When artist and photographer Ann Marie Rousseau was in her twenties, she took a part-time job working at a women’s shelter in New York City in the early 1970s. “I didn’t fully understand everything that was going on, but getting to know the women at the shelter, and talking to them every day was a very moving experience,” she recalled in a conversation with Gothamist. “I’ve always been very interested in other people’s stories and I had a lot of curiosity about what had happened in the lives of these women. I found it compelling to listen to them and to hear them speak.”

We The Commuters is focusing on homelessness in the subway this week: We’ve looked at the policies that have led to the current state of homelessness; how commuters feel about the homeless; the MTA’s new crackdown; and the facts about the homeless who opt to stay in the subway system. The voice of the homeless often gets lost in the rhetoric, and many are too vulnerable to consider speaking about their current state.

Through working with these women, Rousseau got to know them and the details of their daily routines to survive. Rousseau wondered: What if she could give the women cameras and offer them a photography workshop as another outlet to express themselves? “I applied to the Eastman foundation and got a small grant to work with the women in the shelter to photograph their vision of the city,” she said. “Their photographs were shown in an exhibition at a community center and eventually at the Metropolitan Museum.”

A woman in Rousseau's workshop photographs the reflection of another.

These women also willingly shared their stories with Rousseau, who featured them in her book, Shopping Bag Ladies: Homeless Women Speak About Their Lives.  In an interview, Rousseau reflected on the timeless challenges faced by women who are homeless.

Women at a shelter with artwork created at Rousseau’s workshops.

Q: What was the shelter like where you worked?

A: It was a municipal shelter run by the city. It housed only 53 women but it was one of the only ones run by a city in the country. Most other shelters were run by non-profits or religious organizations. The shelter was clean, and safe and the women were well treated, however, once those 53 beds were filled up, women were turned away, no matter the weather. They were filled every night, so women were turned away every single day. I know a lot of women were forced to stay outside even on a cold night in New York City at that time. 

Penn Station late at night.

I think for women, one of the worst parts of being homeless is the danger. It’s not safe, for men or for women, but always more so for women. It’s difficult for women to find somewhere they won’t be hurt or attacked.  At that time, Penn Station was a place women could go for some measure of safety if they were turned away from the shelter. Another option was the subway. I knew many women who rode the train until the end of the line, got off,  turned around, and went in the other direction. Riding the train was at least a period of time you could be inside, warm, and reasonably protected.

Sleeping on the subway.

Q: What were some of the circumstances that led to them becoming homeless?

A: Of course there are many reasons including alcoholism, addiction and mental illness, and for many people just an inability to pay the rent.  There are also people who might be called “eccentric” or “different,” or might be mildly mentally ill, or elderly, who are able to live on the margins and they do alright. They may have a small source of income, they have their life, a few people who know them, familiarity with their surroundings. All that works, until something happens; they get kicked off welfare, their SSI check doesn’t show up or is stolen, a family member who looked out for them dies, or can’t do it anymore, they get mugged, they become ill, they get evicted, they can’t find a new place, or there is no new place. 

The places where people used to be able to subsist on a small income don’t exist anymore. You need a lot of income in order to pay any kind of rent anywhere. Once there is this kind of disruption in people’s lives, and without support, a person who was functioning somewhat ok in housing that may have been substandard, but at least it was housing, is now homeless and trying to fend for themselves on the street.  

Any problems they might have had become magnified a thousand fold.  Homelessness is itself debilitating. I never met anyone who was homeless by “choice.”  All of them found themselves there because of the circumstances in their life that had driven them out of wherever they were.

A woman with her cart on 14th street.

There were particular women I got to know very well because they lived in my neighborhood.  One, was a woman who went up and down 14th Street with a huge overflowing cart with all her belongings. It was hard to see what was in that cart and much of it looked like trash, but she had a box she used as her “dining table” and fabric and a sewing kit for repairing or making some of her clothes. Her cart was her house. Periodically, when she wandered away, the department of sanitation would pick up her cart and put it in the back of a dump truck. Losing her cart was as significant as someone losing a home that they live in.  

Over a period of many years she was always around the neighborhood. She always lived on the street, and she always had a friendly hello. She appreciated a sandwich and a cup of coffee, three sugars please. Then one day she was gone, just like that. I've often wondered what happened to her. 

Q: What were some things you saw repeatedly with the women you worked with?

A: One of the things that I saw over and over again was how sleep deprivation changes a person. Sleep deprivation over long periods is really going to be extremely harmful and change a person’s personality. It makes them more disabled and less able to think clearly or make the right choices for their life. 

Living on the street for any period of time…it would make anyone break down mentally. Over and over again I would see a woman come into the shelter, really a mess in every way possible; physically and mentally. That same woman, once she had a place to sleep, a chance to clean up, regular nutritious meals, freedom from being in danger; three or four days later was a completely transformed person. You would not recognize the same woman who had just come in off the street the night before. It became possible to now have a conversation and help her make a plan about her life. 

Sleeping sitting up at Penn Station.

Q: What were some ways women coped with living on the street?

A: Sometimes women would try to sleep sitting up in a waiting room chair. In the waiting rooms at Penn Station it was possible some nights to see every chair filled with homeless people attempting to sleep sitting up. They knew if they could sit up they would not be asked to leave. Of course if they stayed there too long or if they fell over or whatever, they would be asked to move along by the police. It was a method for trying to get sleep. All of them were very, very sleep deprived. You often see people sleeping on the street just because they've had to stay awake all night to be safe.

One of the things I did try to show in my book was not so much portraits of the women as portraits of the environment. Portraits of the kind of the landscapes that people had to navigate in the city to be homeless, where they had to go and what they had to do. When a person is homeless, all of life has to be lived outside in public. Homeless people are there right in front of us but invisible at the same time. There are many more homeless people than might be known because most of them struggle not to be noticed. They hide in plain sight.

A woman bends under a blow dryer to stay warm.

So there’s lots of photos of women washing up in the train station restrooms, because that was a critical fact of their lives. One image is of an elderly woman bending below the hand blow dryer. She was pushing the button every minute on the dryer to keep warm in the winter.

A woman staying awake at a 24-hour luncheonette.

Another is of a woman sitting in the window of a luncheonette coffee shop on Broadway around 3am in the morning. I was coming back from Penn Station on my bike one night when I recognized her in the window. It looks like such an ordinary scene of a woman sitting in a window, but I knew exactly what was happening. The luncheonette was open 24 hours and it was possible to order one cup of coffee and sit there as long as you stayed upright at the table. So that's what that photo is about, her sitting where she would be safe, as long as she could stay awake. That was how she protected herself.

The lockers in the bus and train stations were very very important. Having a place to put belongings, at least temporarily, meant you didn’t have to constantly lug around all of your possessions. The problem was that if you couldn’t come up with the necessary coins to put in the locker every day, your things were removed, and put in a storage. Then more money was needed to be found to pay to get them back. Inevitably, once a certain amount of time passed and the fees were unpaid, everything was discarded.

A woman being asked to move along from steps in Penn Station.

Q: Is the experience of homelessness in NYC different now?

A: I think many things are the same as it was when I took these photos, but it’s harder now and easier to become homeless. There are so many people that are homeless that we just don’t see. We don’t know how many people really are homeless, who are struggling just to look normal and not be asked to move along, to find a place that’s safe where they won’t be attacked or hurt in some way.

Unlike other cities, in New York, people don’t have cars and are reliant on public spaces. It’s more difficult today because it’s impossible to sleep in places like Penn Station or Grand Central Station. The authorities are much more diligent about moving people along. More is done to prevent people from resting or even just sitting for long periods in public places.

It's just harder all around. As far as more people becoming homeless, I believe that is something that is happening. There are people with jobs who can hardly pay rent, nevermind somebody that doesn't have an income, or is mentally ill, or is struggling with addiction or alcoholism. Whole families, even with a working parent, become homeless for similar reasons. The working poor are a part of the homeless population that are seldom recognized.

The invisibility of the homeless in plain sight.

Q: What would you say to the New Yorker passing a homeless person?

A: I think the most important thing is to be aware they're there and that person is suffering. They're not there by choice at all. What's happening at that moment that you see them, is that they are coping as best they can. No matter what they look like or how they behave, they are someone who is a person who is in desperate need. Giving money is a personal choice, and may or may not be the right thing in a particular situation, but it is always the right thing for all of us to support local initiatives that help the homeless, especially those whose goal is housing for all, even the least among us.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

We the Commuters goes live at The Greene Space with a look at homelessness in the subways on September 24th, hosted by Shumita Basu along with her fellow WNYC and Gothamist reporters. The evening will include conversations with State Senator Liz Krueger, MTA Board Member Larry Schwartz, Coalition for the Homeless Policy Director Giselle Routhier, the former homeless, and more. More details here.

Clarisa Diaz is a designer and reporter for Gothamist / WNYC. You can follow her on Twitter @Clarii_D.