I have a reporter friend . . . well, more of an acquaintance, but if I saw him in public I’d say hello and probably ask if he wanted to grab a cup of coffee if he wasn’t busy at the moment. Anyway, I know this reporter who writes about the community here in Nashville – “Opinion Engagement Editor” is his official title.
A few months ago, I got a FB message from him in response to a comment I made on his wall. He was working on a piece about homelessness, and posting about some of his experiences while he is researching the topic. As a once nighttime tour guide, I had seen my fair share of the homeless population downtown. I wrote:
And then I forgot about it. I post on Facebook all the time. It’s a form of media I love to interact with.
David messaged me a few weeks later, letting me know he was moved by what I wrote, and asking if I’d contribute to a piece he was working on with the theme “One Paycheck Away From Homelessness.” I love to write. I love to tell stories. I told him of course I would, and sent him a 1500+ response to the four questions he asked.
Hey, I warned him I was wordy and asked if he wanted a word limit on my responses. He said no.
David liked my writing so much he asked if he could use it as a springboard for another piece, but then other news took over and he hasn’t gotten back to this topic again. It may yet still be published – if it is, I’ll update this post with a link to the Tennessean. Until then, I asked if I could share what I wrote with my bloggers. With his permission, here’s the questionnaire in full.
1. You mentioned feeling one paycheck away from homelessness. Would you elaborate on what that means for you and the stress that causes you?
I qualified for the Hardest Hit Fund program the government enacted to help people keep their homes in 18 of the states that were the “Hardest Hit” by the recession. When I went in to apply, I had all of my files and documentation in neat, labeled, papercliped, organized folders. The lady behind the desk asked me, “Why are you here today?”
I laid out piles of paperwork as I answered the question. “Here is the information about my divorce. Here is the documentation about my company closing resulting in my unemployment. Here are the medical documents showing my ER visits and health problems that resulted from my nervous breakdown after the job loss and divorce. And here are the bills from the recent water heater flood damage to my home showing the several thousand dollars worth of damage . . . and the insurance is only paying 2/3rds of it.”
I sat back and looked at the woman, whose face was wide-eyed with surprise. “You only need one qualifying event, ma’am,” she said. “This is one from every category.”
“Then pick one,” I said, gesturing my hand over the neat piles.
My bank refused the program. They fought me every step of the way, trying to throw me out of my home. Two days before they were going to foreclose on the house, someone got the state Attorney General’s office to call my bank and inform them by law they had to accept the program. I had just enough money to rent a storage shed, and I’d started eyeing in the house what I could take and what I could part with. I didn’t sleep at all that week.
I am very lucky to have family that has helped keep the lights on. It was a small relief to know I had a roof over my head with the Hardest Hit Fund helping, but that doesn’t cover water, electricity, car insurance, gas . . . I went from random temp job to random temp job. I finally found a fairly stable job, but I’m still technically under-employed. I have a masters degree and 20 years job experience and I make $11. I still have to rely on family for emergencies – a tire blows on my car, I become ill and need to see the doctor, the washing machine breaks . . . there’s no savings account to help out. No cushion. I feel like I’m walking a tightrope with no net and I’ve been living this way for eight years now.
You rotate bills. “Ok, so the car is one month behind and the internet is two months behind, so I’ll pay the internet this month, and pay the car with my next paycheck.” Then your dogs bark early in the morning, and you hear a truck in the driveway and panic – was I wrong? Was I two months behind on the car and they’re coming to get it? Then you realize it was the trash truck. But too late – you’re wide awake, heart pounding.
You question everything. Should I use my boss as a reference or will he be upset I’m looking for something else? I’m so exhausted, should I go home and eat peanut butter crackers or should I buy a tasteless dollar menu cheeseburger for dinner? Will a tarp cover the leak in the roof until I have money to fix it?
For the record, the tarp worked. It has for two years now.
2. What have you learned about yourself and the community/resources around you during this process?
I learned there are people who don’t judge you.
I had to get tax information for the Hardest Hit Fund program, and it required me to go the tax office. When I went, I sheepishly told them why I needed the information, and the woman saw my downtrodden face. “Don’t you feel bad, miss,” she said. “These programs are out there to help people!” She was slightly harsh and scolding. “My brother worked for thirty years, and they laid him off and didn’t blink an eye! He has a family to feed! How are people supposed to live like this? These programs are out there to help people. Don’t you feel bad about this for one minute!”
I still felt bad.
*** *** ***
I learned some people don’t understand unless it has affected them directly.
“Well, honey – just keep your chin up. Times are tough. My first job was when I was a teenager and my mother had just died. I had to help support the family. The gas station paid me $50 a week,” my father told me. “It was hard times for us all.”
I pulled up an inflation calculator from the Department of Labor and entered the year he worked and $50. “THAT’S ALMOST $500 TODAY!!” I shrieked. “I have two college degrees and a masters and I’ve never made that much money in my life!!!!” I burst into tears.
“Well, you just need to try harder,” my father said.
“I tried harder,” I said. “I failed.”
*** *** ***
I learned to speak my situation and stand up for others.
I was sitting with a group of my friends and their family at a table in some chain restaurant after a funeral. The retired woman sitting across the table was chiding her niece sitting next to me.
“You just need to get a job. Why don’t you have a job? How do you pay for that apartment you live in?” she asked the girl harshly.
“Your tax dollars,” someone at the table said.
“Well, you’re not welcome,” the woman said to her niece with a combination smile/sneer. The girl got up from the table and headed towards the restroom.
After a silence, I said, “You know, I had to apply to the government for a program to keep my home. I’ve been in it for two years now. I can’t find a job either. There are a lot of us on government assistance.”
The woman’s tone changed. “Oh, my goodness. I had no idea. I’m so sorry if I said something to offend you.”
“I don’t care what you think of me,” I said. “But what you did to her,” I pointed towards the restroom where the girl had retreated, “. . . on today of all days – she doesn’t deserve.” The funeral we had all just attended was for the girl’s baby who had died of SIDS.
*** *** ***
I have not learned how to deal with the crushing self-doubt and shame that accompanies a lifetime of working and climbing the ladder only to fall off it again and again and again and again.
I have learned to come to grips with the knowledge that I am not alone in this feeling of failure.
It does not make it any easier.
3. Do you have hope or optimism that you will be able to emerge from this or do you feel you’ll remain vulnerable?
I used to feel that this “new economy” was something temporary. That I could go back to a savings account and vacations and immediately visiting the doctor if I was sick and replacing or repairing things in the house or on the car the day after it broke. But I don’t anymore. This is how it is now. This is how it is for so many people I know. This is not the adulthood I envisioned.
I declared bankruptcy last week. The medical bills are too much to even try and touch. It was the third time in the last few years I’d been in the lawyer’s office. The first time he told me the collectors had nothing to take from me, and to ignore the 20+ calls I got a day. “Call me when you get a job you think is fairly stable,” he said. The second time was when I got this job. I gave them all my information, broke down in tears, and left without doing it. Last week, with a judgement on my house, a court case on the horizon, and wage garnishment hanging over my head, I begrudgingly went back in. When I stood up, walked around the desk, and looked down at the thick black line waiting for my signature, I faltered for just a second. I then took a deep breath, signed, stood up, and suddenly felt the lead weight gone from my shoulders.
I drove home and pulled in my driveway, maneuvering around the cracks in the asphalt. The spots of mold on the old siding shone green in my headlights as I parked the car. I walked up the chipped concrete stairs and grabbed the doorknob that’s worn on the left side. I was promptly greeted in the living room by a dancing little Jack Russell and a fluffy striped cat that stared hard at me from the end table because she hadn’t been fed yet. My husband walked in and greeted me with a warm hug as the dog danced around us both.
It’s a shabby little home. It may even be a shabby little existence. But it’s warm, and friendly, and full of love, and it’s mine.
For now, anyway.