The food stamps last about two weeks. Beyond that, Brown has to rely on soup kitchens or private welfare organizations, like the West Side Campaign Against Hunger (WSCAH), which runs a food pantry and provides counselors and cooking programs in a church basement on West 86th Street in Manhattan.
"There's been an enormously dramatic increase in clients," says WSCAH Executive Director Doreen Wohl. "This is the worst it has been in our 31-year history. We're in a crisis." The white-haired lady is standing in the little "supermarket" where the needy can choose food by a point system -- grains, proteins, vegetables, fruit, milk. The demand is so high their meat freezer looks plundered.
For Pam Brown, last winter was the worst. One day she ran out of food completely and had to go through trash cans. She fell into a deep depression. Her son Malik finally got her out of it by dressing up as Santa Claus.
The toughest part is watching her kids suffer. "Parents should fulfill their children's dreams," she says. "Instead, my sons are pulling me through."
Economists claim things are looking up. Brown doesn't feel much of that. To this day she spends up to eight hours a day, several days a week, in the waiting room of a "Job Center," her neatly printed resume in her bag, only to be sent to dead-end training programs and interviews leading to nothing. "There are no jobs," she realized. "Too many people, not enough jobs."
In the meantime, she feels treated like cattle. "They don't know what to do with educated people like me," she days of her overwhelmed social workers. "They're looking for the angry black or Latino woman."
She did have two jobs, temporarily. A real estate firm employed her for a week to help out with a project. "I was able to buy soap, toilet paper, dish dertergent, and I wasn't washing my clothes on a washboard anymore," she remembers.
And last winter, she "swept and shoveled" the streets for the New York City Sanitation Department -- in a dark, remote corner of the Bronx, underneath the expressway, with parked rigs and "condoms all over the place ... I was scared for my life."
She would be homeless if it weren't for her lenient landlady. But the house is up for sale, and she isn't sure how the next owner will handle it. Brown is terrified of homeless shelters. Just the other day she went to visit a girlfriend in a shelter: "It was like jail, with steel bars and a curfew." Her friend had lost her home in spite of her MBA.
The waiter refills her coffee. Brown takes a sip and apologizes for her grievances. "No matter what," she says. "I will not allow this to take away my optimism in the human spirit." Then she's off, to another interview. Who knows.