‘No One Decides To Be Destitute’

In this recent letter to the
Voice, Magie Dominic, a poet and theater veteran, describes how her life was knocked off its axis following an accident two years
ago. As a result, she has been forced to seek
public assistance, a numbing descent
into long lines, cold shoulders, and bewildering bureaucracy. Dominic also provided copies of documents tracking her food stamp and welfare applications, as well as an example of her published poetry and a
Who’s Who excerpt.

As she seeks public assistance,
Dominic works one day a week, for which she earns $118. She pays $869 a month for
the Chelsea apartment in which she has lived since 1985. Last month, she made the
rent with the help of two theater funds that offer emergency grants.

Dominic’s is a story that would be recognized by thousands of New Yorkers
who have, for one reason or another, turned
to the government for assistance. It also is
a bracing reminder of the precarious nature of existing in a town where not everyone is benefiting from the Wall Street boom or the
oft-reported renaissance of New York City.

I am a 54-year-old white woman, fairly intelligent, and have worked since I was 15 years old. But something happened to me and I found myself needing help.

Welfare, public assistance, food stamps, Medicaid, emergency assistance— whatever you choose to call it— no longer works.

I’ve been trying to obtain help for almost four months, beginning with the initial search for the right location, then waiting for months for some form of temporary emergency help.

I began searching for help as a result of a terrible accident in May of 1997, when I was found unconscious in the middle of a street, with my face completely bashed and the right side of my body filled with trauma. I’ve had occasional unexplained seizures in the past, usually at times of personal stress. This wasn’t consistent with a seizure. This was consistent with a car accident. I have no memory and there were no witnesses. The plastic surgeon who worked on restoring my face said I may have become dizzy in traffic and been thrown by a car. I may simply have been struck by a car. Whatever the cause, something immense happened. The emotional as well as physical damage was immense. I qualified for no disability because my employment— working with costumes in theater— is sporadic. Sometimes work lasts for three years, sometimes three hours.

I was told disability required that a person be employed by a consistent employer.

Over the past 24 months I’ve worked on healing my body as well as my self-confidence and worked as much as I could despite obvious obstacles. I lived off a tiny savings account, with occasional work, but once the savings was depleted, I found myself in a crisis situation. This is where many people find themselves. It’s not planned. No one decides to develop a life-threatening situation. No one decides to be destitute.

I found myself unable to find work, with rent and utilities due, with no food and no money.

I sold what little furniture I had for groceries and postage for mailing résumés.

This is how quickly life can change. And to deny it is to deny life itself. It can happen to anyone: an accident, demolished face, no work or money, alone and without food.

It isn’t planned. It happens. Like weather.

Some people crumble under these circumstances. They go insane. They get guns and shoot away their insanity. They get drugs for the same reason. I’m not advocating either.

But this is exactly why programs of assistance must work.

A series of appointments began for me, and so did the waiting. On four occasions I asked for emergency food stamps to help me get through the week, but on all four occasions was denied. Health care and food were my only requests. It isn’t unusual to wait five or six hours, for days in a row, to be told to return the following week, when the process begins again. I’ve been photographed, had numerous appointments, had two workers come to my home, filled out a mountain of documentation, answered hundreds of questions and been fingerprinted. Poverty is not a crime.

A woman waiting beside me this morning said she’d been waiting for eight months. During the fifth month she had a breakdown and had to be hospitalized. She was released and was still waiting. We both were. People bring food, if they have it, for their children. They know they’ll be waiting all day, and children get hungry and don’t understand. Workers are often insulting, hostile, or indifferent. Just what a person in a crisis situation doesn’t need.

I don’t have a solution. But my experience has been life-changing and terrifying. This current system borders on slavery. It treats people who are down as if they deserve to be there, should remain there, and always belonged there. And with enough insults and long lines and waiting, it’s almost guaranteed.


Lack of food, absence of health care, and stress are weapons aimed at a particular segment of society, children and adults alike. Being poor is not a criminal activity.

I’ve been waiting since February when I began my search, March when I began the forms, April when I began the long series of appointments and waiting. It’s now almost the end of May and I’ve received absolutely nothing. I have managed to get a tiny bit of work, making $118 per week, which disqualifies me for emergency aid. How people on welfare, public assistance, or whatever we call this system survive is beyond me. Given a choice, this is not where I would be. Given a choice as a middle-aged woman, writer and artist, and wardrobe assistant, I’d choose to be working at a decent job, paying my bills with enough money left over to be able to make a thick sandwich.

But this is where I am momentarily. And most of the people on these long lines have similar stories. The minority are cheaters.

There’s an attitude of indifference that permeates this system and that indifference has a source.

This morning, despite decades of work, I found myself in need, showed up for yet
another appointment, heard my name called after an hour of waiting, signed my name on the form, then was told to go downstairs and wait for the form to be brought down (I
couldn’t bring it down myself). Downstairs I waited an hour and 45 minutes, then heard my name called again, signed two more forms, and was told to go to another building 25 blocks away to have another photo taken.

After the bus ride, I signed another form and delivered one. Grown men and women were holding onto these thin pieces of paper as if they were a small child’s lunch pass.
After waiting for an hour downstairs, a large group was taken outdoors, in a line, to
another building. We were stripped of all dignity, walking through that street in a line.

Then inside we were taken upstairs, through a maze of desks and cameras, and told to wait outside in a narrow hallway. We stood there, against the wall, most of us women alone or with children, for another 45 minutes, until the names began.

I had another photograph taken and was told to go home and wait.

The woman in the photo looks tired and defeated.

Some people crumble under these circumstances. Many people crumble. And I’m wondering now if this is the plan.

May 16, 1999

Mr. Boyd

Supervisor, Section Six

Dear Mr. Boyd,

I wrote to you almost a month ago, asking
why I have been denied food stamps. I received a call from my caseworker, Ms. D. Perez, and was told to come into the office on 14th St. again. I did and was then told to go to the 34th St. office and be photographed again. I did this also, on May 5.

When I had my very first visit with Ms. D. Perez, there was a great deal of discussion regarding the
fact that I’m not a U.S. citizen. It was explained
to me that the new ruling was that only U.S. citizens could receive food stamps. I have permanent resident status and am a Canadian citizen. I’ve lived and worked in New York for over 30 years. It was decided, after I brought in documentation to establish that
fact, that I would be eligible.

But as you can see from the enclosed vouchers,
I continue to be denied. . . . Would you please
let me know if I’m doing something wrong, in order
to be eligible. All I’m asking is emergency assistance with food stamps and Medicaid.


Magie Dominic

Who’s Who: Magie Dominic

Bio: Dominic, Magie, writer, artist; b. Corner Brook, Nfld., Can., July 15, 1944; 1 child, Heather Rose. Diploma, Art Inst. of Pitts. Prodr/dir. Children’s History Theatre, Woodstock, NY, 1978-1984; freelance wardrobe asst. Met Opera, NYC, 1986-; freelance wardrobe asst. Broadway and TV NYC, 1986-; assoc. curator Caffe Cino Exhibit, Linc. Ctr.
Libr. for the Performing Arts, Astor Gallery, NYC, 1985. Editor, author: Belles Lettres/Beautiful Letters, 1995; author (anthology) Outrage, 1993. Pushing the Limits, 1996, Countering the Myths, 1996; author words to final movement of “Symphony #2— Visions of a Wounded Earth,” Internat. Symphony Orch., 1996; art work in pvt. collection St. Vincent’s Hosp., NYC, the Malcolm Forbes Collection; created the Gown of Stillness installation, Toronto, 1995, NYC, 1996. Recipient Langston Hughes award Clark Ctr., 1968; Children’s History Theatre grantee Am. the Beautiful Fund, 1979, ’80, Shaker Found., 1980, ’81. Mem. League of Can. Poets


The Last Drag

Bobbie has tried to quit smoking before. It was the early ’80s, when she was living as a man, a drug addict, and an alcoholic. She— then, he— worked as a singer in piano bars, soaking up the free drinks and taking amphetamines. A favorite source was over-the-counter Benzedrex inhalers. They’re meant to clear congestion, but she broke them open and swallowed the cotton inside. “It was a sexual high,” Bobbie recalls. “It felt like every pore in my body was having its own orgasm at the same time.”

Even so, almost three years ago, Bobbie managed to vanquish those addictions from her life. She checked into her first rehab at age 34; it took nearly a quarter century and several suicide attempts before she could stay clean for any significant period. That recovery was made possible by a larger, deeper shift: only 10 days after she finally decided to live as a woman, she also discovered the will to stop the drinking and drugs.

Cigarettes, however, may still kill her. “This is harder,” she sighs, then coughs. Though her red hair pulled back in a headband and dainty white sneakers bespeak a younger woman, Bobbie is 58. She is also overweight, has diabetes, and has had several heart attacks. And a year and a half ago she was diagnosed with emphysema. Since then it has progressed, leaving her sometimes short of breath, other times coughing so hard she falls to her knees. Her emphysema medications sit beside a bottle of opalescent nail polish on the table in her tiny studio in Hell’s Kitchen.

Quitting isn’t easy, as smokers— and their survivors— have been arguing in lawsuits across the country. And it’s that much harder when you have virtually no spare cash to get help and life is a constant struggle. Though her self-acceptance has amounted to a new lease on life, Bobbie still gets depressed. “Sometimes I just feel really old and, even though it’s just a thing, a cigarette is like the companion of my life.”

Last Saturday night, she tried to end that relationship for good. “I took one out of the pack, I looked at it, smelled it, I had it in my mouth. Then I looked at it again, crushed it up, and threw it in the garbage. That happened three times. Then I decided to take the whole pack, crush it up, throw it in the garbage in a plastic bag, and throw it down the chute.” But 24 hours later, she went to the store and bought another pack. Since then she has been smoking about 10 a day, down from her usual two packs.

It’s not as if she wants to keep up this madness. Cigarettes are now about $3.25 a pack, which means that, if she quit, she could save enough to afford electrolysis— which costs about $60 per session— to remove her remaining facial hair. And smoking deepens her voice, which she would like to move into a higher register so she could talk— and sing— more like a biological woman. (Bobbie fantasizes that if she could “somehow get in on one of those smoking suits,” she might also be able to pay for a sex-change operation to complete her transition.)

So far, though, no such luck. On her fixed income of $935 per month, Bobbie is able to afford little more than her $528 rent. This past month, she paid $40 to join a smoking cessation support group run by the American Cancer Society. It didn’t make her a nonsmoker, but it did help strengthen her resolve to the point where she’s at least crumpling packs. She also bought nicotine patches ($28 a pack), which have stayed affixed to her arm while she puffs away on her long More cigarettes. A wretched jar of soggy cigarette butts, which she keeps to remind her that smoking is revolting, has also failed to break her habit. “If I really want one, I just don’t smell it,” she laughs.

What might work, she thinks, is being forced to stay away from cigarettes. Her longest smoke-free period since she started smoking at 10 was a 35-day hospital stay a few years ago. “I have thought about going into the hospital again, just to get off the cigarettes,” she says, “just to be where I couldn’t see or smell them.”

Medicaid, of course, doesn’t cover such in-patient treatment. It won’t even pay for a new nicotine replacement device that sends the drug through the lungs. Since she feels most attached to the inhaling part of smoking, Bobbie thinks that might help. Her doctor prescribed it. But, at around $50 for a month’s supply, it was out of her range. At some point in the future, money from the settlement of several states’ lawsuits against tobacco companies may help subsidize such expenses— a plan Bobbie heartily approves of. But, for now, she is pretty much on her own.

Even without such assistance, Bobbie assumes she will quit smoking eventually. “The new me is not a drinker, the new me is not a drug addict,” she reflects. When will this new woman become a nonsmoker? Bobbie considers. She is planning a trip down to the county clerk’s office soon to change her name to Roberta. Maybe then. “I could change my name and at the same time stop smoking,” she says, big eyed. “That’d be fantastic.”


Numbers Game

Lou Fay is exactly seven years, seven months, and seven days older than Anna, his wife of 33 years. When the two were growing up in the Bronx, the number of his house was 1244; hers was 4241—the same digits in a different order.

“He takes numbers as sort of like omens,” says Anna, a stylish woman who sits across from her husband on the patio of their current home (number 494) in Yonkers. “They validate or confirm things.”

For Lou, the numbers ultimately added up to the fact that he and Anna were meant to be together. For her part, Anna needed no further evidence after meeting Lou at a wedding in 1960. “He had a very gentle quality about him,” she remembers, “and he was so smart. Every new word he learned he wrote on a list and I thought that was so great.” Lou also impressed her with his knowledge of jazz (though later confessed to milking a little knowledge of Dave Brubeck for perhaps more than it was worth).

Anna and Lou didn’t go right off into the sunset, however. Although he appeared healthy when they met, Lou had recently been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a disease that can progressively destroy the nervous system. As a result, he was unsure of his future and wary of romance. The two saw each other as platonic friends for three charged years before Lou mustered the courage to really date. “He didn’t know how much he wanted to get somebody else involved,” says Anna. But having used a wheelchair herself ever since having polio as a child, she didn’t see disability as an obstacle. “It wasn’t the end of the world,” she says, shrugging. “My attitude—and Lou’s eventually—was you take your chances no matter what.”

Anna and Lou have been happy. In their earlier years together, Lou practiced podiatry and Anna worked—as she still does—as a health care administrator at Mt. Sinai. The couple bought a wheelchair-accessible house in Westchester and acquired three cats along the way. Eventually Lou became a househusband, placing the calls to the plumber and drawing up the shopping lists after he slowly lost his ability to walk. (This process—from needing to hold on to walls to getting around on crutches to using a wheelchair—took about five years.)

Then, six years ago, when Lou was 61, his health hit another turning point. He had respiratory failure, which made him dependent on a ventilator. He needed someone to suction secretions from his trachea, feed him, and even help position his body during the night. That translated into round-the-clock nursing.

During his first four years on the ventilator, Lou’s nursing was paid for by the succession of insurance plans the Fays were enrolled in through Anna’s job at Mt. Sinai. But, two years ago, shortly after Mt. Sinai switched to Oxford Health Plans, Oxford called to say the Fays’ plan didn’t cover at-home care and that Lou’s nursing benefits would be terminated within 10 days. Anna knew Oxford would pay for Lou’s care in a nursing home. But neither Lou nor Anna would consider that for a second. “It was never a question that he would not be at home,” says Anna.

Anna tried to negotiate with Oxford and her employer on her own and then hired a lawyer, who brokered an agreement between the couple, Mt. Sinai, and Oxford that extended Lou’s nursing care through the end of last August. But since then, the Fays have had to cover Lou’s nursing costs through Medicaid, which—because his veteran benefits make his income too high for the program—ends up costing them roughly $6000 per month. Anna refinanced the house and liquidated the couple’s other assets, which will cover the huge monthly Medicaid bills through the next six months, according to her calculations.

“Beyond that, I’m not sure what I’ll do,” says Anna. “I know that whatever I do, he’s going to be in this house. I just honestly don’t know what that means.” There are some predictable hurdles ahead. Last year after hearing the Fays’ case against Oxford in court, a judge dismissed the suit, advising the couple to try to resolve their differences with the company directly, while leaving open the possibility of reopening the case. So now the Fays’ lawyer, Mark Scherzer, is gathering evidence to prove to Oxford that Lou actually needs his nursing care. If an internal appeal doesn’t work, the Fays are likely headed back to court.

When contacted about the Fays, an Oxford spokesperson said that “Mr. Fay’s benefit package does not include 24-hour at-home nursing care” and that whatever care the company had already covered was a “temporary exception.” The spokesperson also said that the company offered social workers to help find “community services” that would be covered, but that “Mr. Fay has refused those arrangements.”

Ironically, the cost of Lou’s contested care is likely to be less if he stays at home than it would be in a nursing home. According to Scherzer, “he would still need this level of care, plus you would be paying for the skilled nursing facility at their usual daily rate.” So why would Oxford want to pay for nursing-home care? “I think that once they got to a skilled nursing facility, they would argue that private duty nursing is still not necessary,” says Scherzer.

Though she is willing to go to great lengths to resolve their problems (including sharing her story with newspaper reporters), Anna Fay is dismayed by the nitty-gritty dollars-and-cents discussions about her husband. “I don’t like to get into whether it’s cheaper or not cheaper,” she says, staring out into the backyard. “My feeling is that we put money where our priorities are. I know all the arguments about how there is a limit to the amount of money we can spend on health care, but I also know there are many, many ways that we can reduce the costs of health care without compromising people’s lives. Not that anyone cares, but Lou does have a life. He’s not a thing. He’s a person.”

Lou can’t articulate his feelings about the situation as well. His disease has progressed to the point where he must intensely focus his strength and concentration just to make a labored sound. Sometimes, in fact, only Anna can make out his slurred speech. But when he is asked how he feels about his situation, his response is clear even to the unfamiliar ear: “Stay here,” he says, looking over at Anna. “By all means.”