JULY 16, 2020
FOR THE OVERWHELMING MAJORITY of homeless people in the United States, it is not park benches, bus stops, or sidewalks they come to call home. Instead, homelessness is hidden from public view in the infuriatingly disjointed systems of social welfare agencies, state courts, local jails, and no-cost shelters. These are the spaces of the city with which many of the unhoused are forced to become intimately knowledgeable and wholly dependent.
Lauren Sandler’s This Is All I Got: A New Mother’s Search for Home follows a 22-year-old New Yorker named Camila through this gray zone of quasi-homelessness and the bureaucratic labyrinth of public assistance, child care, and her tries at receiving a higher education. We also follow Camila as she searches for a would-be father to her new child Alonso. With that, she realizes, comes a better chance at housing, not to mention greater financial security than she can provide on her own.
In narrating Camila’s story, Sandler does not hide the flaws of her subject, or, perhaps more accurately, she sees those apparent flaws as survival tactics. For example, Camila uses Alonso and a false claim about a child in utero as a failed attempt at keeping a man in her life, just as she uses a questionable report of domestic violence to climb higher on a long list of those awaiting public housing. But Sandler does not pass judgment. She places such actions in the context of a far more brutal system of disregard for this young woman and her baby.
Camila searches for a would-be father with a series of quick seductions followed by requested paternity tests. She doesn’t come off well here, but neither do the men. One demands that she take a pregnancy test in front of his own mother, who is skeptical that her baby boy could possibly produce a baby of his own. This depiction of manhood is refreshingly realistic in that it does not accept the trope of the cruel man who produces hardships through brute force. Instead, we see men whose poverty and shunned sense of responsibility are one of the sources of Camila’s predicament. Men have the luxury of acting like children and shirking responsibility for their progeny, and that may be far more destructive to women like Camila than a prototypical villain who holds outsize control.
Even Camila’s own father, with whom she has a tenuous relationship, refuses to see his grandson. Answering Camila’s call from behind the wheel of his sports car, he turns down a request for a visit but is quick to ask for the repayment of a $100 loan he made to his homeless daughter.
Camila is unfailingly charismatic. We are reminded of Camila’s slim curves, long limbs, lashes, and hands, her good looks, sex appeal, and confidence even in the midst of deprivation. She is charming, witty and elegant, easy to get along with, and possesses the keen ability to read people and therefore fit in anywhere. Such praise makes me wonder why Sandler seems to feel that being likable is somehow incongruent with housing precarity. She is likely speaking to those readers for whom homelessness is a caricaturized condition, if not a consequence of immorality.
Sandler is at her best not when gushing over Camila, but when providing critical insight on her predicament. She attacks the myth that through determination, often rendered in the clichés of “grit” and “hope,” anything is possible. Camila indeed remains optimistic and conflict-averse in the face of societal failures. But such dangerous optimism also gives way to a personality paradox in which “workaday hopes could be ultimately self-defeating,” both a necessary tool for survival as well as an enervating state of delusion.
This isn’t to say that the book doesn’t have sharp observations. After a meeting in a women-only shelter in Brooklyn, where the life fantasies include one resident’s desire to become a “famous fashion designer” and another planned to become a “renowned photographer,” while another wished God would provide a “nice apartment near her church in Brighton Beach,” Sandler sardonically asks: “Why spend your days in waiting rooms if God was taking care of things? Why apply for a new job if you convinced yourself the old one was coming back, this time with a bigger check at the end of the week?”
Sandler is also realistic in her assessments about whether Camila has any reason for hope. While pointing to the sheer incompetence of the state, the ineptitude of the men in her life, as well as the malevolent mechanisms of the private housing market, at one point Sandler rightfully reveals that “[t]here was no single solution to the prismatic impossibility of her circumstances.”
We catch glimpses of New York City, which permits some digressions into real estate speculation, redevelopment, neighborhood change, and displacement by gentrification, all of which are greater contributors to homelessness than individual human error. The undeveloped billion-dollar pit next to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn is only one part of the tragic context for Camila’s existence, a “perpetual emergency.” Such descriptions of wasted infrastructure are far more effective than the overwrought references to vegan pastries and the mentions of people’s dreadlocks, as if these details create anything more than a superficial gaze of a cultural economy.
Like a combination of Sandler’s previous books looking at the evangelical youth movement as an outsider in 2006’s Righteous and at only-childhood from an insider’s perspective in 2013’s One and Only, This Is All I Got is largely investigative, in no small part ethnographic, and at times uneasily self-reflective. Unlike Matthew Desmond, who remains a fly on the wall in his Evicted, or Kristina E. Gibson, who reveals her advocacy perspective in Street Kids, Sandler seems to self-consciously and awkwardly reveal her class position relative to Camila’s.
We hear about Sandler’s losing bid for an apartment in Park Slope, how she later secured her down payment through a small family inheritance, her mortgage payments, daughter’s braces and music lessons, a reference to her literary agent and book deal, and even her budget for bringing wine to dinner parties. While such reflection is meant to put the two lives in contrast and reveal the author’s positionality, it comes off as forced humility and as a feigned attempt at self-awareness. Sandler’s reporting and writing are so well conceived and executed that I did not need her to be so present in Camila’s narrative, regardless of how close the two became during the wring of this book.
But these personal details do little more than to momentarily distract the reader from otherwise being immersed in Camila’s story, which, at times, left me breathless. Overall, Sandler’s literary reportage and thoughtful analysis shed necessary light on people like Camila who, Sandler reminds us, exist whether we choose to see them or not.
Stefano Bloch is the author of Going All City: Struggle and Survival in LA’s Graffiti Subculture(University of Chicago Press, 2019) and is an assistant professor of cultural geography at the University of Arizona in Tucson.