A Timeline of my Journey to Poverty &
Some Observations on the Impoverished Life
[the story of one of many American school teachers living in poverty]
In May of 2001, I graduated high school only a few credits short of an AA degree thanks to dual enrollment classes I'd taken through the public school system in my county. I was a slightly-better-than-average student, and classified as gifted even though I never really felt like I was whatever that label “gifted” was supposed to feel like. I was dating a Marine, seeing a potential marriage to him as my way out of my hometown and my best option to secure a stable future for myself. I enrolled in summer classes at the local community college.
In July the Marine and I got engaged. (We'd been dating for just over 2 months by this time.)
In August I earned my AA.
In September I turned 18.
In October the Marine and I eloped and moved in together in a small 1 bedroom apartment near the Navy base in my hometown where he was finishing up his training.
It was a relatively easy time in my life. I was taking classes full time online, working toward my BA. The housing and food allowances we received from the military, along with my husband's regular pay, were plenty for the two of us to live on, so I didn't work. I'd spend my days visiting with other military wives who lived in our apartment complex or visiting the old lady who lived in the apartment beneath ours.
My husband finished his training programs in March of 2002 and we were restationed to MCAS Miramar in San Diego, CA in early April of that year. Money was a little tighter thanks to the higher cost of living in California (vs. NW Florida where I'd lived all my life), but we still had enough. I continued online schooling online, completed a training program to become a paramedic, and began working on an ambulance. The addition of my income to our family of two soon meant that we could do as we pleased (within reason, of course) whenever we wanted and still have enough to pay the bills and buy food.
At the end of February 2003, my husband's detachment was deployed to Afghanistan. By the time he returned in September of that same year, we'd grown apart and realized that we barely knew one another. 18-year-olds shouldn't get married in most cases, I now know, but I hadn't known it then. In October of 2001 I received my BA and we filed for divorce. I moved back to my hometown with my clothes and a few personal possessions. I had about $2,000, my belongings (none of which had any real value), and nothing else.
I stayed for a short time with my parents, but they made it clear they didn't really want me there. They never had, at any point in my life, as far as I could remember. So I left, and began sleeping in my car or on friend's couches. Just as nothing had prepared me to be married, there was nothing that could prepare me for the complete destitution I felt when I received my copy of the final divorce decree in the mail on, ironically, Valentine's Day 2004. I was 20 years old, divorced, and homeless. I had an education, but no skills, so I joined the army of young adults who make up a majority share of retail, restaurant, and hospitality workers. I waited tables, ran cash registers, cleaned hotel rooms, and tried (and failed miserably at) commission-based sales. The hours were long, and I was always exhausted, but being at work and miserable always seemed one step better than being in my car, sleeping alone, and miserable. I almost always had at least two jobs at a time, sometimes more. And yet I never had any money.
See, the thing about homelessness is that it is actually a much more expensive “lifestyle” than most people would realize. Everything costs more when you're homeless.
- You can't store perishable foods of any kind, so you end up buying single servings of everything, consuming them immediately, and missing out on the savings opportunities of buying in bulk.
- You have no way to prepare/cook food, so you end up eating a lot of fast food meals or pre-prepared foods from grocery or convenience store deli counters. You end up eating a lot more junk food than the average not-homeless person, which means that.....
- You have to buy and take vitamins and other nutritional supplements because your diet mostly isn't going to provide all that your body actually needs.
- Taking a shower costs $7-$10 at most truck stops. You can buy and bring your own soap, to save money, but you almost always have to pay the $2 extra to “rent” a towel because....
- You have no washer/dryer to laundromats become your second home. Of course, this means you have to save up your dirty clothes until you have a full load, since washing a partial load is not at all cost-effective. This rules out using your own towel at the truck stop shower because you've got no place to store a wet towel without it stinking in a short amount of time. Any clothing you own that must be dry cleaned, or that can't be dried in a dryer (i.e. those “lay flat to dry” or “drip dry” items), or that cannot be stored folded might as well be given away, because you cannot maintain these items while homeless.
- If you're lucky enough to have a running vehicle to live in, you end up using a lot more gas during extreme weather. You want heat when it's dangerously cold and cool air when it's dangerously hot.
I tried several times to apply for housing assistance through various government and private organizations, but I never could qualify. See, homeless people with jobs are pretty much incapable of receiving assistance from anywhere. When you apply for assistance, they ask you to report your income, so I reported the incomes from whatever jobs I had. They then ask you to report your expenditures, but only for the things they ask about.... car payments (I had none), insurance and health care costs (I had no insurance, and couldn't afford to spend anything on health care, so had nothing to report.), rent and utilities (which I did not have, as I was homeless). On paper, I was making money at several jobs and not spending it ANYWHERE! Of course, the truth was that I was spending every single dime of it on the cost of being homeless, which kept me from ever having the ability to save any money up to pay a deposit and first/last month rent on an apartment or some other place to live.
Every pay day, I'd treat myself to a one-night stay in any $30-per-night (or less) motel that would rent me a room without a credit card (my former husband's bad money habits during our marriage had ruined my credit as well as his, and no company would give me a credit card). It was a little piece of very temporary heaven to be able to shower for as long as I wanted at no extra charge and to sleep an entire night without fear that someone would try to break in and hurt me or steal what little I had. If I'd earned any bonus money at work, I'd usually end up with a pint of ice cream in the hotel room with me, and I'd eat the whole thing while watching whatever was available on the room's TV.
I lived that way for several years, getting “better” at it over time, but I don't think most people are really able to be GOOD at being homeless. It was something that I simply came to terms with. Almost no one in my life even knew I was homeless. I became a professional faker, hiding the truth from my coworkers at my jobs, mostly out of pure embarrassment.
In August of 2007, a friend of mine, one of the few who knew my situation, inherited a house and invited me to come live with her and her fiance in their spare room. I could pay my rent for the first few months by helping them fix up the house and keep things clean. In exchange for my labors, I'd have a bedroom of my own and equal house privileges (washer/dryer, bathroom, kitchen, everything). It was a wonderful opportunity, and I jumped at the chance. It wasn't a bad arrangement. In November I started paying a small rent for my room & board. I was excited to have a shelter for the winter and to be able to spend the holiday season not having to try so hard to hide my life from the temporary friends I'd make at the jobs I worked.
Of all the things I gained from being not-homeless, perhaps the most noticeable for me was the ability to be social again. When you're secretly homeless, every social situation is a chance that you'll be found out. Every trip to the E.R. (your only option when you're sick and can't afford insurance or the fees at clinics) means one more time you have to leave the “address” line on forms blank. Every time you're in a group of people, you hope you smell ok since you've only been showering every second day to save money. But being not-homeless meant that I could be around people again, without having to obsess about what they might learn about me. I was back among the people who are viewed by others as being human, rather than being viewed as almost animalistic—the way much of society views the homeless.
Once I realized that being not-homeless meant that I could be social, I finally allowed myself to realize how desperately lonely I'd been for the years that I'd been homeless. The access to a social life quickly became an addiction for me. For all the years since my divorce, I'd been alone and in hiding, worthless to society and to most everyone. Now, I found that I had an obsessive need to be seen as worthwhile and desirable. Admittedly, I had no idea how to seek out healthy relationships. I wanted so badly to be wanted that I accepted any affection offered to me, from anyone. The people I lived with were party people and their house a party house. Every night of the week, there were a dozen or more people laughing and talking and drinking at the house until the early hours of the morning, and as a roommate in the house, I was always included in every everything. I partied, I socialized, I told jokes and stories, and I drank. And I took to bed with me nearly any party attendee who offered—men, women, all ages and races..... if they offered me the intimacy and affection I obsessively needed, I accepted it eagerly. As I look back at that time in my life, I say thankful prayers that I never contracted any STDs and that I was never injured by these near-strangers that I invited into my bed night after night. At the time, all I knew was that I felt good for the first time in a long time, even if it was only for a few hours at a time.
After a frightening encounter with a man I met at our New Year's Eve party (welcoming in 2008), I decided that I had to break my cycle of accepting sex whenever it was offered, and that phase in my life ended almost as quickly—though not nearly as easily—as it had begun.
In April of 2008, I received a call one day from a former boyfriend of mine from high school. He said he'd been thinking about me and asked if he could take me out to lunch and catch up on some old times. I accepted. We agreed he'd pick me up at “my” place later that afternoon. When he arrived, I invited him inside. We never did make it to lunch, ending up in my bed instead. I refused to allow myself to slip back into the easy pattern of bedding every man I dated, though, and our afternoon rendezvous turned out to be an isolated event during those months.
In May, I suddenly couldn't sleep comfortably on my stomach, after sleeping that way nearly every night for 24 years. After three nights like that, Dr. Google suggested a pregnancy test. Positive. I was pregnant, single, and living in a party house that belonged to someone else. I spent a few weeks trying to decide what to do. I didn't tell anyone at all that I was pregnant, deciding that if I chose abortion, it was something that no one ever need know about, so that no one else would have to share the emotions that would come along with such a knowledge. I knew for certain that, if I kept the baby, I'd be a single mother. There was no way that the DNA contributor was going to want to be a part of this. Abortion was ruled out first, and I'm not proud to admit that at the time, the only reason I ruled it out so quickly was that I couldn't afford the cost involved in having an abortion and missing time off work after one. My next consideration was adoption, but I knew that there was no way I was going to be able to give away my baby after spending 40 weeks nurturing a pregnancy. So I decided that I had to find a way to make keeping-the-baby work.
I began telling people that I was pregnant, and setting up the cover stories that would shield me in my next decision: the decision to return to homelessness. My first period of homelessness hadn't been something I'd chosen, but instead something that had simply happened. However, I knew a few things about the situation I now found myself in:
1. I was going to be a single mom.
2. Babies need things.... crib, diapers, clothes, and safety.
3. Living where I was still wasn't affording me any opportunity to save up money.
4. All my social contacts were superficial, and there wasn't anyone who was going to throw me a baby shower or help me get the things the baby would need.
5. The every-night, all-night party wasn't going to allow me to get the sleep needed to try and have a healthy pregnancy.
6. The party house was going to be no place to raise a baby.
My return to homelessness was something I was able to plan. I traded in my compact car for a van. This would give me a place to sleep, and the back part of the van could store the things I would accumulate. I stocked up on some shelf-stable foods, to help minimize the amount of single-serving stuff I'd need to buy. I sold everything I had with any value, and I made arrangements to spend one night a week on a friend's couch. I applied for, and received, a low-income membership to the YMCA; for $12 a month, I'd have a “gym membership,” which meant access to a locker room facility where I could shower every day. I applied for Medicaid for Pregnant Women, and was approved, meaning that I would have adequate (although far from good) access to prenatal health care. And I went into homelessness this time with all the knowledge and experience I had gained the first time.
Living in my car pregnant turned out to be a lot more difficult than I expected, but I made myself tough it out, knowing that it was what I needed to do in order to have money for the baby. This time around, I used my experience to find more and more ways to cut corners and make this round of homelessness cheaper than the last so that I could have money leftover to save up. I learned which restaurants and libraries would allow me to stay inside during extreme weather, thus saving gas. I bathed at the YMCA. I learned to use salt and ice to keep milk and some other perishables safely cold enough in a good portable cooler, allowing me to buy them in sizes larger than single-serving and save money. Every dollar I saved turned immediately into things for the baby. I bought a crib from Craigslist (which I took apart and stored in the van in pieces), months worth of diapers, baby clothes in many sizes (mostly from yard sales and thrift stores), bottles and other baby dishes, a changing table topper, a 4-drawer dresser (which I fitted into the van by filling it with smaller things to free up space), an infant car seat, and all those other things babies need. By the time I started into my 3rd trimester, the back of the van was full and I had begun to save instead for a place to rent.
Ultrasounds had told me I was having a boy and the doctor had told given me a due date of December 31st. Using that as my time schedule, I decided I needed to have a roof over my head by December 15th. Two days before that self-imposed deadline, I got an amazing offer of a house to rent cheaply in exchange for making some repairs and doing some needed fixing-up once I had recovered from giving birth. It was a chance I couldn't pass up, and so on December 16th I moved into a house in a quiet neighborhood of older cinder block homes. I immediately put together a nursery, and it was the only furnished room in the house. The baby ended up being a week late, and I spent the three weeks between moving in and giving birth collecting free household items people offered on Craigslist.
I gave birth alone, unmedicated, and surrounded for 19 hours by a largely uncaring staff in the labor & delivery department of the local charitable hospital. They were annoyed that I didn't have family and friends there to see to my needs, meaning that they had to do it. They were annoyed that I refused to be induced, meaning that they couldn't fit my child's birth neatly into their schedule. They were annoyed that I refused an epidural, meaning that they had to check on me more often rather than leaving me in a drug-induced state of non-feeling to wait for the baby to arrive. But, regardless of their annoyance, my baby was born healthy and on his own schedule. Their final annoyance came on the day of my release from the hospital when I had to check myself out WITHOUT my baby, make my way to my van in the parking lot (I had brought myself to the hospital when I went into labor), and bring the van back to prove I had a properly-installed infant car seat to take my baby home. They tried to tell me I wasn't allowed to drive for two weeks and would have to find another way to get us home. I informed them that unless they were going to pay for a taxi AND to have my van towed to my house, that I would be driving home on my own. After several hours of argument, the hospital's lawyer finally agreed that they had to allow me to leave—after, of course, signing a waiver absolving the hospital of any liability if either the baby or I were injured as a result of me driving so soon after birth.
While I was on my unpaid maternity leave from my retail job, I started looking for a teaching job, since I knew that there are usually a few new jobs needing to be filled after the semester break. I was lucky enough to find one, and I notified the retail job that I wouldn't be returning to work there after all. 6 weeks after my baby was born, I dropped him off at a carefully-chosen daycare and reported to work to begin teaching full time (I had done a lot of work as a substitute teacher among my other temporary jobs).
I've now been a full-time teacher since February of 2009 here in a county in Northwest Florida. I've earned my M.A. and built a very successful program for educationally rehabilitating students who are returning to the public school system following juvenile detention or expulsions. I've made a name for myself among Special Education programs scattered across the city, state, and country. I've taught thousands of children at the middle school level. I've earned the respect of my peers, administrators, and county school district big wigs. Yet I, along with many many other teachers, am still just “faking it” when it comes to the life that other people see me living.
See, I have lived my entire adult life in poverty or near-poverty. Teachers aren't paid well at all, and I support myself and my son on my single income. There is no child support coming in, and I make less than $15 per month too much to receive assistance. I accept that my choices led me to become pregnant and keep the baby, but even now that I am educated and employed at a “real” job (since retail and restaurant jobs are so often viewed as somehow less than real), I still do not earn a wage sufficient to pay all my bills every month.
My son, thankfully, qualifies for Medicaid, meaning that I don't have to deny him medical care when he needs it. Adding him as a dependent on my insurance through work would cost me almost as much as my monthly rent payment. I, however, do not qualify for any level of Medicaid. We have health insurance available through work, and I've always had the cost-free-to-employees plan. This does not, however, mean that I have access to health care. The “free” insurance plan comes complete with a deductible so high I'd have to be hospitalized to ever meet it (and inpatient hospitalization, to a single mom, means potentially losing a child into foster care), along with high co-pays and office visit fees that I cannot come close to being able to afford. In the 5 years I've had this “coverage,” I've never once been able to use it. In fact, aside from the Medicaid for Pregnant women during the term of my pregnancy, I have spent my entire adult life without usable health insurance or practical access to any non-emergency health care.
In December of 2013, my landlord died, leaving the house I was renting to his adult children. His children were not local and had no interest in maintaining the property as a rental. They gave me the option: buy the house, or move out. By that time, my original lease had expired and we were on a month-to-month contract. I panicked, as I had no money saved up and moving requires a new deposit and fist/last month's rent. I explained this to the landlord's children, who agreed to allow me to stay until the summer since I was a teacher and they understood that moving in the middle of a school year would be hugely problematic for me. I began hoarding every cent I could, scaled myself back to one meal a day to save grocery costs, and discontinued every service and membership I could manage to live without at the house.
By June of 2014, I had found a place for us to move, renting out half of a woman's house. We moved in, after being promised that the house would quickly have some repairs made to make it safe for occupancy. I had begun dating someone, and he offered to help us move. We moved in, and the woman we lived with/rented from almost immediately quit going to work, using the rent we were paying to pay all her bills rather than to make the house safe. In the middle of the night once night, one month into living in this new place, the bathroom floor caved in. Luckily, no one was hurt, but I had to get us out fast. My then-new boyfriend asked if I'd be willing to look for a place that he and I could live together along with our children (he has a teenaged daughter, and I've got my son), and I agreed. We moved in together in July, and we're managing to make it work with my salary and his retail job. Our combined household income is under $50k annually (before taxes and such), meaning that we're still scraping that poverty line. Emotionally, I'm better off than I have been at any point in my entire life, but financially I'm no better than ever.
Tomorrow (Monday, 10-20-14) starts open enrollment for insurance at work. As of this year, the free-to-employees plan is going away, being replaced by an identical plan that will now cost me $12 per paycheck. This is a small fee, I suppose, but it means that I'll now be paying money for health insurance I cannot afford to use, to a company that only cares about the profit it can earn. I still don't qualify for Medicaid, since Florida has done almost nothing to expand coverages or accessibility under the Affordable Care Act.
My story is, sadly, not at all rare or unusual.
This is not a problem ONLY among minorities, or ONLY among the unemployed, or ONLY among the uneducated.
I am a public school teacher in the USA, and I live in poverty.
I am a parent.
I am white, female, highly educated.
My voice is not heard, and I am not represented in our government.
Something has to change, for the good of everyone.