STACEY, Paterson: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back


"Give us a chance."

Stacey Bullock didn’t think of herself as poor growing up. She has many fond memories of her childhood, about half of which was spent in Paterson with her mom, and half in Montville with her dad. She married, got a job, moved south—her whole life ahead of her—but, as she says, some “unfortunate things” happened, and things didn’t work out quite as she had planned. The first, and perhaps the most, unfortunate thing to happen was domestic violence. It impacted every area of her life and contributed to diagnoses both emotional (anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder) and physical (carpal tunnel syndrome, fibromyalgia), and eventually to a host of other unfortunate things—divorce, single parenthood, unemployment, homelessness, and finally, disability.

Stacey’s health deteriorated along with the economy. When she was unable to find an office job in the south, she began working in a textile factory until the carpal tunnel in her hands caused her to start dropping the tubes. “I used to wake up crying because all of this [hand and arm] used to be numb.” She moved back to New Jersey and transitioned to cashier jobs, only to find that the numbness in her legs made it impossible for her to be on her feet for extended lengths of time. After a few more years of “pushing on”—cycling between low-wage jobs and welfare; cheap apartments and homelessness—she was deemed medically-deferred from the Work First New Jersey (WFNJ) work requirement, approved for cash benefits ($147 per month), food stamps, and rental assistance (welfare paid her rent), and referred to Legal Services of New Jersey’s SSI Project for help with a disability claim. With this assistance package, Stacey was at least secure in her housing—even if it was a cramped studio apartment in Paterson. When her SSI claim was finally approved in September 2014, she would face homelessness yet again, as the SSI approval triggered the termination of rental assistance, and her income from SSI—$764 per month—is not enough to pay her rent—$854 per month. “You’ll [welfare] help me before a decision is made, but when the decision is made, then you drop me. I don’t see where that makes any sense.”

Since Stacey had been receiving welfare, all of her retroactive SSI benefits went to repay the Board of Social Services for the aid she had received. After all that time waiting, living on $147 cash and $194 worth of food stamps per month, there was no lump sum. No extra cash to use as a security deposit on a cheaper apartment or to make up the shortfall temporarily until she works out another arrangement. So, Stacey is faced with potential homelessness yet again. “I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but I still can’t hardly live off of, you know, what my income is now. You know, my rent actually exceeds my check.”

“If I had a say, of what I think should be done for new SSI recipients—give us a chance.  There is a lot of people out here that’s not trying to get over, that really need the help.”

SSI Budget Graph.jpg​​As Stacey waits for her name to come up at a senior residence, which can take years, the prospect of a Paterson rooming house is staring back at her—something she is not sure she can survive. “My disability—I can’t live around that. I can’t, you know? I can’t.” The rooming houses she describes are in downtown Paterson, in neighborhoods that terrify her—“right in the heart of chaos, and drugs, and everything. … I’ve seen people come in that don’t even live there, using the bathrooms and doing God knows what in there. And if I’m in the rooming house? And I have to use that same bathroom?” She doesn’t give voice to the fear or the memories, but shakes her head and fights to hold them back. “No. No."​


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