MONICA, Trenton: A Fight to Survive


“It’s like we in a war. We in a war with ourselves.”

Monica Hersey is a survivor. Raised in the Trenton Housing Projects, surrounded by violence, she defied the odds by graduating high school and enrolling in community college—hoping to break the cycle of poverty. 

“I never had a counselor try to tell me that I was gonna grow up and become successful.
They said … that I wasn’t gonna be nothing more than a custodial worker. …
I always just knew it was something else besides what I was being told.”
Between college courses, modeling and etiquette classes, parenting two children, and working a part-time job, Ms. Hersey also found time to write poetry, including one that read, “When I’m stuck between what’s wrong and right, my light gives me valuable advice. Especially, when I’m contemplating depths of suicide, wondering what the hell is wrong with me tonight, here comes my insight, my aluminous light…” She shakes her head, remembering that poem from years ago, when her light shown bright and she had high hopesbefore the gang attack in 2006 that took place outside of her apartment. “I knew something was terribly wrong, when I went to speak, I was slurring. It took a long time for me to get to the ending of the sentence. I felt slow, I was walking sideways. I couldn’t tell today from tomorrow.”

Ms. Hersey tried to go back to school, but her grades slipped drastically, and she eventually gave up. She tried to work, but was let go after passing out on the job. Her options were limited with her insurance coverage, and it took some time to find a doctor who would move beyond the hearing loss, to the more debilitating signs of a traumatic brain injury, marked by migraines, vertigo, memory loss, vomiting, and fainting. She also suffers from a host of PTSD symptoms, related not only to the gang attack, but to the repetitive trauma that permeates communities in severe poverty. Anxiety, depression, and panic attacks are a daily reminder of her past, and her fear of the future.
Ms. Hersey describes the city of Trenton as a place that has “fallen,” with residents of the projects innocent victims of the violent crime going on around them. She moved from that apartment, but there isn’t a wealth of options for those relying on temporary rental assistance from the Board of Social Services. Outside of her new place, she steps over broken bottles and blood-covered items in the morning, and has witnessed young boys holding up grown men with impunity right outside her door. “It’s like we in a war. We in a war with ourselves.”
Then there is another brand of violence, specially reserved for women and children, that can dampen even the brightest light. “Every other woman, or girl, or baby girl—every last time I turn around, somebody got raped here—by their father, their uncle. … I got raped five times in my whole life, just in this town here, by people that knew—watched me grow up—and watched me around the neighborhood.” Just recently, an entire family was held hostage in their Trenton home, in a tragedy that involved over a week of sexual abuse and ended with the murder of a mother and a young son. I live in fear every day, I’m not even gonna lie. I sleep with a knife around my bed.” Ms. Hersey has relied on a charter school to shield her own children from the danger of the streets and feels it has been critical to their success so far. But the school only goes through the 8th grade, and she has not been able to find a high school for her daughter to attend. She is terrified by the prospect of sending her to a public school in Trenton, saying, “I don’t even know what I’m going to do if they try to make me make her go. I don’t want her to go.”
Ms. Hersey believes her only hope now lies in her ability to obtain a Section 8 voucher, which would allow her to move out of Trenton, into safer, more stable housing. It’s either that, or live out of a bag somewhere else. “I’m waiting for my daughter to get grown and I’m thinking like, maybe, I’ll just live out [of] my book bag. I think that I can survive somewhere else. Not here. This place is killing me.
In 2013, 28.9% of Trenton’s 84,349 residents were living under the official poverty level ($23,850/year for a family of four). According to the New Jersey Department of Law and Public Safety, Trenton is among six major urban centers in the state that collectively account for 21% of the state's total crime, with 1,135 reported violent crimes committed in the city of Trenton in 2013.

Back to Poverty in Focus