested with vermin. Princess and Corday were part of a different voucher program, CityFHEPS. Lala hung up.
Lala just had to make it to May 19, when they could get a hotel. Twice per month, Corday and Princess got $194 in cash assistance, and he and Lala could stretch that for one or two nights indoors, typically at the Days Hotel on 94th Street and Broadway. Besides being affordable, Corday said the Days Hotel staff was marginally less racist than at other hotels in the city. Corday always called ahead to request an early check-in. From noon until the next morning, Lala luxuriated in the space, showering, sleeping in, and changing her clothes. She took new Facebook profile pictures of herself indoors, framed by a hotel mirror and the standard-issue desk. Princess sometimes joined them, flouting her mother’s desire for her to stay home and self-isolate. They sat on the bed together and played UNO. Early in the evening, they might go to McDonald’s for meals that could hold Lala “for a good three hours,” she said, until she woke from a nap feeling ravenous.
Now, sitting on the Metro Baptist church steps, Lala scrutinized hotel listings. To her dismay, hotel prices were going up — the Days Hotel was $139. As the sun was setting, she found a room for $84.05 at another hotel for the night of May 19. Corday handed her his PayPal card. There wasn’t any money on it now, but the cash assistance came at midnight, and the hotel wouldn’t charge them until checkout at noon on the 19th. After they checked out, Lala and Corday would walk to the subway and ride back to Port Authority. Then they’d get off the train, walk to 57th Street, and sit back down in the 57th Street station.
In mid-May, Tiffany’s roommate, who had noticed that Lala and Corday were “always wearing the same clothes,” asked if they wanted to come stay on an air mattress in the living room. Lala was taken aback. “It most definitely seemed like a big step,” she said, of this intimate new arrangement. “You’re just asking someone you hardly know to stay with you?”
Since the shutdown began, she and Corday had not received any invitations to stay in anyone else’s home. “We just really need a roof over our heads,” Lala said. They decided to accept the offer and stayed over that very night.
Communication between the new roommates went smoothly at first. The next time I saw Lala, her blue hair was freshly washed and styled. But the dynamic soured in less than two weeks. After midnight on June 1, the first night of de Blasio’s citywide curfew, the roommate texted Lala on her way back to the apartment one night and told her they had to go. In the weeks since they’d left the street, George Floyd was murdered and the country had erupted in protests. “Do you realize that the last train is at 1 AM?” Lala asked the roommate. “Well, you better call an Uber,” the roommate said.
Tiffany wasn’t on the lease and the roommate had decided to kick her out too. She, Lala, and Corday packed up everything and got into a cab. Corday called a friend who agreed to pay the fare. They went to Bed-Stuy, dropped off Lala and Corday’s extra stuff at Princess’s mother’s house, and rode the bus with Tiffany’s clunky DJ equipment until 5 AM. Lala recorded venomous Snapchats that she knew the roommate would watch. It angered her most that the roommate had kicked them out after having been the one to propose the arrangement in the first place. “You begged us,” she said. “You were begging us.”
Lala — whom I’d seen hesitate over the purchase of a $1 juice — felt a pang as she watched people stream in and out, their arms full of snacks.Tweet
The following morning, she felt a little better. The city seemed wide open after the cramped apartment where the roommate and her boyfriend were always fighting. And although Lala considered Tiffany a good friend, she thought Tiffany was bad at managing her food intake when using Lala’s food stamps — she bought small bags of chips instead of the big ones you could save part of for later. When Tiffany went to New Jersey to stay with family that morning, Lala was glad to see her go. Lala and Corday played UNO in Central Park. “It was quiet,” Lala said. “No Tiff, no loud music.”
Like essential workers, people who were homeless but did not want to go to a city shelter were supposed to be exempted from the curfew. Not trusting police to respect these rules, providers composed a fact sheet for homeless youth about their rights that they tried to distribute online. Lala took a screenshot when the letter was posted in the New Alternatives Facebook group. Corday walked up to a bicycle cop in a yellow vest and asked what would happen to homeless people after 8 PM. Corday said the cop told him, “They still gonna get arrested.” That evening, though, another cop near Bryant Park stopped him and Lala to tell them about the curfew. “We don’t want to lock nobody up,” he said.
The same week, Kate Barnhart, who said she had little faith the fact sheet would be helpful, was awoken in the middle of the night by one of her clients, a 23-year-old Black transgender woman. The woman had started feeling threatened at the adult shelter where she was staying, Barnhart said, and decided to walk to a friend’s place after curfew. Cops stopped her on the street and started to attack her, pushing and shoving her. One of them told her to “get her black tranny ass home.”
Darrell was so worried about his clients getting indoors before 8 PM that he changed the takeout lunch hours at the church. On the curfew’s first day, he didn’t even want anyone to stand outside. Between racing to cook the following day’s meal and getting home to Harlem, he didn’t have time to attend any protests. “It’s extremely stressful,” he told me.
Earlier that month, Darrell felt achy one day after work. The next day, his day off, he couldn’t taste his cigarette. A few days later, he tested negative for the coronavirus, but he was home for over a week. Another New Alternatives employee who had just recovered from Covid-19 filled in. At least a handful of New Alternatives clients, Barnhart told me, had very likely contracted the virus — although she couldn’t tell for sure, since she’d only felt that two of them met enough criteria to be referred to the emergency room for testing.
Neither Lala nor Corday had ever developed any symptoms and they were eager for the city to reopen. Because the trains were still closed, they had gone back to spending the night walking around the city. As Phase 1 of New York City’s reopening arrived, Barnhart also wondered when it might be possible to start serving a weekly meal inside the church again. After she posted a reminder about takeout Sunday lunch on the New Alternatives Facebook group, a client wrote, “I just got happy there for a second and thought I was gonna sit and eat with other LGBT people.”
On their way to get snacks in Midtown one night during the first week of June, Lala and Corday heard breaking glass. When she turned, Lala saw that someone had shattered the window of the CVS at 40th Street and Broadway. Lala — whom I’d seen hesitate over the purchase of a $1 juice — felt a pang as she watched people stream in and out, their arms full of snacks. “I’ve never seen so many people with Skittles,” she said, but she didn’t dare go inside.
On Facebook, where he routinely sent and approved friend requests from people he’d never met, Corday saw masked looters on Facebook Live telling others to go to Midtown. This did not appeal to him at all — “I’m not going to be doing that!” he said. Later that night, Corday found a pair of brand-new women’s sweatpants draped on the ground near some bushes, which a looter must have dropped or hidden. The clothes couldn’t be returned anymore, so he scooped them up.
Princess’s mother had stopped objecting to Princess leaving the house during the day, and a couple of days after the looting of the CVS, she and Amyr were sitting with Lala and Corday on the grass in Bryant Park when protesters began pouring onto the lawn. Princess, who said she had never seen a protest before, got out her phone and started streaming on Facebook Live. The energy excited her. “They was protesting for us, for Black people,” she said. “It was nice. It was surprising.”
Corday agreed: “They were not playing.” He had terrible eyesight and badly needed replacement glasses, so he couldn’t see the speaker at the front of the crowd, but their words moved him. “The person spoke very, very highly,” he said. “We need to stop the violence, we need to lift each other up. All we got is ourselves. And if we don’t sit there and defend ourselves, who would?”
Princess eventually took Amyr home, but Lala and Corday joined the protesters as they began to march. Moving to the front of a group, they marched all the way to the Brooklyn Bridge. The two of them held hands when they weren’t raising them high for “Hands up, don’t shoot.” As they approached the bridge, Corday saw a line of cops “like speed-walking, with their batons out.” He and Lala left quickly. “Nah,” he said, “I’m not about to stay here and get beat on.”
Corday left the protest feeling inspired, but he’d found certain chants, such as “How do you spell racist? NYPD!” a little lame. He was critical of the fact that some protesters lost steam and only chanted when they saw the police, especially since cops didn’t seem to care about the chants anyway: “They just laughing in your face.” He’d been arrested many times for no reason — “for every new dumbness,” he said. Once, he was picked up for loitering while standing in the lobby of his apartment building, waiting for his aunt to come downstairs. During the entire shutdown, even in the weeks when street outreach for homeless youth had completely ceased, patrol cars slid one after another, like beads on a string, up the street in front of Metro Baptist. “I ain’t got time for the cops,” Corday said.
When the curfew ended early, Lala pronounced herself “hyped,” thinking a subway reopening might be next. The weather had improved, and she and Princess and Corday had started toggling between Bryant and Central Park on nice days. After getting off the train midmorning, Lala and Corday would nap in Bryant Park. One day it got so hot that Lala wriggled out of her shirt while sleeping and woke topless, the sun on her back. This didn’t concern her; other women also slept topless in the park during the day. Princess thumped Amyr’s stroller down the Bryant Park stairs. “I do not really think the city will ever get back to normal,” Lala said. “Look,” she pointed, with mock pity, as we passed Charles Schwab on Sixth Avenue. The sign outside now read harles Schwab. “They even took the man’s C.”
In Central Park, the family followed a sloping path to the recently reopened public bathrooms. Lala had gotten her period twice since the shutdown, which required her to spend a part of each day strategizing a good place to discreetly change her tampon. She hated even peeing outside, sure that a bug would bite her and that people would then find her disgusting if she scratched. While she was in the bathroom, Corday and Princess sat on a nearby bench, under a leafy tree. Amyr played with his ball on the path. When it tumbled away, he hesitated, looking around at the adults. “Go get it, Pop-pop!” said Corday. “Why you letting it roll?”
A tall, muscular man on a neighboring bench heard me mention the protests and walked over. “I gotta show you this,” he said. He held out his phone and played us a video of himself speaking to a crowd outside the Metropolitan Detention Center, a federal prison in Brooklyn. He’d been released thirty days earlier, he told us, after serving eleven years — he referred to himself as an alumnus. “A reporter literally just sent me this,” he said of the video, looking dazed.
In the video, he spoke passionately to a large crowd about a series of rapes committed by officers in the women’s prison. “This is one of the most brutal prisons in America,” he said. When the video finished playing, he took off his reflective shades to show us his face and asked us to note the lack of scars. Corday, Princess, and Lala each took turns shaking his hand.
Across the grass, we heard protesters coming toward the park. It was getting dark; police lights stroked the leaves. “It’s go time,” the formerly incarcerated man said. He gathered his things and ran off toward the noise.
Lala took out one pigtail and brushed her hair, depositing loose strands from the brush carefully into the trash. Tomorrow, Princess planned to call another prospective landlord. “I’m hoping they pick up,” Corday said. “I’m tired of being out here. And I know Lala is too.”
At the other end of the bench, Lala began to disappear into her phone, the way she often did after long conversations, letting Corday take center stage. She’d given the formerly incarcerated man a big smile when he asked for her name, and now she grew quiet. When Princess and Corday rose to start the trek to the subway again, she wandered ahead of them by herself, holding the baby.