Teen Moms and Homelessness in New York City: The trials and tribulations of children raising children in the city

On Good Friday in April, 18-year-old Racheal Moore and her two year old son Aiden showed up to the Mother and Child Crisis Center at the Covenant House, a shelter for homeless youth in Manhattan, with a backpack full of books, a suitcase full of clothes, and a stroller full of toys. This would be Moore’s first time living at a shelter and she said she didn’t know what to really expect, but she knew it would be better than “bumming around” at friends’ houses.

Moore propped up Aiden on her hip, as they were brought downstairs into the living area. They were assigned a small dorm room that has two twin beds, a compact closet, and a tiny bathroom. Moore thought this would be her home for the next month or “at least for the night.”

Moore, a senior at Grand Street Campus High School in Bushwick, Brooklyn, mentioned that her moving day falls exactly on her first day of spring break. But, instead of hanging out with her friends, Moore said she has to spend her break getting herself and Aiden acclimated to their new home. Aiden doesn’t really mind moving from shelter to shelter because he loves playing with the other kids and doesn’t really understand what is going on, she said. “I am the one who always feels like an outsider,” Moore said. “I have been told that I was a stranger since I was young so when you are an outsider, you are used to it. What else is so tough to bear at this point?”

Teen pregnancy in New York City has reached an all-time low over the last decade. The Health Department unveiled a report in 2013 stating that the teen pregnancy rate has fallen 30 percent in the last ten years, including five percent just from 2010 to 2011. Between 2011 and 2012, the teen pregnancy rate in the city declined from 98.7 pregnancies per 1,000 females to 69.2 pregnancies per 1,000 females. However, there are still more than 17,000 teen pregnancies annually and 87 percent are unintended, according to the report.

Although the rate of teenage birth has declined rapidly in the last decade, the thousands of teenage mothers in the city are more likely to be homeless and economically unstable. Almost half of homeless heads of household in New York City shelters were teenage mothers, according to a report by The Institute for Children and Poverty. The report revealed that over the last decade the number of these women residing in the shelter system increased to 47 percent. Some of these young mothers like Moore receive no support from their family, forcing them to live from shelter-to-shelter during pregnancy and motherhood.

When Moore first arrived at the Covenant House, she said she had to get used to living with the other moms and obeying the structure of the program. Her priority was just trying to figure out her next move and plan what was best for her son, she said.

On Tuesday nights at the Covenant House, the mothers who live at the shelter are supposed to gather around for a workshop put on by the counselors. On the Tuesday after Moore moved into the shelter, she decided to not go to the workshop because she doesn’t want to leave Aiden in the day-care for “any longer” that day. She ended up sitting in an extra playroom at the shelter with two other mothers and their children. The room was narrow and packed full of plastic, “Playskool” toys, books, and office supplies. It’s the second-time that the moms were meeting each other.

Katherine Perez, 18, pushed her stroller into the room and sat down on a wooden, child’s chair. She took a long sigh of relief. “It’s just nice to sit and not have to do anything for a minute,” Perez said. Since March, Perez has been staying at the Covenant House with her twin boys, Damien Alexander and William Jacob. She gave birth to the twins on March 9, 2015 and said that she had to find a new place to live when she gave birth because the shelter she was staying at could not provide for her and her babies. “I was completely by myself during the pregnancy,” Perez said.

Tiarra Thomas, 20, and her 10-month-old daughter Kyla Williams sat in the corner of the room. Thomas told Perez that she is “lucky right now because newborns just sleep and sleep.” Thomas peered into the twin’s stroller and gushes about how tiny they are and how fast they will grow up.

For Thomas, she had been at the Covenant House for five weeks and plans on being there up to 18 months if she is able to find a job through the Rights of Passage program. Each day, Thomas is given six hours to go out and look for a job while Kyla is at the shelter’s day-care. So far, Thomas said she has options but nothing is permanent.

Moore’s son Aiden and Thomas’ daughter Kyla played on the ground with a plastic piano and a broken puzzle. Aiden hugged Kyla’s head and Kyla started to cry. Moore yelled at Aiden and told him to get away from Kyla. Then, Aiden started to cry. The mothers don’t even seem phased by the crying. Perez’s twins don’t even wake up. “This is normal for us,” Thomas chuckled.

The three mothers started to talk about what is “normal” for them and quickly realize that they are more alike than they realize. Moore, Thomas, and Perez are used to moving from shelter-to-shelter. Even though they tried to convince themselves that they have the help from their boyfriends and family members, they all agreed that they have “nothing” and “nobody” to depend upon except for themselves and their children. The three young women all said that they didn’t grow up with love and stability. They had absent mothers and incarcerated fathers.

“They [the children] provide us with love and we want to provide them with stability,” Moore said to the group. Thomas pointed to her right shoulder. In skinny, black letters, a tattoo reads, ““What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” Thomas said, “This is my motto. Kyla wasn’t expected but she’s accepted and that’s my takeaway from all of this.” Moore and Perez laugh and nod their heads. “It’s so true, girl. It’s so true,” Moore said.

When Moore was five years old, her mother put her on a plane by herself and sent her from her homeland in Jamaica to the United States to live with her father. She doesn’t really know why she had to leave Jamaica or why her mother didn’t accompany her to the United States. “The only thing I remember is playing with this little toy airplane in the streets of Jamaica when I was younger and my mom said you know you are going to get on one of those soon. That’s all I remember her saying to me,” Moore said. “I think she wanted me to have a better life, but I don’t know anymore.”

Moore arrived in Florida and her father picked her up at the airport. Within a few months, Moore’s father was arrested and she was sent to live in New York City with her father’s girlfriend. Her father’s girlfriend didn’t’ want her and sent her to live with her sister in Brooklyn when she was only six years old, according to Moore. From the moment that she arrived at what she calls her aunt’s house, using air quotes to describe the word “aunt”, Moore felt un-welcomed and unloved. The aunt and her kids never made her feel like she belonged there and it started to take a toll on her from a very young age. “I had no family. My mother wasn’t around. My father wasn’t around. I used to cry sometimes. Who wants to be reminded that they don’t have anyone when they’re just a kid,” Moore said. “Why was I not loved?”

For the next nine years, Moore said that she lived in the “destructive aunt’s house” on-and-off. “I didn’t belong to anyone and my aunt made me know that at a very young age,” Moore said. She said that aunt “tried” to kick her out when she was 12 and 14 for “bad behavior.”

When she was a sophomore in high school, she met Aiden’s father Darren. Moore said that she was waiting outside of a hair salon and he kept trying to talk to her and get her attention. After a few minutes, Moore said she “needed the company” and let Darren walk her home. The two exchanged numbers and started talking. Moore, who is five years younger than Darren, said the relationship moved very fast and they became sexually active right away. “It was more like comfort and just feeling loved. It was more like just feeling like somebody wanted me,” Moore said.

In the first week of February 2012 and Moore realized that she hadn’t gotten her period in a while. At that time, Moore was living with her aunt and said she wasn’t educated about her menstrual cycle or birth control to understand what was happening with her body. “My aunt freaked out when I told her that I hadn’t gotten my period in like a month or so and she just told me to get a pregnancy test and that was it,” Moore said.

For the next nine months of her pregnancy, Moore continued to go to school and tried to “pretend” that she wasn’t pregnant. “I was in denial and just thought ‘How in the world did I get pregnant?,” Moore said. “I was shocked up until the day I gave birth. I did not think I was pregnant.”
Although she wanted to pretend like she wasn’t pregnant, Moore said it was her pregnancy that made her motivated to excel in school and move away from her “terrible” living environment. Moore moved around from various friends’ and relative houses during her pregnancy, but said she never had a stable living that lasted longer than a few months. When she gave birth to Aiden on October, 11, 2012, Moore wasn’t prepared but received some support from her extended family. “Once you have a child, your life doesn’t slow down. It’s not like are you ready but you have to be ready. Even if I wasn’t ready, I had to be ready,” Moore said.

For the next two years, Moore attended Saturday school to catch-up on her schoolwork and said that she was able to continue going to school because of the help of others. “It was hard, but when I got any help, I just had to take it and be grateful,” Moore said. She added that she wished Aiden’s dad would have helped more but he got arrested when Aiden was six months old. Moore said that he tried to help out financially, but took “the illegal route and ended up incarcerated.”

On Mother’s Day morning this year in East New York, Brooklyn, in a shelter for young mothers named Independence Inn II, 18-year-old Racheal Moore glided bright purple lipstick over her lips and glanced at herself in the mirror. She pulled out her cracked Samsung Galaxy smartphone and pouted her lips for a “selfie.” Her two-year-old son tugged at her metallic gold leggings. “What do you want, Aiden?,” Moore said. She grabbed Aiden’s blue and red backpack from the bed and stuffed it with crackers, granola bars, and three cans of cranberry juice. Pulling the backpack over her robust shoulders, she poured three more cans of cranberry juice in a towering, blue, plastic, sippy cup, the kind that many tourists sport in Las Vegas. “I need wipes,” Moore said to the woman working at the front desk of the shelter, “Do we not have any more wipes?”

Aiden clutched a budding yellow and pink rose in his hands. His tiny fingers wrapped around the long, rough stem and the patches where thorns had been trimmed away. “Mom!,” he screamed, as he handed it to her in exchange for the sippy cup. The two walked out the shelter door holdings hands. As they walked along Grant Avenue, neighbors kindly yelled out, “Happy Mother’s Day!” as the two passed by each stoop. When they reached Atlantic Avenue, Moore told Aiden to not let go of her hand. The street was flooded with vendors selling bundles of roses, balloons, and gift baskets for Mother’s Day. “I don’t know this area very well, but I guess we can go to Popeyes for lunch,” Moore quietly said to herself. “It’s a special day, so why not?”

Moore and her son had arrived at Independence Inn II two weeks earlier. It was the second shelter that they had lived at in the last two months. This time, Moore thought things would be different. “This place will allow me to get on my feet, I know it,” Moore said. The Independence Inn is a part of the organization SCO Family of Services that houses young women with children at three shelter located in Brooklyn and Queens.. This shelter offers the young women and their children the opportunity to live there for a year and provides them with more freedom when it comes to a nightly curfew, eating schedules, working, day-care, and more. “I know I have to be here because of my situation, but still, I want to be able to have a place I can call my own,” Moore proclaimed. “I want that for myself and for my son more than anything right now. It’ll happen one day.”

At the Independence Inn, Moore said she feels like over the last three weeks it is slowly becoming her home and she is becoming more connected to the other mothers. But, everyone is “kinda doing their own thing” and it’s different than the community at the Covenant House. “I just have to think that it’s me and Aiden,” Moore said. “No one else is really going to be there for me so I can’t get attached.”

It’s been two years since Moore gave birth to Aiden. This year’s Mother’s Day, she said it’s “important but not that big of a deal.” She said that the shelter tried to make the weekend special by bringing in a life coach who talked to the women and then pampered them with a “spa day” of makeup lessons and eyebrow shaping.

The two arrived at Popeyes Lousiana Kitchen about half of a mile away. The fast-food chain was completely vacant. Moore joked that most people don’t want to come to Popeyes for a “special Mother’s Day meal,” but she doesn’t care because the chicken is just so good. Her and Aiden found a booth in the back of the room by a window. Aiden gazed out the window, while Moore played with her phone. When the food arrived, the two sat across from each other. Aiden closely watched his mom as she dripped grape jelly over her fried, battered chicken and Cajun-style fries. “Give me,” Aiden said, as he motioned his hand to the jelly. She opened up a packet of grape jelly and spurted it on a French fry. He bopped his head up and down in excitement. “He just wants to be like me,” she laughed.

After about twenty minutes, the two finished up their meal. Aiden jumped out from the booth and ran over to an empty table. He climbed up on a chair and started to crawl across the table. “You better get down from there,” Moore screamed at him. “You best not want me to have to come get you.” She wiped off some jelly from her gold leggings and white, mesh jersey crop top that read, “BOSS” in shiny, gold lettering. It’s almost 1pm and she said she’s ready to leave so that she can visit her boyfriend later that afternoon. The two have been going out for less than a week and she said he’s a “bad boy” but means well. “We both have two-year-old sons, so we have that in common,” Moore said. “It’s hard to find someone that is going to be so accepting but he understands.”

Moore is expected to graduate from high school in August and said she has “big plans” for her life and for Aiden’s life after that. She wants to attend community college next year and receive her Associate’s Degree so that she can transfer to Albany State or John Jay College to study law. “When I am 25, he is going to be 9 years old. I will get to live my life. By the time I am 30, I am going to have my career and it is just like I am still young and I still get to have time with my child and be successful. Everything will be booming for me then,” Moore said.

Racheal and Aiden Moore on Mother's Day in East New York, Brooklyn.
Racheal and Aiden Moore on Mother’s Day in East New York, Brooklyn.



A Life Behind Bars Before the Age of 24: Cadeem Gibbs’ Story

Originally published on December 12, 2014

On Jan. 3, 2007, Cadeem Gibbs, 16, started out with 100 bags of crack cocaine in his pocket. He finished the day with seven bags of crack cocaine, $924, and a one-year sentence to Rikers Island. Charged with drug possession and intent to sell, Gibbs knew that there was no escaping his fate. “For the first time ever in my life, I remember being afraid,” Gibbs said.

Initially, when Gibbs was arrested on 125th Street in Harlem, he told the police officers that he had no identification on him and that he was Sean Farmer, a 15-year-old made-up person from Harlem. “I lied because there was no way that I was telling them my real identity and my real age. Even if it didn’t work, I thought it would save me some time before going to jail,” Gibbs said.

Shortly after, Gibbs’ mother found out about his arrest through one of Gibbs’ drug clients. she appeared at the 32nd Precinct in Harlem looking for her son but was told by a police officer that no one with the name “Cadeem Gibbs” was being held there. From afar, Gibbs’ mother saw him handcuffed to a pole under the alias “Sean Farmer.” His identity was revealed, thus his fate as a 16-year-old adult criminal was sealed.

Immediately, Gibbs was sent to the 25th Precinct hub site in East Harlem. Gibbs got pushed into a van, cuffed to another criminal, sent to central booking, and placed in a holding cell. His bail was set at $7,500. “I was allowed to make one phone call, and I called one of my friends that was in the same [drug] business as me,” Cadeem said. “They would always tell me how if anything ever happened, they’d be there for me. But no one posted bail or even showed up to help.”

Shortly after central booking, Gibbs was forced onto a large white school bus with the words “Correction: New York City” plastered horizontally across the chipped white and blue paneling. When Gibbs stepped onto the bus, he noticed the first eight rows were cages outlining seats followed by eight rows of two person seats. Shackled to a man who reeked of alcohol and body odor, Gibbs endured a 20 minute bus ride to Rikers Island listening to this man ramble on about what was going to happen when they arrived at the jail. “Here we go again,” the man said.

Within 48 hours of his arrest, Gibbs arrived at Rikers Island. Entering the island, Gibbs peered outside the tiny, dark window of the bus and saw this grandiose, dimly lit sign that read, “City of New York Correction Department Rikers Island: Home of New York’s Boldest.” Barely able to keep his eyes open after being awake for almost two days, Gibbs anxiously awaited as the bus arrived at the jail. “The real fear set in when I actually got in the facility,” Gibbs said.

Given a green drinking cup, rubber toothbrush, plain toothpaste, a grey blanket, two pairs of rough sheets, a pair of bright orange shoes, Gibbs settled into his new home, 22 Cell Block, for the next nine months. “The whole atmosphere is like a permanent dark cloud,” Gibbs said.

New York State is the only other state other than North Carolina that tries 16- and 17-year olds as adults, regardless of the severity of the crime. Approximately 50,000 16- and 17-year-olds were arrested and faced prosecution as adults in criminal court with the vast majority committing minor, nonviolent misdemeanors in 2013, according to the annual performance report by the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services.

In his 2014 State of the State address, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo proposed establishing the commission to “Raise the Age” and help ensure young people become productive and successful adults. “It is time to improve New York’s outdated juvenile justice laws and raise the age at which our children can be tried and charged as adults,” Cuomo said in his speech. In an effort to restructure the youth justice system, Cuomo assigned a panel to examine the state’s juvenile sentencing system and make the proper recommendations on raising the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 18 years old. The commission will have until the end of the 2014 year to form its recommendations.

“There is no right answer or magic bullet that will fix this enormous problem…This is a misguided statute. We can do much better. We can help these children and do so while upholding public safety. The two issues are not mutually separate,” Jeremy Kohomban, president and chief executive officer of The Children’s Village, a charitable institution dedicated to children and families of New York City, said.

While in Rikers Island at the age of 16, Gibbs filled a composition notebook with his future goals and business endeavors to pass the time. Gibbs meticulously organized each page and section, dedicated to his life after jail. Gibbs’ main objectives of operation, as listed in his notebook with red stars as bullet points, entailed raising capital, taking care of fan-base, providing employment opportunities for fellow minorities, being a proprietor of legitimate establishments, monopolizing and investing in assets. Gibbs called it “Deem’s Plan Layout for Business/Ventures.”

Photo // Charlotte Gibson Cadeem Gibbs' composition notebook from his first sentence inside Rikers Island.
Photo // Charlotte Gibson
Cadeem Gibbs’ composition notebook from his first sentence inside Rikers Island.

In order to achieve these goals, Gibbs had to comprise a second notebook dedicated to his drug business in order to generate enough money to pursue these future endeavors. “My whole plan was to still sell drugs,” Gibbs said. By generating revenue from his drug business, Gibbs believed that he could achieve and succeed in these business ventures. Altogether, Gibbs calculated that he could be making $3,535 dollars weekly re-up, $4,265 dollars weekly profit,
$2, 980 dollars weekly stock, and still have $1,285 dollars weekly left for necessities.

Upon his release from Rikers in September 2007, Gibbs said his circumstances remained the same as when he got arrested in January for drug charges. “I had it all mapped out [in my notebook] but I wasn’t prepared and I wasn’t thinking of reality,” Gibbs said. “I couldn’t foresee any of what I had planned at that point.”

Gibbs returned to Harlem and pursued his business, while attending GED classes at Bronx Community College. In three short months, Gibbs received his GED. Gibbs said the motive for getting his GED was to expand his network – his drug network. Each day, Gibbs showed up to the GED classroom at the Bronx Community College campus looking as if he had not a care in the world. Eyes bloodshot from smoking marijuana, Gibbs would come into the classroom, push the worksheets off the desk, propel his legs up on the table, and listen to music on his walkman. While everyone else worked vigorously on their assignments, Gibbs doesn’t even remember writing his name on anything besides the attendance sheet. However, Gibbs said he was the only one in the class to pass the GED practice test and the GED Exam. “There I am in the middle of my world doing what I am doing, and I am going to do something academically that I am not giving the slightest bit of thought to and I excelled at it,” Gibbs said. “I didn’t just pass it, I smacked it.”

Admitted to Bronx Community College in 2008, Gibbs declined the offer due to an arrest for selling drugs on Feb. 20, 2008. Gibbs went straight back to Rikers Island for six months. After being released in August, Gibbs said he felt like it was coming back to nothing – no business, no apartment, no girlfriend. Two weeks later, Gibbs was arrested for attempted murder and robbery in the first degree. “It was a drug transaction gone wrong. I gave someone a decent amount of money and they sold me something that was fake,” Gibbs said. “That was my lowest point because I had nothing and that led me to do what I did.” Spending two years at Rikers Island and then four years at Greene Correctional Facility in Coxsackie, New York, Gibbs was released on April 11, 2013.

While at Greene Correctional Facility, Gibbs enrolled in the college-prison program and received 27 credits with a 3.5 grade point average. “Everything was a self-motivated thing. In prison, I am just a number. So I had to do it for myself. I knew it was the last step before I transitioned back home,” Gibbs said.

For juvenile criminals like Gibbs, his first sentence to Rikers Island at 16 years old was not his first or last interaction with the justice system. At the ripe age of 11, Gibbs had been arrested for bringing a weapon to his sixth grade class. From there on, Gibbs got involved with drugs and gangs by the age of 14 and preceded to carry out the same patterns of criminal activity until the age of 24. Over the span of his life, Gibbs has spent eight years in both the juvenile and the adult prison systems.

For young offenders like Gibbs, the rate of recidivism, the act of relapsing into criminal behavior, increases when treated and charged as adults by the court system at the age of 16. Youth admitted to the adult criminal justice system expose themselves to 34 percent more re-arrests for felony crimes than youth retained in the youth justice system and are 80 percent more likely to commit more serious crimes, according to a 2007 study published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s Task Force on Community Preventive Services. In order to reduce the number of re-arrests and threats of recidivism, “The Task Force recommends against laws or policies facilitating the transfer of juveniles from the juvenile justice to the adult judicial system for the purpose of reducing violence,” Robert A. Hahn, Coordinating Scientist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

Youth in the adult system receive limited services and often become socialized into a culture where their role models are adult criminals and violence is a routine part of life, according to Charles Davis, Program Manager at Harlem Justice Community Program.

“When you place a person in that situation/structure of the adult justice system, the outcome will be a poorly educated young adult,” Davis said. “You essentially handicap them from being a productive adult because you aren’t giving them the proper tools to succeed.” Young men like Gibbs have the capacity to move their lives away from a life of crime but it is up to the external systems to support that person and help them become whole again, Davis said.

Since serving six years for attempted murder and robbery, Gibbs has struggled to find a consistent and stable job that he both enjoys and pays the bills. Determined to get right back on his feet after being released from prison in 2013, Gibbs has bounced from job-to-job as a campaign aide, paralegal, maintenance worker, peer counselor, motivational speaker, and warehouse worker. Due to Gibbs’ inconsistent work flow, from December 2013 to October 2014, he said he was practically jobless and homeless. “I was seriously depressed,” Gibbs said.

On Oct. 2, 2014, Gibbs was arrested in Harlem for one count felony arrest charge and arraignment charge for third degree robbery. “After that, I kinda fell into a slump to be honest,” Gibbs said. Gibbs denied the charges and said it was a misconception from the person that reported the incident and the police that arrested him. He is due to appear in court on Jan. 13, 2015 for the hearing and trial. For Gibbs, his arrest, on what he claims are faulty charges, is an example of how he is mistreated because of his arrest record, thus making him a victim of the justice system.

Photo // Charlotte Gibson Cadeem Gibbs checks his emails at The Children's Village in Harelm, New York.
Photo // Charlotte Gibson
Cadeem Gibbs checks his emails at The Children’s Village in Harelm, New York.

Sitting behind a desk, staring at a computer screen in The Children’s Village computer lab on a Wednesday afternoon in December, Gibbs looked at the page of emails sitting in his inbox. The reflection from Gibbs’ Gmail account illuminated from his plastic framed glasses showcasing a series of bold letters drowning the page. The baby blue walls of the computer lab contrasted with a large whiteboard reflecting light from the two small windows adjacent to where Gibbs sat. Inspirational quotes from famous political leaders and artists scattered from every corner of the whiteboard. “During your life, never stop dreaming,” from Tupac. “It always seems impossible until it’s done,” from Nelson Mandela. These words fell into the darkness as Gibbs carefully focused on and read an email from the law office where he recently got employed a month ago as a paralegal aide. Gibbs leans back in his seat and says he has too much on his plate and needs to eliminate some projects and jobs from his life.

“My greatest weakness is that I am a perfectionist. I have dozens of projects that I’ve started that will never see the light of day,” Gibbs says. “In my mind, I feel like I do it because I know I shouldn’t be. I need to make up for lost time.”