How I Went From Living in a Homeless Shelter in Queens to Being a Published Author
This article is the first in a series about gatekeepers in the professional world taking a chance on those with non-traditional backgrounds. Read the full series here.
The series is published in partnership with Fast Company.
“Sue . . . I’m homeless,” I sheepishly said to Susan Shapiro, my professor at The New School, from a payphone inside a shelter in Queens. “I don’t even have enough money to get to your class.” I’d been hiding the fact of my homelessness from everyone for six or seven months, almost as long as I’d known Sue, at this point. My 26th birthday was coming up, and all I wanted for my birthday was a home.
“Just come in. I’ll pay for your metro card,” came Susan’s caring voice on the other end. “A New York Times editor is going to be here. Tell her your story! Maybe she’ll help you.” I didn’t know how prophetic Sue’s words would be at the time. I was mostly concerned about my pride and shame. Luckily, I took her up on her offer, as that same New York Times editor would publish my very first piece four months later.
Writing is a unique occupation. Technically, anybody can be a writer: Just start writing. But breaking into the industry is another story. You have to know the right people, and the right people have to know you, and even then, you’re competing with scores of equally driven writers with more money and more connections. If you don’t have those inroads, being successful takes a lot of luck, even more so when you are faced with tremendous life obstacles as I was. The odds were stacked against me, but to get here, I didn’t do it on my own.
“I JUST WANT YOU TO BE CREATIVE.”
My story starts 37 years ago, in Chicago. I was not prepared for this world, so much so that I came out of the womb dead. My dad always says, “I knew you were meant to do great things because even death couldn’t stop you.” Hence the name, Alexander. After ten minutes of resuscitation attempts, I screamed my first words. I haven’t stopped talking ever since.
I recall being poor all the time growing up. Initially, I didn’t grow up with my father. My parents split when I was seven. I was left in the hands of my mother, a paranoid schizophrenic. She taught me to worry about demons in the wallpaper, monsters in the refrigerator, and spooky things of unseen origin and infinite destructive potential that would consume me if I didn’t listen to her.
My life in Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes was as scary as one might imagine. Murders, drugs, and violence. And that was before you got to the violence of my own apartment. The beatings my mother dealt me were only the first level of horror. Everything in our apartment was trying to escape itself. Mom made us clean often, but nothing ever got clean. Roaches and mice never disappeared. My brother, Zach, and I shared a bedroom, and both of our beds were on the floor because bullets always hit people who slept near their windows. The walls and door were spotted with bullet holes when we moved in. The one thing that saved my life was the day my mother’s boyfriend hit me with a sledgehammer when I was 10, I ended up in an Indiana hospital, and child services warned my father I’d soon end up in foster care unless a suitable parent came to take responsibility. He had no idea of my situation, and I went to live with him from then on.
Dad’s love and talent for artwork could hardly provide for our bills in their entirety. He always juggled multiple jobs driving cabs, delivering pizza, and working as a security guard. Even that income fell short. So, he’d supplement these funds with his art; Dad always had customers, but he rarely had money. Sometimes, he’d sell a painting that had taken him days, weeks, or months, for 50 bucks just to keep the lights on. It broke my heart to see him work so hard on this thing he loved so much.
From the time he was a child, and his mother discovered his talent, she nourished and encouraged it. His daddy, on the other hand, was not so enthusiastic. A minister who waxed poetic about the joys of the Kingdom of God, Preston wanted Dad to be just like him. During the ‘50s in Dad’s segregated section of St. Louis, people of color could only get their goods delivered by horse and buggy from people of their own kind. It’s understandable why my grandfather said what he said at the time: He couldn’t foresee a future where Blacks could have any job other than that of preachers, doormen, or milkmen.
Dad never told me I had to be a doctor or lawyer. He’d say, “I just want you to be creative.” I found it hard to reconcile his encouragement with the money he wasn’t making being creative. So, I decided I wouldn’t do that.
“ALL I HAD WAS MYSELF.”
At 18, I left the projects and joined the Navy. Thanks to the constant pestering of military recruiters in the immediate wake of 9/11, I believed it was the perfect opportunity to do better for myself. The promises of a new car, stable housing, and 100% of my college paid for—I jumped at the good fortune I was positive I’d receive. But after my honorable discharge four years later, I found myself in the midst of the recession, struggling with PTSD, with zero job opportunities. I often thought about taking my own life. Little did I know, this was only the beginning of the nightmare.
I assumed my training in IT would be a golden ticket to post-military career stability. But I’d been trained on million-dollar equipment only found in the Navy. My skills didn’t transfer to the civilian world. Mere months after my leaving the Navy, I was evicted, had my car repossessed, and began couch surfing or crashing in random places across Virginia, Florida, and Alabama, and at one point, moving back in with my parents.
I found hope when a childhood friend offered me a place to stay in New York, while I looked for work. Michael’s invitation came at a time of extreme desperation. I felt seen by a true friend and, on my journey to Manhattan, I pictured myself finally rebuilding my life. But soon after my arrival, Michael showed me the door. Apparently, his girlfriend found it unacceptable that, despite my best efforts, I hadn’t found a job within the week.
All I had was myself, the person I hated the most.
Soon, I found myself sleeping on the subway, on benches, even under a bridge once. But I couldn’t handle the frigid, violently-cold temperatures and 13-inch snow for long. I swallowed my pride and moved into the shelter system.
The shelter’s rules were harsh—get a job or lose your cot. After about a week, I landed a night shift position at a Family Dollar in Brooklyn. Going to work gave me a renewed sense of self-worth, and I thought about what I might do next. With my dad’s encouragement ringing in my ears, I eventually decided to try my hand at being creative, something I had always loved: writing.
At 25, I enrolled in classes at The New School. Going to class, going to work, bouncing around the shelter and SRO system in the Bronx and Queens. The G.I. Bill payments hadn’t yet kicked in, and I found it difficult to do much because the paltry salary I made at Family Dollar hardly covered monthly expenses. Then, I lost my job at Family Dollar.
Distraught, I stopped going to my classes. I wouldn’t lose my spot in the shelter because I’d recently started receiving public assistance. But my plans for a better future diminished. I didn’t care what happened to me anymore.
THE ONLY ONE WHO SEEMED TO CARE
Sue, my professor for the class Publishing for New York Magazines and Newspapers was the only one who seemed to notice, let alone care enough to inquire about me. She sent me a beautiful email asking how I was doing and if I needed any help with anything. I was touched by her concern. I didn’t have a phone at the time, so it was hard to get in touch but she kept trying until we could connect. She gave me subway fare to get back and forth from class, then invited me to a literary event and bought me dinner afterwards.
“The benefit of reading my students’ first-person writing is I often get to see what’s really going on beneath the surface,” she recently told me. “In your case, you’d revealed very heavy stuff early on (like drinking too much, financial burdens, ongoing medical crises, not having family around, homelessness). So, that stayed with me. You were carrying a lot. I was also teaching a workshop at Holy Apostles soup kitchen with Ian Frazier with a lot of people who were unhoused and had addiction issues.”
“I was stunned by the stories you told me about your past,” said Sue. “I was very moved and wanted to amplify your voice in any way I could.”
While I always knew Sue was a popular teacher (at NYU and Columbia, as well as The New School), I had no idea she’d taught more than 25,000 former students of all ages: undergrad, grad, and continuing education. Usually half of those who took her classes were published while they were taking her course, she says, and now hundreds have published books.
“I give assignments like ‘write about your most humiliating secret’ or the prompt ‘It really pisses me off when . . . ’ to draw out idiosyncratic real stories and have them tackle deep important issues of drama/conflict/tension. I have an impatient personality and I’m a shrinkaholic (addicted to therapy), so I didn’t have a lot of energy for work that’s general, superficial, or stays on the surface which—let’s face it—is where a lot of college kids and graduate students begin.”
After Sue finished her own undergraduate and graduate degrees in writing, she was frustrated that her mentors rarely discussed publishing, how to get a job, or make a living. When her favorite professor helped her land her first job as an editorial assistant at The New Yorker and a few of her professors introduced her to editors at other publications, she was overjoyed and wanted to emulate their generosity.
So, when she became a professor she designed her classes differently: “To teach students how to break into the business much faster than I did. I was broke and scrambling for work in New York for decades. I’m so relieved I can use all of my mistakes to help others.”
When asked if she had any additional words she’d give to struggling, aspiring writers she had this to say: “When someone asked Toni Morrison why she writes, she answered ‘Because otherwise I’m stuck with life.’ That resonated with me. I promise my students that writing is a way to turn your worst experiences into the most beautiful art.”
Once I published my very first piece, in The New York Times, about my homelessness, and when my GI Bill benefits came in, I was able to move out of the shelter and into a two-bedroom duplex in Brooklyn. Although I struggled to publish another piece for about five more years, I stayed with it.
I know that I wouldn’t have made it in this industry without Sue’s guidance and advocacy. In this industry, the odds remained stacked against people like me. Talent doesn’t guarantee success. But Sue helped me access industry gatekeepers and bring my stories to the world. And this is what makes her so special: She understands the struggle and wants to help everyone with a story. With her connections in the industry and respect she’s earned over the years, it’s more than just a good bet you can get attention—it’s more than likely. All I needed was someone to say yes. Once she did, my life changed in ways I never even imagined could be possible for someone like me. I cannot thank her enough for what she continues to do, and what she’s always done: Give writers a chance.
Alex Miller is a Navy veteran and native Chicagoan. He’s been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Vox, and Wired. In addition, he has also been featured in the anthologies “The Byline Bible” and “The Chicago Neighborhood Guidebook.”
Co-published with Fast Company.