First published in The Record, April 19, 2018
Arrested, evicted, homeless and hungry, all in one day.
Lizette Garcia sat in the safest room in Paterson with her back to the wall, crying into a white paper napkin. She spent the last seven months preparing for this, the worst day of her life.
When the day finally came, Garcia was not ready.
At 3 a.m., sheriff’s deputies arrested the father of her children.
At noon, more deputies evicted her family from her little yellow house.
At 1 p.m. she drove to the Paterson Animal Shelter and relinquished her pit bulls, Maximus and Cinnamon.
“I love my dogs!” she said. “What if I never see them again?”
John DeCando, Paterson’s animal control officer, saw Garcia in the Paterson Animal Shelter, sobbing. Her son Nicholas, 15, and daughter Angelina, 12, were hungry. They had not eaten all day.
So DeCando drove the family to police headquarters and ordered them a large cheese pizza and a two-liter bottle of Sprite. The children sat in the office of Police Director Jerry Speziale and ate. Next door, Captain Lourdes Phelan made phone calls, trying to find the family a home.
“I took pity on them,” DeCando said. “We’re going to keep the dogs safe until they’re ready to take them back. We’re doing everything we can do. I think it’s going to work out.”
Garcia knew better.
This intervention by the police was unexpected and kind. And it could never be enough.
Like thousands of people in Paterson and millions of people across America on the edge of eviction, Garcia’s life is an interlocked web of crisis. Fix one problem, such as finding a motel room for the night, and three more problems pop up.
“We have no place to go. This is it,” said Garcia, 52, looking around Speziale’s office. “I’m out on the street with two kids. This is a disaster.”
A lot of people are talking about eviction right now thanks to Matthew Desmond, a sociologist at Princeton University whose book “Evicted,” about poor families in Milwaukee who lost their homes, won a Pulitzer Prize in 2017. Now Desmond has created The Eviction Lab, which he bills as “the first nationwide database of evictions.”
Despite the project’s name, Desmond has not yet collected enough data in 20 states, including New Jersey. So the rate and number of evictions in Paterson remain unknown.
In places where he’s unearthed sufficient court records, however, the problem is staggering. More than 900,000 people in 30 states were evicted in 2016. That excludes everyone who received eviction notices from landlords and moved out voluntarily.
This makes eviction the new “American housing crisis,” Desmond said, caused primarily by the confluence of soaring rents and stagnant wages for the average worker over the past 30 years.
Eviction is rarely a family’s only crisis. During an eviction parents often become depressed, lose their possessions and accumulate court and credit records that affect their finances for years to come, Desmond found.
“The evidence strongly indicates that eviction is not just a condition of poverty,” he writes, “it is a cause of it.”
This Tuesday, Lizette Garcia experienced every one of these problems simultaneously.
But the heart of her crisis was simple math.
Garcia is disabled by heart disease. She receives $1,304 in monthly disability benefits from the Social Security Administration. Her rent on a small house in a quiet neighborhood in southern Paterson was $1,200 a month.
When she paid in full, which happened rarely, Garcia spent 92 percent of her income on rent. Still, she considered herself lucky.
“It’s a good deal,” she said. “It’s hard to find a four-bedroom house for $1,200.”
Garcia couldn't afford the rent or her utility bills. Eventually the gas and electric companies cut her off. With help from Danny Ramos, her longtime partner and father of her two children, she survived this winter by paying $80 a day to heat her house with a gas-fired generator, plus $20 a day to heat bath water and food on a propane stove.
“It was really cold in our house this winter,” Nicholas Ramos said. “We were always under this big pile of blankets.”
Danny Ramos is a former handyman who injured his back falling off a roof, he said. Now he earns a little money scavenging scrap metal. He owes the mother of his third child $29,000 in child support.
Last October a judge in Passaic County issued a warrant for his arrest.
“I didn’t even know about it until they started ringing the doorbell at 3 o'clock this morning,” Ramos said.
After the deputies arrested Ramos, Garcia couldn’t sleep. She spent the morning packing. That aggravated her hernia, her anxiety and her right ankle, which is held together with two steel plates and five screws.
From her house to the animal shelter to police headquarters, Garcia never stopped crying.
“I just don’t know what to do!” she said, over and over.
At 3:20 p.m., Capt. Phelan hung up her phone and smiled. With help from Catholic Charities, she had found the family an apartment on East 26th Street.
“This is good news!” Phelan said. “All right, honey. Do you know how to get there?”
Released from jail, Ramos picked up Garcia and the children in front of police headquarters and drove to the apartment.
When she saw it, Garcia started to cry again.
Outside, she smelled marijuana. Inside, she smelled wet paint. A maintenance man told Garcia the apartment wouldn't be ready for several days.
“This is a bad neighborhood. There are shootings here,” she said. “How can I bring my children to a place like this?”
There was no time to worry about this new problem because the day’s next crisis was upon them. In two hours the sun would set. The only place the family had to sleep was inside Ramos’ gray Ford Taurus. If they risked it and anyone with the state’s Department of Children and Families found out, Ramos said, they might lose custody of the children.
“We have to find a place to sleep,” he said. “Now.”
Ramos called 211, a phone service for people in need of public help. Someone with the call center told him to drive to the Kings Inn on Route 46 in Wayne. A room would be waiting.
The motel is a notorious hub for drug traffickers and prostitutes. On Sunday, police from Paterson and Haledon arrested two people in the rear parking lot on charges that they transported marijuana and crack cocaine in a car with an infant inside.
Two days later, at 7 p.m., Ramos, Garcia and their children drove into the lot. They were shown a room on the first floor. Garcia peeled back the covers and found rodent droppings under the pillows.
The manager apologized. He took them to a room upstairs where the air reeked of mold.
The family had been awake for a long time. Angelina fell into a bed. Garcia tucked her in, under a thin white sheet and a stained yellow comforter.
Here in this terrible motel room they had four backpacks, a laptop case, four bottles of orange Gatorade and four white paper bags from McDonald’s with leftover cheeseburgers inside. They had no plan, no answers.
“This,” Garcia said, “is the worst day of my life.”