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East New York State Senate Candidate Recalls Own History of Homelessness

 Sean Henry is a formerly homeless teen trying to become state senator in East New York.
Sean Henry Running for State Senate in East New York
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EAST NEW YORK — Sean Henry was just a child when his mother lost her job in the 1980s.

After struggling to find work, the stress of unemployment eventually led to a split between his parents, leaving a struggling single mom trying to make ends meet in Chicago.

The mother and son bounced from family member to family member, trying to find a place to stay for years before Henry managed to finish high school, join the military and eventually get through college through the G.I. Bill, he said.

"The only reason I can be here talking to you right now is because of education," Henry, 36, said on Friday.

Henry, who now lives in East New York, is running against scandal-scarred state Sen. John Sampson to represent eastern Brooklyn as a Democrat in the state Senate. His experience, he said, gives him unique insight into an area wracked by poverty, unemployment and failing schools.

 State Sen. John Sampson (pictured) leaves Brooklyn Federal Court on Monday May 6, 2013. East New York candidate Sean Henry is running to replace the scandal-scarred Sampson in Albany.
State Sen. John Sampson (pictured) leaves Brooklyn Federal Court on Monday May 6, 2013. East New York candidate Sean Henry is running to replace the scandal-scarred Sampson in Albany.
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DNAinfo/Theodore Parisienne

As a homeless teen, Henry said there were days his family wouldn't eat. There was always a fear that whatever temporary home they were in would give way, leaving them out on the street.

Even staying with family wasn't a permanent solution, Henry said.

"When you double-up people together, especially when kids are involved, that leads to discord," Henry said. "That leads to families going to shelters, and it's no different in my case."

That fear of displacement is what led Henry to focus on his education. He enrolled in Chicago's Lincoln Park High School, one of the city's best, and joined the ROTC. After graduating, he went on to serve eight years in the Army Reserve.

Thanks to the G.I. Bill, Henry said he was able to afford four years at Southern Illinois University before moving to New York to attend a graduate program at NYU. He moved on to work for the city's Department of Homeless Services.

Homelessness — in addition to being a central fact of his life — is also a big part of his platform. If elected, Henry said he wants to fight to eradicate homelessness, not just build new shelters in neighborhoods like East New York.

"We have a record amount of people in shelters and we have to get them out, but we have to get them out long term," Henry said.

Rather than spend money to house families in shelters, city and state agencies should instead spend money on resources to keep them in their homes, like social workers and housing attorneys, he said.

"We're spending the money anyway, if they're going to a shelter," Henry said. "So why not spend much less and keep families in their home?"

Part of staving off homelessness is to make sure kids are getting a quality education, Henry said. 

To that end, he supports the city's universal pre-K plan, but also said schools in low-income neighborhoods need additional resources and better management, as well as better parent-teacher interaction.

Better education would also lead to lower unemployment, a huge issue in East New York, where the unemployment rate is higher than the city's average, Henry said.

"Our schools have not prepared our kids to go to college," Henry said. "So many of our young folks aren't graduating from high school."

The candidate also said he would fight for more affordable housing and focus on bringing Hurricane Sandy recovery funds to areas like Canarsie that were hit hard by the storm, something he said Sampson has been unable to do effectively while under indictment.

Sampson was indicted in 2013 after prosecutors said he stole more than $400,000 in home foreclosure sales to help finance an unsuccessful bid for Brooklyn district attorney and tried to cover up the alleged crime.

Earlier this year, Sampson was slapped with a second indictment, alleging that he lied to the FBI about his ownership of a Bed-Stuy liquor store and tried to lobby the state to have the shop's tax bill lowered.

Henry said one of the more urgent problems in the district, especially in East New York, is gun violence and public safety. The neighborhood's 75th police precinct is one of the city's most dangerous, according to NYPD statistics.

A lack of quality education in the area combined with a general distrust of the NYPD has contributed to the problem, but better community policing could help ease tensions, Henry said.

"A lot of young black men out in East New York are scared of the police and, in some cases, the police are afraid of them," Henry said. "We have to make sure people see the police as allies, because that's what they are."

After more than a year and one-half of federal probes into Sampson's political life that have left the district all but unrepresented, Henry said he wants to make sure the underserved population in the 19th state Senate district gets its due.

"I'm sorry for John," Henry said. "But he just has too many legal issues and can't do the job."

Now Henry, who also ran a failed City Council bid against Inez Barron in the last election, hopes he can beat both Sampson and opponent Dell Smitherman in the Sept. 9 primary.

He's already made some strides, with close to $56,000 cash on hand, according to state campaign finance records. He has received endorsements from Lambda Independent Democrats and community leader Regina Powell.

By contrast, Smitherman's campaign has about $47,000 on hand and Sampson's campaign is running at a $29,000 deficit, though he recently gained support from Brooklyn Democratic Chairman Frank Seddio. A third opponent, Leon Miles, has not yet filed with the State Campaign Finance Board.

Asked what he offers that's different from Canarsie residents Sampson and Smitherman, Henry said he has a unique perspective to help the people of East New York and beyond.

"I know the plight of these families out here," Henry said. "And I'm ready to serve my community."

DNAinfo has offered all candidates in the 19th state Senate district the chance to be interviewed before the election.