By Matthew Desmond Sept. 11, 2018

Vanessa Solivan and her three children fled their last place in June 2015, after a young man was shot and killed around the corner. They found a floor to sleep on in Vanessa’s parents’ home on North Clinton Avenue in East Trenton. It wasn’t a safer neighborhood, but it was a known one. Vanessa took only what she could cram into her station wagon, a 2004 Chrysler Pacifica, letting the bed bugs have the rest.

At her childhood home, Vanessa began caring for her ailing father. He had been a functional crack addict for most of her life, working as a landscaper in the warmer months and collecting unemployment when business slowed down. “It was something you got used to seeing,” Vanessa said about her father’s drug habit. “My dad was a junkie, but he never left us.” Vanessa, 33, has black hair that is usually pulled into a bun and wire-framed glasses that slide down her nose; a shy smile peeks out when she feels proud of herself.

Vanessa’s father died a year after Vanessa moved in. The family erected a shrine to him in the living room, a faded, large photo of a younger man surrounded by silk flowers and slowly sinking balloons. Vanessa’s mother, Zaida, is 62 and from Puerto Rico, as was her husband. She uses a walker to get around. Her husband’s death left her with little income, and Vanessa was often broke herself. Her health failing, Zaida could take only so much of Vanessa’s children, Taliya, 17, Shamal, 14, and Tatiyana, 12. When things got too loud or one of her grandchildren gave her lip, she would ask Vanessa to take her children somewhere else.

If Vanessa had the money, or if a local nonprofit did, she would book a motel room. She liked the Red Roof Inn, which she saw as “more civilized” than many of the other motels she had stayed in. It looked like a highway motel: two stories with doors that opened to the outside. The last time the family checked in, the kids carried their homework up to the room as Vanessa followed with small grocery bags from the food pantry, passing two men sipping Modelos and apologizing for their loud music. Inside their room, Vanessa placed her insulin in the minifridge as her children chose beds, where they would sleep two to a mattress. Then she slid into a small chair, saying, “Y’all don’t know how tired Mommy is.” After a quiet moment, Vanessa reached over and rubbed Shamal’s back, telling him, “I wish we had a nice place like this.” Then her eye spotted a roach feeling its way over the stucco wall.

“Op! Not too nice,” Vanessa said, grinning. With a flick, she sent the bug flying toward Taliya, who squealed and jerked back. Laughter burst from the room.

When Vanessa couldn’t get a motel, the family spent the night in the Chrysler. The back of the station wagon held the essentials: pillows and blankets, combs and toothbrushes, extra clothes, jackets and nonperishable food. But there were also wrinkled photos of her kids. One showed Taliya at her eighth-grade graduation in a cream dress holding flowers. Another showed all three children at a quinceañera — Shamal kneeling in front, with a powder blue clip-on bow tie framing his baby face, and Tatiyana tucked in back with a deep-dimpled smile.


Vanessa Solivan at her mother’s house with Tatiyana and Shamal.CreditDevin Yalkin for The New York Times

So that the kids wouldn’t run away out of anger or shame, Vanessa learned to park off Route 1, in crevices of the city that were so still and abandoned that no one dared crack a door until daybreak. Come morning, Vanessa would drive to her mother’s home so the kids could get ready for school and she could get ready for work.

In May, Vanessa finally secured a spot in public housing. But for almost three years, she had belonged to the “working homeless,” a now-necessary phrase in today’s low-wage/high-rent society. She is a home health aide, the same job her mother had until her knees and back gave out. Her work uniform is Betty Boop scrubs, sneakers and an ID badge that hangs on a red Bayada Home Healthcare lanyard. Vanessa works steady hours and likes her job, even the tougher bits like bathing the infirm or hoisting someone out of bed with a Hoyer lift. “I get to help people,” she said, “and be around older people and learn a lot of stuff from them.” Her rate fluctuates: She gets $10 an hour for one client, $14 for another. It doesn’t have to do with the nature of the work — “Sometimes the hardest ones can be the cheapest ones,” Vanessa said — but with reimbursement rates, which differ according to the client’s health care coverage. After juggling the kids and managing her diabetes, Vanessa is able to work 20 to 30 hours a week, which earns her around $1,200 a month. And that’s when things go well.

Vanessa in the living room of her mother’s house with Tatiyana.CreditDevin Yalkin for The New York Times