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Heart Attack Ends N.J. Homeless Woman’s Free Fall

Montclair, N.J. – Nights were uncertain for Carol “Hannah” Brenner. She slept on benches, on the grass, at the Salvation Army shelter, sitting up in an all-night copy shop. On a good night she might have had an overhang to protect her from the elements. A bad night brought danger and worse. One particular morning in October, asked where she would sleep that night, she paused, held back tears and finally whispered, “I don’t know.”

Brenner, a 73-year-old Jewish woman, was homeless in Montclair, N.J., for two years until her death from a massive heart attack on December 13. She was buried two weeks later next to her mother at Mount Hebron cemetery in Flushing, N.Y.

Born April 6, 1933, she grew up on Long Island and moved to New Jersey with her mother. She held a master’s degree in speech pathology and claimed to have taught at several Manhattan universities, although this could not be confirmed.

Brenner was one of a handful of homeless Jews in the area. Reuben Rotman, executive director of Jewish Family Service of MetroWest New Jersey, said that in the Morris-Essex-Sussex counties area, his organization works with an estimated five to 10 homeless Jews each year. They are spread throughout the area and range in age from young people in their 20s to seniors like Brenner. They became homeless as the result of a variety of misfortunes — from psychiatric disorders to financial hardships to sudden disasters, like a house burning down, he said.

Due to confidentiality issues, he could not discuss Brenner’s case.

Shortly before her death, Brenner agreed to be interviewed. She was tidy, dressed in a collared shirt, argyle sweater, blazer and a gray flannel skirt. She wore a small Star of David around her neck. Her white hair fell around her round face. Her eyes were alert, and she spoke with the depth and intelligence of someone from a different walk of life. From her appearance, only the socks and old sneakers, and a missing tooth, suggested her reality. Her primary companion, an aging dog named Little One, slept through the conversation on a green blanket in a shopping cart. Every now and then in the conversation Brenner paused and laughed heartily. “I have to laugh at some of the absurdity” of the things she saw, she explained.

She spent her days at CVS, at the library, and on Church Street, “shpatzirin,” as she put it, using a Yiddish word for “strolling.” Her search for a place to sleep was complicated by the fact that Little One was not welcome at most shelters or motels.

For Brenner, meeting even her own most basic needs of food and hygiene presented massive challenges. Sometimes she had money for breakfast and could find an inexpensive bodega that opened early. Other times, a local store owner offered something — cheese on a roll — for free. But sometimes, “breakfast has to wait until lunchtime.” At least lunchtime offered the option of a soup kitchen.

Hygiene was trickier. When she could find a full bathroom to use, she took advantage and cleaned herself well. For Brenner, baths were the height of luxury. Just thinking about one particularly deep tub brought a smile to her face and a deep sigh of relaxation.

Her world was peopled with those who, at another time in her life, would have been “invisible” to her. There’s the sweet alcoholic who treated her with kindness and love, the “coach” who helped her navigate the etiquette of the streets, the thief who stole her money but let her take a bath in her apartment, and the smoker who spent most of her time in an alternate reality but every now and then emerged to offer a useful bit of advice. “After the rain the grass is wet,” Brenner said the smoker told her. “There’s water in there, and you can clean your hands.”

“It’s true!” Brenner said.

Still, these people are not “mainstream,” as Brenner put it. And what made homelessness most difficult for her, she said, was the inability to communicate with her peers. “There are very few people in touch with reality all the time. So there are very few people I can communicate with.”

What kept her sane was the Write Group, a gathering of writers held at the Montclair library several times a week, established in 1999.

Long-time member and retired teacher Harriet Halpern knew Brenner from the group. “Somewhere along the way she got a very good level of education,” Halpern said of Brenner before her death. “She’s bright; and when she’s focused, she writes well. Her writing has an intensity about it.”

Added Halpern: “She defies any stereotype. Many homeless people sit on the benches in front of the library. They have a vacant aura about them. But not Hannah. She’s very alert.”

Still, Brenner avoided discussing the things that pained her unless pressed to do so — like the night she awoke with a man standing over her: “I swung my cane back and forth until he went away.” Or like the incident the evening before the interview, when an acquaintance stole $20 from her.

She had difficulty discussing her siblings, a sister in Lake Worth, Fla., and a half-brother in Pine Brook. She said they stopped offering assistance unless she would meet a condition they set, one she would neither state nor meet.

After her death, her sister, Lois Popolow, said she had stopped helping Hannah financially, on the advice of a professional, until her sister could give evidence that she had sought help.

Brenner described becoming homeless not as “a moment” but rather as “a gradual process of deterioration” that continues even after one is officially homeless. “You lose things, you neglect things, you can’t get to the things that help keep you together.”

Brenner had only a modest career, although she says she enjoyed teaching adult education and was happy, if not driven. “I was never motivated by money. I wasn’t attracted to it, and it wasn’t drawn to me.”

She never married, although she had a life partner who was a plumber. “He was the only poor plumber,” she quipped. She never had children. She neglected to save and received a tiny pension, about $600 per month, she said. When her longtime partner died — Brenner estimated 10 years ago — she was forced to move in with her mother, who had since remarried and moved to West Orange.

Brenner had no savings and only a tiny pension. After her mother’s death at 104 five or six years ago, according to Brenner, she spiraled down, from her mother’s home, to a rooming house, to homelessness.

For a long time, Brenner said, she was in denial. “‘This is temporary; this isn’t me,’ I would tell myself.” Then, she described, she went through “a second stage of ‘My God, it’s me and it’s a nightmare.’”

Finally, there came some level of acceptance. For Brenner, such acceptance had a “spiritual” quality. “I see people differently now. I live among people I’ve become fond of. I would have seen them as invisible at one time of my life.”

Throughout the conversation, Brenner’s thoughts wandered, and she would remind herself to “stay on track, Hannah.” She acknowledged having ADHD, although a talk with her might raise suspicions of other issues as well — but only at times. Most of the time, she seems like anyone else coming in and out of the synagogue building.

Brenner came to accept her life, although she carried a constant awareness of being anathema to the mostly affluent Jewish community around her. “Jews think differently about poverty — it’s [something] over there,” she said. But it didn’t stop her. On Yom Kippur she worshipped at Bnai Keshet, a local Reconstructionist synagogue where she went occasionally on Shabbat; and when she found herself in a safe place at night, she would whisper, “Baruch Hashem,” Blessed be God.

She said what she wanted most was a roof over her head and to continue writing about her life and experiences. “I don’t know my sister’s children, and I want to leave them my legacy. Whatever it is, it will be the truth.”

In fact, just a few days before her death, Popolow received a letter and a poem from Hannah. The letter ended, “I am not a fallen woman. I am a woman in free fall without a net.”

Popolow did not hear the news until December 21, a week after her sister’s death.

“I was reading e-mail and talking to a friend at the same time,” she said. “I opened this e-mail and it said, ‘So sorry to hear of your sister’s passing.’”

She added, “Hearing about her death the way I did — it’s a little difficult to bear. I have multiple guilt feelings.”

Popolow remembered her sister when they were younger. “She was clever and funny and talented. She was college-educated, a speech therapist. She was beautiful, with a lovely singing voice. Her potential was unbelievable. But she had demons….”

Trying to sum up her sister’s life, Popolow finally said, “She was a fabulously interesting character who lived a tortured life.”

Little One, Brenner’s dog, is living temporarily with Sharon Nash of Studio Groomers, a pet-grooming salon where Brenner occasionally took the dog for a bath. If Brenner had a difficult time finding a place to stay, Little One will not.

“I’ve had about 16 phone calls from people who want the dog,” said Nash. “Hannah was all over. She worked it, and not just the Jewish community. She was at the Catholic church, the Presbyterians and the Salvation Army. Everyone found out she died, and everyone’s concerned about the dog.”

Johanna Ginsberg is a writer at the New Jersey Jewish News, where a version of this article first appeared.

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