Down and Out in Miami-Dade County

Poor, unemployed, stricken with AIDS, and at the mercy of government bureaucrats. No wonder Vivian Rolon's life is hell.

Rolon, however, doesn't have a companion willing to mortgage his house and go into debt to pay her bills, as Cole did for Benton. She first applied for SSI in 1994, after being diagnosed HIV-positive and while she was still able to work. The application was denied the next year; an appeal failed. By the time an administrative law judge reviewed her claim in February 1996, Rolon had had full-blown AIDS for a year and had been referred to a psychiatrist for the depression and disorientation that accompanied the disease. Following that hearing, and despite making at least a dozen visits (by her count) to the Social Security office in downtown Miami, she heard nothing about the status of her claim until this past January, when an attorney made inquiries on her behalf. But so far the claim has been neither approved nor denied, meaning Rolon still has zero income, and that medical care for her is generally more limited and inconvenient.

But at the moment Rolon faces a more immediate crisis: housing. For the past four years her rent has been paid by a federal program called Housing Opportunities for People With AIDS (HOPWA). Rolon lost her HOPWA benefits at the beginning of this year, right about the time she was evicted from a two-bedroom apartment where she'd been living for almost eighteen months. She got an emergency grant that paid her February rent in a Biscayne Boulevard motel. Then she was out. The only place she could go was to the little garage apartment her son Carlos shares with his girlfriend Yamilet and Yamilet's four-year-old son Alex. (At Carlos's request, his girlfriend and her son are using pseudonyms for this story.)

"I know it's a strain on them," Rolon allows. Sitting cross-legged on her folded mattress on the clean white-tile kitchen floor, she runs her fingers through her tangled hair. Her dusky face is blotchy, and her eyelids look almost too heavy for her to hold open. Winter sun is shining in through a window overhead, illuminating a line of trophies on the window ledge and dozens of plaques hanging on the walls, reminders of Yamilet's outstanding high school track career. Jerry Springer is on the TV. "When I first came here I felt comfortable. But now -- it's just a little room and there's such limited privacy." Rolon's voice wavers, and for a minute she wanders to another subject. Then, with a shiver, she returns to the present: "I don't know what I'm going to do. I'm so afraid I'm going to have to go to a shelter."

Carlos won't hear of it. He is as shy and soft-spoken as his mother is assertive, and he bears only a slight resemblance to her: lean, black hair shaved close to the head, long-lashed, almond-shaped eyes. He doesn't have a high school diploma, and after more than a year of unemployment he recently returned to a job at Wendy's.

He worked on honors computer projects when he was in high school and wants a career in that field, but he says he needs more training. In the past several months, Carlos was more preoccupied with his mother's cascading succession of crises than with making his own way.

That left 21-year-old Yamilet, the willowy, brown-haired daughter of Cuban immigrants, as the household breadwinner. She has an office job in Coral Gables. Carlos moved into her apartment about six months ago. Five years earlier they had been high school sweethearts, and ran track together at Miami Springs Senior High. But he dropped out in his junior year, and she later turned down a track scholarship to college because she was pregnant with Alex. (Carlos isn't the father; he and Yamilet broke up when they were still in school and hadn't seen each other in more than four years when they chanced to meet again this past fall.)

"She's a good mom," Rolon says, nodding her head. "I commend her. She refuses to get food stamps and she works really hard."

Carlos has three older sisters: Natalie, who is 29 years old, lives in a small town in Puerto Rico; Veronica and Tisha, ages 27 and 26 respectively, live in South Florida but didn't want to be interviewed for this article. Rolon's relationships with her two youngest girls have been volatile. She has virtually no contact with her own mother in New York or her older brother in Miami. She is close to an older sister, a registered nurse who lives in Little Havana. Her father, whom she adored, died of lung cancer two years ago, after moving to Miami and joining Rolon in a small apartment. She has been divorced nearly twenty years from the father of her children, Carlos Rolon, who works for Miami-Dade County and has remarried.

Vivian Rolon moved to Miami from New York in 1980, got a divorce, and stayed here, she says, only because the custody terms required her to keep the children available to visit their father. Rolon is like many to-the-bone New Yorkers, expressing antipathy for Miami and its often provincial ways. But then she hints of a troubled, violent youth, and concedes she and her children are probably better off here. She often talks as though she's on the run from New York, as if her past could grab her after almost twenty years.

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