In Debt and on the Street, Student Struggles to Get By
John Makoney felt he had a chance to start anew after being accepted into The New School for General Studies. Living on the streets of New York City for nearly half of his adult life, Makoney dreamed of becoming a teacher. A year later, after his health prevented him from attending classes, Makoney finds himself in debt to the university and farther away from his goal than ever.
Makoney, 45, has endured a tumultous life. A struggle with heroin addiction since the early 1980s has taught him to do what it takes to get by. When the weather’s warm, he sleeps in a hidden spot in Central Park. When it’s not, he sleeps in abandoned buildings in Brooklyn. A tattoo artist and trained body piercer, he once hitchhiked to San Francisco to teach a genital piercing class. He also played lead guitar in a punk band called No Fucker. “We were huge in Japan,” Makoney said recently, sitting on the sidewalk near Strand bookstore after a day of panhandling.
In 2010, after his addiction and financial missteps left him homeless once again, Makoney applied to NSGS. “I wanted to go to a another country and teach English,” he said. “A lot of my punk friends had done it, but I didn’t have any teaching experience.” Upon his acceptance to The New School, he received only limited financial aid and had to cover the remainder of his college costs with student loans.
Makoney understood that he had to get his life and body in order before he started classes. “I knew I couldn’t chase 22 bags of dope a day and go to school and work on a Master’s,” he said, so he started a course of Methadone treatments. He also faced a second problem; Makoney had contracted hepatitis C, a debilitating liver disease, from years of shooting heroin with unclean needles.
Makoney volunteered for an experimental drug trial in order to gain access to treatment. He received his first full dose — a combination of Interferon, a common treatment for hepatitis, and another medication — on the first day of classes.
The antiviral cocktail, Makoney said, worsened his condition. “I was tired,” he recalled. “I was anxious, and I was nauseous — really nauseous. I felt like I was on the verge of vomiting all the time.”
Makoney didn’t feel like he could attend classes under such circumstances. He withdrew from the 2010 summer sessions and hoped to re-enroll in the fall. But when the time came to register for fall classes, Makoney hit a bureaucratic roadblock.
Before the summer session had started, Makoney received a check from the school for $1,800 — the remainder of his student loan. When he withdrew, the university paid the loans back in full, and held Makoney responsible for the $1,800. He will be unable to return to The New School until he repays the money.
For Makoney, the debt was just another setback.
Born near Utica, in upstate New York, he arrived in the city in 1984. For nine years he lived on the streets, and was active in the punk scene. He spent much of his time in Alphabet City, and fondly remembers the days when NYU students never crossed First Avenue.
In 1998, Makoney was arrested for possession of 40 bags of heroin. After serving 19 months in prison, he was clean, and eager for a fresh start. Back home in Utica, he opened a tattoo parlor and also bought a warehouse, with the idea of converting it into lofts. In 2008, the building was seized because of back taxes. “I didn’t know anything about property management,” he said.
Out of options, Makoney returned to New York. In the cleaner, richer metropolis of Giuliani and Bloomberg, he’s had to move farther out. Like many New School students, he settled in Bushwick. But unlike them, he lives in an abandoned brownstone with as many as 18 people.
Many of his housemates have addictions of their own. Makoney brings home packs of clean needles, hoping they will take them when they root through his belongings. “There’s no reason for anyone to get hep C now,” he said. When he first started using drugs, addicts could buy dirty needles for dimes.
Makoney hopes to return to NSGS. He feels he received poor financial advice from his faculty advisor - who, Makoney said, now avoids eye contact when she walks past him as he panhandles on the street. He remains grateful to administrators who did try to help him, but still feels he was treated differently because of his history. “When I told them I had hepatitis C,” he said, “it seemed to me like they didn’t think I was serious about the education.” As of press time, New School administrators could not be reached to comment on Makoney’s situation.
A year into his leave of absence, Makoney says he still wants to prove he’s serious. Though the future seems as uncertain as ever, he hopes to find the help he needs to get healthy and back on his feet.
“People out there pay for surgeries for dogs all the time,” he said. “Maybe someone out there will feel like paying for a human instead.”