For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, “You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.”
I want to preface this by saying this is my experience and reflection. I cannot speak to other cities, experiences or truths. I only know what I see, but I think it’s a story worth sharing. All names have been changed for privacy.
On the Easter Vigil of 2018, I witnessed the baptism and confirmation of a 10-year-old boy, Joel. I was his Sunday school teacher and friends with his godmother, Sofia. His mother, Sherry, is an older single mother. Though they didn’t live in a great neighborhood, Sherry had a blue-collar job and a roof over her head. Sherry has a history of mental illness and addiction problems, but she was able to keep her mental health on track when she kept busy.
A year later, I touched base with Sofia and Sherry to see how Joel was doing, and circumstances had drastically changed. She was forced to stop working due to severe arthritis and was trying to navigate disability and social security payments, as well as figuring out Medicare to get her medications. Without a computer, she didn’t know where to begin searching for resources. As her contact with our parish church, I was able to help her get in touch with Catholic Charities. She received some help navigating government payments, as well as invitations to the two large food pantries in the city.
In January 2020, Sherry was evicted from her home. The rented home was in such disrepair that it was cheaper for the landlord to evict and demolish the home and sell the land. She had six weeks’ notice to try to find somewhere to go with her now-12-year-old son and their dog. And like other growing and gentrified cities around this country, affordable housing is rapidly disappearing. The section-eight voucher waiting list is years long. And in order to even apply to rent a home, one must have an income three times the monthly rent. This means the most Sherry could afford is $500/month. There was nothing available.
January 15, 2020, Sherry, Joel and their dog left their home of twelve years to put most of their belongings in a $50/month storage unit. And they moved into a $259/week hotel. When her government benefits ran out, friends of Catholic Charities would cover another week at the hotel. With daily hotels, there are no kitchens and rarely a small fridge and microwave. This meant they were spending more than they could afford on fast food and snacks, as they had no way to cook or keep leftovers cold. There were a few nights in between that they would have to sleep at the rest area. It was suggested she try a shelter, but they do not accept pets, and at least a rest area had lights and a free bathroom. When it was suggested she try a Catholic mother and child home, her son was too old. When it was suggested she apply for Habitat for Humanity, she would not be able to work. So she was stuck.
Sherry was unable to renew her antipsychotics and antidepressants, as there seemed to be an endless cycle of phone calls and emergency visits. But without a visit with a psychiatrist (with a waiting list out the door), she was pacified with weak medication bandages and self-medication with expensive alcohol.
By June of 2020, Sherry was finally offered a sit-down meeting at our city’s Center of Hope, where she was placed in an extended stay hotel. She was matched with a social worker and sufficiently medicated. Now she just sits and waits for more permanent housing.
After a year in that rent-free hotel, there were very few housing applications available to even attempt. Sherry’s storage unit price rose to $90/month. She’s been shuffled to a smaller (yet, thankfully still rent-free) hotel in an even more unsafe part of town. And food prices are rising, but her government checks remain the same. Most months, she runs out of cash before the third week of the month.
Now onto my observations from this year and a half. Yes, Sherry and Joel have been able to benefit from food stamps and food pantries. And yes, they are absolutely blessed to have a rent-free roof over their heads. But especially now, her second hotel is in a food desert, so there are few places to use her EBT benefits. And much of the food pantry items go uneaten.
Sherry and Joel are people. They have tastes, and preferences. They grow tired of pasta and soups. They don’t like cans of beans and chunk lite tuna. They don’t want fruit cocktail. They are simply tired of that being their only options day in and day out. We don’t want them, which is why they are the first to go into the donation bin at Thanksgiving. These homeless people don’t want them either. This is not to sound ungrateful. Instead, it serves as a reminder that we all can share better.
What I have observed Sherry and Joel desperately craving during this time are this: 1) the freedom to choose their own groceries; 2) ways to escape their hotel; and 3) company and friendship. They, like all of us, want to be seen and known.
Helping those choose their own groceries can be hard, especially for someone like Sherry, who has problems with addiction and self-medication. When donating, we simply can’t give cash or grocery store gift cards. Even gas stations carry alcohol and cigarettes. I’ve found that the Dollar Tree has become a perfect solution, as it carries home goods and food, but no alcohol.
The (yes, certainly a blessing) hotel is dark, hot, and lonely. It is depressing, yet where Sherry and Joel spend all day. In observing the hotel in comparison to the shelter–a shelter is always loud and bustling. One is forced to at least make a friend. But in a hotel, Joel sits behind closed doors all day long. They both desire entertainment, just like the rest of us. Cabin fever affects everybody–especially someone with mental illness. Offering Uber gift cards, or bus passes, or a ride to church can make a world of difference.
And lastly, Sherry has a history. She has a birthday. She hasn’t been homeless for long. She has stories to share. She loves to share pictures of her grandkids. And Joel is smart. He loves music and going to the beach. He needs help with his homework and compliments on his Wii skills. Perhaps with a different upbringing, or different brain chemistry, their story wouldn’t have turned out this way. But they don’t deserve to go unnoticed.
Again, this is not an academic critique. It is simply a cry for us to all look at the homeless problem in a different light. Rather than that can of chicken salad, can we send money directly to the Salvation Army or United Way? Rather than just giving a bit extra at Thanksgiving or Christmas, can we consider giving more over the summer when children are home from school? And rather than sending money or goods, can we consider giving our time? Boys & Girls Club. Habitat for Humanity. Big Brothers & Big Sisters. There are so many ways we can offer these families a sense of dignity and purpose. How many others are out there in the shadows craving attention.
Emily Clary has worked in Catholic education since 2005. She has worked in parish Faith Formation for the Diocese of Providence and the Diocese of Charlotte. She has taught middle school Religion and worked in Catholic School Campus Ministry in Woonsocket, RI and in Raleigh NC.