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A Thousand Dollars from Homeless

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For the last month, I’ve been writing about a woman who is now less than $1,000 and one week away from homeless. Her name is Debbie. She’s in her early fifties, a remarried widow, and mother/grandmother living in Bradenton, Florida (south of Tampa). After nine months of scraping by on a shoestring income and combing every job opportunity, she’s at the end of the road. (See Hello America, This is Your Wake Up Call (Part 1))

Of all the lousy times, now during the worst economic meltdown America has seen in nearly a century, she’s facing eviction. In this last article about Debbie, I humbly asked all who feel moved to help prevent the tragedy of homelessness in America from happening again, and specifically to help me prevent it from happening to Debbie.

Like so many stories, Debbie’s seems to be going out not with a bang but with a whimper. Despite her circumstances, she remains selfless to the last as she writes: 

“Like my landlord said, pay by the 30th or leave the house. Right now I have no means whatsoever to pay the rent, so we have no choice but to go. No place to go but our car. After twenty years, it is all we own. I have already looked at rest stops and buildings with many offices and rest rooms that are in hallways thinking this is a good spot to come to wash up if I end up homeless. What a horrible thought but I have to think those thoughts, I have to. I have to have a plan and be strong and get all the tears out now so if it happens I won’t upset my kids. God, I thought if I end up homeless without a plan and I fell apart in front of them they would just be so scared. Plus I don’t want to make my husband feel like a failure. So I have to stay positive even in the darkest hour to spare my family any more pain than needed, I always listen to that song ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ by Simon and Garfunkel. It gets me through sometimes.”

A year ago, Debbie’s life was a lot more like yours and mine. She and her husband, Randy, didn’t make much money, but both had jobs and earned enough to provide for the basics and then some. They’d never been in deep debt or on welfare. Debbie’s several grown children struggled financially and still do, but had lives of their own; save for one, a daughter, now nearly twenty, who is physically and mentally disabled as the result of open-heart surgery as a child. She is still dependent on Debbie. Debbie also raises one of her grandchildren, an eleven-year-old boy. Together the four of them would do simple, inexpensive things together, like spend a weekend at the beach. Next weekend, they might be living at the beach.

What a difference a year makes. Despite the visible U.S. financial meltdown over the past week, Debbie’s life is the hidden evidence that it’s been simmering for a lot longer. She was laid off from her job last December, followed by her husband Randy’s dismissal (due to reorganization) from his hospital administrator position in January. They’ve both been seeking work since then with no luck. Randy had two job interviews last Friday. On Saturday, he received a letter from one indicating they’d hired someone else—obviously he never had a chance. 

Their only income since losing their jobs is Randy’s monthly unemployment totaling $1,100 (Debbie couldn’t qualify—they said she hadn’t paid enough into the system.) and a Social Security death benefit for Debbie’s deceased husband—about another $900.  Randy does odd jobs—handyman or computer stuff—for cash when he can, and Debbie babysits at every opportunity, but neither has been consistent nor lucrative enough to keep them afloat.

With $2,000 in monthly income and $1,975 due for rent and utilities alone, it wasn’t long before Debbie and Randy got behind on their bills. Still, today only $1,000 would bring them current and keep them in their rental home. 

The financial catch-22 of Debbie’s situation floors me. Had she not remarried, she’d have retained an additional $800 per month in Social Security survivor benefits. But as she told me herself, she wasn’t trying to live off the system; she had a job. She applied to have her disabled daughter’s Social Security survivor benefit extended, and despite doctor agreement that the daughter has several medical and psychological issues, the extension was denied. Debbie’s daughter was deemed fit for work, even though she still plays with Beanie Babies at age nineteen and has the mind of a twelve-year-old. 

Need more irony? Because Debbie and Randy collectively earn what they do in monthly unemployment and Social Security benefits, they can’t apply for welfare. And since they are both unemployed, they can’t move to a less expensive rental or get a new lease—no one will accept them as renters without jobs.

Debbie is no fool, and she’s long past swallowing her pride. She and her husband have looked into early withdrawal from his State of California retirement pension. However, since only the state and not he paid into it, he is unable to withdraw money until age sixty-two. 

Debbie has requested online help as well, applying for a grant from a Web site called Modest Needs. Despite it appearing an ideal resource, Modest Needs told her, “We could not consider your application because in order to qualify for a Self-Sufficiency Grant from Modest Needs, at least one person in your household must be working and your total monthly household income must be sufficient to remit payment for the cost of your monthly rental or mortgage plus AT LEAST $250.” Yet many on that site have grants pending to pay the electric bill or rent because taking their dog to the vet set them back a bit. Perhaps we need another site called “Desperate Needs.” (If anyone knows of something along those lines, tell me.)

Debbie has called or visited the churches in her area asking for help but again has been turned down; most of the churches sent their available funds to help Hurricane Ike victims in Houston. She’s been to the United Way, but they too have limits on the assistance you can receive in a given time period. She routinely visits the food bank, but you’re allowed only one bag of food every thirty days. In her last bag there was a bottle of mustard, baking chocolate, and dip for chips, but no chips. Not exactly a meal.

I’ve nearly exhausted my resources for helping Debbie and by the time you read this will have fully exhausted them. Nonetheless, let me emphasize how disgustingly inadequate this feels. I’ve sent her several hundred dollars of my own but it’s not enough to stop the bleeding and all I can afford is to stick a Band-Aid on a severed artery. Sadly, the more I suggest, the more she has already done. I’ve given her moral support and encouragement and yet it feels like throwing crumbs to the starving. I have wanted—more than I can express—not to feel the pain and hopelessness of her situation, yet I have cried tears of frustration and exasperation for her. They are nothing, I’m sure, compared to the tears she has cried herself.

And yet. And yet this remarkable woman remains practical and more surprising still, hopeful even through the darkest hour. As Debbie told me today, “I know the possibilities I face are real. I know there is a good chance things will get worse—a lot worse—I might have to face being without a place to live and having the things I need to beat this war on my own. As it stands today it’s more likely than not. But as long as there is just one inch of hope, I am going to keep fighting this battle. That is my job for right now. I still hang onto hope and wish for some miracle to happen.”

I doubt I would be equal to the task were I in her shoes.

It may be the end of the road for Debbie, but it is not the end of this story. In fact, I suspect it is just the beginning. This Broken America is not acceptable to me, and it shouldn’t be acceptable to you. Many (myself included) are worried about losing money in banks and investments. But at least we have money to lose. Even though we’re fed doom and gloom 24/7 on the news, and even though the light is dim now, I believe it can shine brightly again. The gift Debbie bestows is the gift of hope against all odds; the lesson of her story is that it doesn’t take much to transform doom into hope. And that’s a lesson arriving not a moment too soon.

The futility of homelessness in America is entirely preventable, but only if we prevent it. It’s not up to some agency or some Web site or some charity, it’s up to each of us individually, deciding from within yet acting collectively. It might be a long road, and it might be a slow go, and we might have to do it one Debbie at a time, but together we can do it. One by one we come forth, we stand together, link arms, and before we know it together we’ve built a bridge over troubled water. So, for all our sakes, will you help?


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