Tragedy as Transformation

by Randolph Portugal

“I put myself in this situation because of drugs; I fell on some hard times.”

—Justin Golia

When commenting on TASK he mentioned, “This is a great program, and when you have other financial issues to worry about, this place sincerely looks out after you.” Golia has shared that he currently cannot afford housing and that he is constantly trying to find ways to earn money. Before, Golia had a history with drugs. He was addicted since his early twenties and would put all of the money he made towards his addicting habit. Now, he strives for any financial opportunity to support his family, especially his daughter. He has been sober for one year.

“It is so hard to find work now. I had a contract with my father in Fort Dix’s Floor Services, and I was a professional certified vinyl installer, and use to make sixty-five grand a year. But once the contract was up, I didn’t have a permanent job anymore. Usually it ends up being a side job now and most people nowadays are not paying for these types of services due to the recession and so we’re left out in the dirt.”

Golia wholeheartedly described how he lost many people in his life. At the age of 19, he lost his younger brother in a car accident. Shortly, two years later, his best friend died of a heroin overdose. His surviving brother, who is also younger, was also into drugs; however he is now sober for over a year and a half. After seeing his younger brother overcome his addiction, Golia was inspired to do just the same. Looking back, Golia regrets the mistakes he’s made.

“I put myself in this situation because of drugs; I fell on some hard times.” However, Golia is still hopeful and is making an effort to try to improve himself in order to gain custody of his three-year old daughter. “Since I don’t have a roof over my head, my daughter lives with her mother and her mother’s boyfriend,” said Golia.

Golia genuinely believes that things will get better, but only as long as people do the right thing. Once people start doing that, then things will ultimately work out. Golia is currently selling cars and living with a woman whom he looks after. He is saving enough money to become independent and try to have his daughter live with him. His dream job, however, is to become a marine biologist and plans to attend community college first to begin his path towards success.

 “I have been through a lot and I realize that once you go through a series of terrible storms and still find your ray of light, then there is a lot to be hopeful for.” Although tragedy indeed does tear people apart in the most devastating ways, it can also be an opportunity for transformation: to shape yourself in any way you want, which is exactly what Golia is doing.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2011 issue of The Wall newspaper.


Profiles of Individuals Who Have Experienced Homelessness

Only initials are used to protect these individuals’ identities.

SP is a mother of a one year old son. She was staying with the father’s family for one year until she was kicked out. “Nobody wanted us.” SP’s boyfriend repeatedly abused her physically. She is now attending a GED program and later plans on attending college.

PR’s homelessness occurred when her mother abandoned her after her home went into foreclosure. She was attending college and is a mother of two children. After losing the house and her mother leaving, she sought shelter. PR was separated from her children. She is working on finding a job and reuniting with her children.

MC is a 49 year old male who had been living in a shelter for the last 4 years, since he and his wife separated. Since his housing with the HF (Housing First) program he has been working to get his driver’s license back in order to pursue his CDL. His plan is to go to work.

TP is a 57 year old male who had been homeless for at least 4 years staying in abandoned buildings. He receives Social Security. He had been injured at work, lost his job, and did not have any benefits for 2 years. He has severe chronic back pain. He now has a place where his family can visit him; his goal is to have better health.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2011 issue of The Wall newspaper.

Making it Through College without a Place to Call Home

by Cameron Dering

Karina Lopez walks through the Library Café with long, deliberate strides, head held high and an air of confidence about her. She finds some friends to mingle with and starts chatting and laughing. In dark-wash jeans, trendy boots and a peacoat, with a tote slung over her shoulder and iPhone in hand, anyone passing by this 21-year-old senior would stereotype her as the typical middle-class, suburban college student that makes up the majority of the demographic at The College of New Jersey. No one would suspect that when school is not in session, she struggles with homelessness.

Lopez spent her childhood in Manhattan never knowing any reality other than that of her own dysfunctional family. Her Dominican father was barely around, and when he was, he was abusive. Her Puerto Rican mother didn’t speak a lick of English, and was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia as a result of long-term abuse.

Lopez wound up in foster care by the time she was 11, taken away from her abusive father by New York’s Administration for Children Services (ACS) after dance instructors reported excessive cuts and bruises—her battered body exposed by her camouflage dance costume— to police.

“At first, they tossed me within my family, but my entire family is dysfunctional,” says Lopez, who was sent to live with various aunts, uncles and cousins, none of which could provide for her. “At age 13, I went into real foster care, living with strangers, friends of friends, friends of family—whoever would take me in for a week or a month.”

She’s lived in New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Virginia, Florida, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, shifted from home to home so often she doesn’t remember how many times she’s moved.

“For a long time I used to make a joke with my aunt, ‘I’m a briefcase, just put me in a corner,’” says Lopez. This joke was supposed to be funny, but Lopez says, “Over time, that’s how I used to think of myself. Disposable.” Between houses, she found herself homeless at many points in her life. “I lived in group homes and shelters,” says Lopez. “It sucked. It really sucked.”

The struggle to keep homelessness from defining her life ate away a great deal of time and effort. “It’s like you lose your dignity because you need so much you can’t do for yourself, you have to ask, beg, and plead,” says Lopez.

But Lopez had a vision: herself at twenty-eight with a college degree, successful career and home of her own. This dream would define the way she lived her life, shaping every thought, decision and action to reach this ultimate goal.

“I wasn’t willing to find a boyfriend to depend on, get pregnant, get married,” says Lopez. “I knew I had to continue pursuing my education because I wanted to be self-sufficient. I didn’t want to have to rely on anyone else.”

All the years Lopez spent caring for herself, forced to grow up too quickly when she should have been enjoying childhood, were eventually rewarded when she was moved into the foster home in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, the summer before her seventeenth birthday.

“I kind of found some family structure there and sense of longevity,” says Lopez. Her new foster mother had five full-grown children of her own between the ages of eight and 18 to care for when Lopez arrived. “They are my sisters. I’d do anything for them. If they wanted my left kidney, they could have it,” Lopez says.

The foster mother, who Lopez now refers to as Mom, would scold her for trying to make her own doctor appointments. “She would be like, ‘what’s wrong with you, that’s my job!’” says Lopez. “It took a really long time to adjust to the idea of having someone take care of me. A really long time.”

By the time Lopez arrived, she was only there for her senior year of high school, “but she helped me a lot in that year,” says Lopez. “She helped me be a kid for all the years I wasn’t able to be a kid, and I really appreciate that.”

With the help of a caseworker from an agency that assisted foster children with college applications, Lopez was able to begin working on the next chapter of her life. Despite all of the hardships she faced, Lopez made sure to study hard and get good grades throughout her high school years, never losing sight of her dream to graduate from college and make something of her life. All her hard work paid off when she was accepted to The College of New Jersey, a highly selective and renowned undergraduate institution. She was also selected to be one of TCNJ’s Bonner Scholars, receiving a generous scholarship in return for community service through the College’s Bonner Center for Civic Engagement.

But just when Lopez’s life seemed to find some sense of stability, a disagreement between Lopez and her foster mother over adoption had her back in a shelter the summer before she started college.

Now that she was eighteen, however, she was no longer placed in foster homes and often had to rely on herself to find a place to stay, which meant staying in shelters— adult shelters. Sometimes, this meant sharing sleeping quarters with some very dangerous people. Lopez recalls one night when she was in a room with four beds and found out that her three roommates had just been released from jail. They assumed that Lopez didn’t speak English, and proceeded to talk about “some really sick stuff.” “I was like wow, I’m not sleeping here, this is unsafe,” says Lopez. “I don’t care how much street smarts I have, I’m going to sleep at the park. And I went and slept at the park, cause I just felt safer.”

Lopez has found herself in shelters— a week here, a night there— multiple times since that summer. She has since reconciled with her foster mother, whom she still considers family, and spends holidays with her “mom” and her “sisters,” but no longer lives with them. Although struggling with homelessness herself, Lopez now gives her own volunteer time to help the homeless in the Trenton area. As a Bonner Scholar at TCNJ, she has given back to the local homeless community at sites such as the Rescue Mission and the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen, and has also gone to New Orleans to help the Hurricane Katrina relief effort.

“Bonner humbled me,” says Lopez. “I remember freshman year I walked with a vengeance against the world because my life was really shitty, then I went to New Orleans and was like ‘oh wow, I can’t complain.’”

Volunteering with the Bonner center has also helped Lopez learn to appreciate the natural gifts and talents life has blessed her with. “When I go to tutor someone, I realize I’m smart. For whatever reason, I don’t know why, I was born with the ability to be good in school and I can pick up things pretty quickly,” says Lopez. “Sometimes, when I wasn’t happy with my life, I’d go to Hedgepeth-Williams [Elementary School] and tutor some kid and try to make his day a little better, but that kid did more for me than I did for him.”

And Lopez was certainly excelling in school herself, juggling a double major in biopsychology and philosophy with the 300 hours of community service demanded of every Bonner Scholar, as well as membership in other student organizations such as Women in Learning and Leadership.

While Lopez had a lot going for her at school, her struggles with homelessness became too much to bear. “It took a big toll on my person,” she explains. “It’s not enough to have all these successes, because it still boggles you emotionally and can mess up how you view the world and process things and interact with other people.”

After taking stock of her life, Lopez found she needed a new direction and decided to join the army. “I felt like I needed to be recalibrated as a person, and the only way to do that was to start with a blank slate, and the army could do that for me,” she says.

She took last semester off to go through basic training in Missouri, which she renamed “Misery.” Despite the physical and mental hardships of basic training, the army was able to provide Lopez with the solace she sought. She was able to grow to love herself and appreciate her life for what it was. “It really helped me know myself,” says Lopez. I mean, I knew that my life wasn’t that great, but after living in the military and that lifestyle, I had a huge appreciation for what I did have in my life and it made me look at what I have.”

Lopez also gained a newfound appreciation for her status as an American citizen. “Even with my history, my relationships with my crazy, loopy family, and my several homeless episodes,” Lopez says, “I’m still free and I have the liberty to do with my life as I choose.”

“I think the army changed her a lot,” says Erica Hernandez, Lopez’s girlfriend of five years. “It taught her how to develop other skills, to realize how strong she is mentally. Now, she can handle anything.”

Despite everything that Lopez has gone through, she’s still just a college student who enjoys typical college life. Her favorite movie is Titanic and she listens to Alicia Keys on her iPod. She likes to watch “Grey’s Anatomy” and “True Blood” and hang out with friends in the dining hall. She stresses over papers and exams just like any other college student.

Lopez certainly doesn’t let her situation stifle her ambition. After college, she hopes to go to law school to become a successful human rights lawyer.

“I just know what it feels like to be stripped of my rights and underrepresented,” Lopez says. “If I can help a single person not ever feel like that, I’ll be happy.”

Lopez is currently in her fourth year of college, but because of her double major and the classes she missed when she took a semester off for basic training, she will be graduating in May of 2012. It’s been a difficult journey to this point, but Lopez continues to defy the odds each and every day.

“I just had a vision, and that’s really all you need,” says Lopez. “A vision prepares you and enables you to take certain steps and provisions to make yourself who you want to be.”

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2011 issue of The Wall newspaper.

Eating Healthy on a Budget


by Karissa Hearn

Having small change in your pocket and not much in your stomach leaves some Trenton locals in quite a predicament when it comes to keeping healthy.

The Trenton Area Soup Kitchen and other local organizations in the area help to provide meals to the working poor and the homeless.

According to Trenton Area Soup Kitchen (TASK) Director of Operations, Melisa Rivera, TASK feeds about 300 to 500 visitors at lunchtime, and between two and three hundred guests at dinner.

The soup kitchen tries to offer meat, a vegetable and a starch with every meal, Rivera explained.

Jeanne Molloy, a Registered Dietician and Sodexho employee at The College of New Jersey in Ewing said, “Make it colorful.” Molloy suggests vegetables, fruit, beans, etc. Specifically, these foods contain fiber, calcium and vitamin D, “nutrition powerhouses,” as she calls them.

Molloy specifically stressed the importance of Vitamin D. “It is the key to turn on the immune system,” she said. Vitamin D is prominent in fish, healthy cereals, milk, and soy products.

Tony Usery, a visitor and student at TASK said he would eat anything. “I eat it as long as it tastes good!” Usery laughed.

The soup kitchen makes a variety of food for its diners. “Pasta with meat sauce,” Rivera said, “baked chicken, we do everything.”

According to Usery, who has a particular fondness for kiwi fruits, they (TASK) have meats, fruits, and vegetables, but not a lot of snacks. Something that Usery said there was plenty of was PB and J. “They must have a line with elves on it, making peanut butter and jelly,” Usery said. According to Molloy the protein in peanut butter keeps hunger away the longest.

“They serve good food,” Curtis Hemingway, a Trenton local said. Hemingway, a Diabetic, put aside his notebook and pencil as he is studying to obtain a GED. He started at an 8th grade level and has been working towards it for about five years.

Another food option for many of these people is to grocery shop using food stamps or other resources. Hemingway often does this.

Hemingway is not homeless. He shops on a fixed income. Generally, Hemingway keeps his purchases healthy with chicken, fish, vegetables, and fruit. His guilty pleasure? “Those cream donuts,” he said.

Molloy’s had a couple of easy suggestions to make grocery shopping on a budget more efficient and healthier:

  • Plan your meals, and make your shopping list based on the plans.
  • Plan for at least one meatless meal each week. “This will get in your fiber goals, and be easy on your pocketbook,” Molloy said.
  • Shop the perimeters of the store. That’s where you will find the healthiest items, untouched by processing plants and manufacturers.

There is also another way to keep it cheap, the dollar menu. According to Molloy, “the dollar menu can be great because it’s a smaller serving size…pair a four piece chicken tender with a salad—that’s a beautiful thing,” she explained.

Have a Wendy’s crispy chicken sandwich, extra lettuce and tomato and half of the bun, and a baked potato without the sour cream. For just two dollars, “you’ve got some real nutrition going on there!” Molloy said.

Eating cheaply and eating healthily do not often go hand in hand, but there are resources and options available to make sure a diet is the best it can be. Know your goals, plan your meals, and keep a healthy variety as best as you can.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2011 issue of The Wall newspaper.

A 5th Grader’s Thoughts on Homelessness

Dear Journal,


Today I saw a homeless man that needed some help. He was on the sidelines of the road. I started thinking today about how I could help him or any other homeless person, and then a lot of thoughts popped into my mind. One thing that I could do to help is that I could donate to a charity, or I could put a dollar or two in his bucket. Then, I started thinking again about how people can prevent themselves from ever being homeless in the first place. Getting an education would help you get a good job that pays a lot of money. I also thought that homeless people should never lose sight of what they want to do in life or their dreams. If you work hard enough, you can achieve anything you want–no matter how crazy it might seem. Believe in yourself and that will do the job! Keep an open mind for the big things that will come if you believe!



5th Grade Student

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2011 issue of The Wall newspaper.