Originally published on The Guardian.
It didn’t take me long to go from financial stability to fearing homelessness. In January 2014 I was 35-years-old, raising a six-year-old nearly full-time and six months pregnant without a partner. I was in my final semester of college and convinced I would have enough savings to get me through the summer after graduation with a newborn. By March, that security was shattered and I thought I could be homeless by July.
It wouldn’t be our first time being homeless. Since Mia, my eldest, was born, we’ve been through the gamut of shelters, transitional housing and even living in a camper in a driveway. For the last several years of full-time school and part-time work as a housecleaner, I’d taken out the maximum amount of student loans, making it stretch year-round for summer classes and paying our fixed expenses – around $1,000 a month.
I had quit work because of my class schedule, workload and pregnancy-related pelvic pain. I put my student loan and tax refund money in the bank, and was waiting for the outcome of a court hearing for a child support modification.
I kept our rent low by renting out the bedroom in our apartment and converted the living room into a large bedroom that I shared with my daughter. I chose to forgo cable and a smartphone. I relied heavily on the $313 a month in food stamps and my allotted Women, Infants and Children coupons. The beginning of the month brought produce, but by the end I ate primarily peanut butter and jelly, pancakes and eggs, and spaghetti and hamburger.
The remaining tax refund and student loan funds didn’t last long. My old car broke down again, and I had to replace it, purchasing an older 4Runner for $3,500. Then I had to pay a lawyer to appear in my child support modification appeal. I spent hours staring at my written budget, knowing almost to the day when I’d run out of savings. The stress brought labor pains, two months early, and the midwife urged me to stay off my feet and take it easy. I missed a lot of classes, but my professors were fortunately understanding.
I cried almost daily. I sat at my computer and stared out the window, waiting for my lawyer to email me about the hearing, knowing that email would cost me another five bucks or however much. I spent almost $1,000 right before having a baby to raise my child support $300 a month. My mantra was: “I can always sell my truck if I need to.”
I spent the last of my savings on rent in May. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree, $60,000 in debt, and due to have a baby in a month. My older daughter spent the night at a friend’s house the night I graduated because a friend insisted I should go out and celebrate. But I felt like I’d failed my family, put us in more debt than I could possibly pay off, and I didn’t have a job, money or any real assets. Plus, I was hungry, and I’d spend the next three months living at $6 or $7 a day.
There’s a certain hopelessness in living at this level of poverty that I had to fight daily to overcome. While I’d been in school, I had a nagging thought that it’d be so much easier to quit all this higher education nonsense and get a full-time job at wages low enough to still qualify for government assistance. I never felt encouraged to improve myself. My worth came only in how many hours I could work in a week, not from the bachelor’s degree I’d just obtained.
I started an editing job in June, and found an internship with a small stipend. Friends and businesses donated gifts for my older daughter’s birthday, just five days after her sister was born. A church organization donated $200 for rent. I managed to buy cupcakes for my daughter’s birthday and had to ask for help from friends in bringing meals after the birth. Besides a short visit from my cousin, I was on my own.
I had to give my daughter’s dog away and used the $100 I’d put down as a pet deposit when we moved in towards that month’s rent. I sold the houseplants her dad had bought me after she was born for $60. My writing and editing jobs paid a couple hundred a month. I’d won my child support appeal, but my lawyer ended up going $650 over the retainer. I’d stopped making private student loan payments.
After asking him to take care of mold in the bathroom, my landlord wanted me to sign a new lease not allowing anyone to live there but us. For the next two months, I’d show up to look at a studio apartment carrying my infant, and was turned away repeatedly by potential landlords, telling me the space was too small for a family.
I’d get a sheet of phone numbers for “low-income” units, but when I called they quoted $850 for a two-bedroom with a first and last months’ rent as a deposit. I waited outside Housing Authority managers’ offices, asking to put my name on every waitlist they had, and called to check in often.
Work picked up a little, but not much. Then, a church pastor called. They’d decided to give me $1,500. It saved us from being homeless, and bought me time. By October, we moved in to subsidized housing where our rent was $430 a month for a two-bedroom apartment. A year later, I’m still on food, medical and utility assistance, but work has picked up enough that I won’t be for much longer.
I’ve never thought of myself as a person living in extreme poverty, but looking back I now realize I have experienced greater poverty than I thought. I recently picked up Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer’s book, $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America. I expected to read about a subculture of poverty, different from what I’d experienced. It wasn’t.
The stories I read were similar narratives as mine. Living in poverty is a daily struggle for basic needs. The stress is all-consuming, and wait times for assistance are long. I consider myself extremely lucky to have a warm, safe apartment, an old laptop and printer with internet connection and a vehicle that doesn’t break down constantly. A phone. Regular child support payments. These small but essential things are what kept us out of homeless shelters, and out of the 1.5 million who live off almost nothing.