Home From Iraq, and Homeless
- A war veteran wearing a backpack, pushing a stroller and carrying a
baby stayed in another strange hotel room last night, mostly because
the city of her birth does not know what to do with her. Welcome home.
Home From Iraq, and Without a Home
By DAN BARRY
April 24, 2004
THIS is how Nicole Goodwin travels these days: with her 1-year-old
daughter pressed to her chest in a Snugli, a heavy backpack strapped
across her shoulders, and a baby stroller crammed with as many bags
of clothes and diapers as it can hold. When you are a homeless young
mother, these are the things you carry.
And tucked away somewhere are the documents attesting to Ms.
Goodwin's recent honorable discharge from the United States Army, as
well as Baghdad memories that are still fresh.
Two months ago, she returned to Bronx circumstances that were no less
difficult than when she had left them three years earlier; no yellow
ribbons greeted her. Now, every day, she soldiers on to find a
residence where the rent is not covered by in-kind payments of late-
night bus rides to shelters and early-morning rousting. All the
while, she keeps in mind the acronym she learned in the Army:
Leadership. L is for loyalty; D for duty; R for respect; S for
selfless service; H for honor; P for personal courage. "And I is my
favorite," she says. "It's integrity."
On Thursday morning, Ms. Goodwin wheeled her heavy-duty stroller into
the Lower Manhattan office of the Coalition for the Homeless, a
nonprofit organization that is trying to help her. For the last
couple of nights it has put her and her nuzzling daughter, Shylah, up
in a hotel.
"She needed a breather," said Mary Brosnahan Sullivan, its executive
Ms. Goodwin, 23, has perfect posture and a steady gaze. She graduated
early from Morris High School in the Bronx, the alma mater of another
soldier, Colin L. Powell ("They made sure we knew that," she says),
then spent a couple of years attending college classes sporadically
and quarreling with her mother.
One day in January 2001, she entered an Army recruiting station and
signed up, giving little thought to the chance of war. "I needed to
leave," she said. Life moved pretty quickly after that: basic
training at Fort Jackson, S.C.; classes in supply support at Fort
Lee, Va.; and then a flight to Germany, where she was attached to
Company B of the 501st Forward Support Battalion at a post in
A relationship with another soldier ended after she became pregnant,
and in early 2003 she flew to the California home of some friends
from the military - the Bronx was not an option, she says - to give
birth in March of that year. A few weeks later, she did the hardest
thing she has ever had to do: she left Shylah with her California
friends and returned to Germany to complete her service.
Four months after giving birth, Ms. Goodwin was sent to Iraq.
She served food rations at Baghdad International Airport for
Nicole Goodwin, a homeless Army veteran who served in Iraq, & her 1-
year-old daughter, Shylah.
Ting-Li Wang/The New York Times several weeks, then spent a few
more weeks at the sports arena known as the Olympic Stadium, helping
to supply soldiers with things like toilet paper and small armaments.
These are among her memories: "the mortar rounds, the gunfights, the
After nearly four months in Iraq, Ms. Goodwin returned to Germany to
finish the tail end of her three-year hitch. "I wanted to get back to
my daughter," she said, "but I didn't want to leave Iraq."
Her Army career now over, Ms. Goodwin returned to California to pick
up Shylah, who looked "amazingly different," and headed to the Bronx,
where her mother, two sisters and a 4-year-old nephew were now living
in the two-bedroom apartment in the Patterson housing project. "We
were good for a week," she said of her relationship with her
mother. "But after that. . . ."
Ms. Goodwin and her daughter moved in with a good friend's mother,
and she began planning her next step in life, one that would provide
more than the $250 a week she was receiving in unemployment benefits.
But a heated argument abruptly ended the living arrangement, and late
on April 6 - a little more than two months after being honorably
discharged as a private, second class - a war veteran and her small
child hit the darkened streets.
She pushed her stroller a few blocks to the Emergency Assistance
Unit, the city's flawed point of entry for homeless families. She
explained her situation to a staff member who, she says, yelled at
her for not having the proper paperwork handy. "I killed her with
kindness," she said. "I've been yelled at before by the best."
"I got that attitude from Iraq," Ms. Goodwin added. "If this isn't
life and death, it's not that serious."
She filled out an application for transitional housing, and after a
while a bus arrived to take the Goodwins and other families to a one-
night shelter on Powers Avenue. She thinks it was about 4 a.m.; she
knows that Shylah's eyes were wide open.
For the next several days, the Goodwins rode the city bus of
homelessness - two nights more at the Powers Avenue shelter, and then
several nights at the Skyway Hotel in southeastern Queens - while the
city determined whether she was eligible for housing. Her life became
a blur of riding late-night buses, maneuvering the subway system,
filling out forms and comforting Shylah.
On April 17, the Department of Homeless Services denied housing to
the Iraqi war veteran on the grounds that she could live with her
mother. Beyond the overcrowding that such a return would create (four
women and two small children in a two-bedroom apartment), she says
that the decision ignored the untenable situation between mother and
Moving back was not an option, she said. Not an option.
MS. GOODWIN immediately reapplied, thus entering a limbo world known
as fast track, in which families who have already been denied housing
return within 48 hours to the Emergency Assistance Unit to apply
again, and to wait, again, for that late-night bus to somewhere.
City officials say that under the fast-track process, the
applications of the recently rejected are expedited to see whether
any new information might make them eligible. But according to Ms.
Goodwin, fast track seems designed to generate so much frustration
that the applicant gives up and goes away.
Two days into her fast-track odyssey, Ms. Goodwin got a four-hour
pass from the Emergency Assistance Unit - keeping her application
active - and made her way to the Bronx Veterans Affairs Medical
Center. The Department of Veterans Affairs does not have housing for
homeless veterans, but it does have a comprehensive plan for
homelessness that includes assistance with employment and counseling.
Jim Connell, a spokesman for the Bronx center, said staff members
tried to find housing for the Goodwins. "They started calling
alternative shelters, but a lot of them don't take women," he
said. "One was full, another wouldn't take a child." He added: "They
were not particularly successful."
Before the staff at the medical center could help Ms. Goodwin
further, Mr. Connell said, she had to leave "because her pass was
running out." But someone in Veterans Affairs managed to call her
cellphone and refer her to the Coalition for the Homeless for legal
By last evening, officials in Veterans Affairs were vowing to make
sure that Nicole Goodwin receives the assistance she needs, and Jim
Anderson, a spokesman for Homeless Services, was delivering the
official city explanation.
"It is a disgrace that soldiers experience instability as they return
home and, sadly, hundreds of homeless vets today call municipal
shelters their home," Mr. Anderson said. "That having been said, the
facts support that this particular family has an alternative to
A war veteran wearing a backpack, pushing a stroller and carrying a
baby stayed in another strange hotel room last night, mostly because
the city of her birth does not know what to do with her. Welcome
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company
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