“$2.00 a day: Living on Almost Nothing in America” – A book review

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by Elizabeth Chiseri-Strater

This book by two distinguished sociologists and public policy professors is immensely depressing. That fact, though, should not discourage an audience from being educated about the struggles of those living in poverty and the governmental policies which have led to this situation. The authors share their research through statistics and narratives about those who live on two dollars a day per person. These heart breaking stories about the struggle of families with finding jobs, housing, food, and transportation should bring shame to all those who believe that poor people are lazy and really don’t want to work but prefer to live on government handouts.
The real problem with this attitude is that there is no longer any monetary handouts available from the government. The authors begin their book with a concise history of welfare and its reform which ended in 1996 under the Clinton administration. While single mothers with children—the main recipients of welfare– did indeed try to go to work, the consequences of this legislation led to the rise of households with children with no cash assistance available. There are one and a half million households and three million children who live on two dollars a day per person (This calculation is explained in the introduction as including any dollar that made it into a household, no matter what the source, would be considered part of the family’s income, including SNAP (food stamps) which is more like cash than any other governmental program).
These authors present compelling narratives of the struggles of the working poor and the sacrifices they make in order to survive: giving plasma twice a week; living on ramen noodles for two weeks; leaving children in perilous child-care situations; shuttling between family and friends’ couches and shelters, working at less than minimum wage jobs. Many of the stories about the working poor include having to quit jobs when the transportation costs are too high to get to a job, when working conditions cause or exasperate health problems, or where a child becomes ill and the parent needs to stay home, or when food stamps have to be traded for children’s underwear and socks.
Even though the statistics and narratives about those living in poverty are depressing, the authors end their book with some realistic solutions to the overarching problems of the poor in this country and of income disparity. One solution addresses the right of everyone to works and earn a living wage. The authors admit that job creation would cost money and if the private sector didn’t take up this task, the government would need to step in as they did during the Great Depression. They list many jobs that could be funded starting with rebuilding the infrastructure through jobs in after school programs and elder care. In addition to providing an adequate wage, work conditions also need to be safe and fair. One of the narratives about the working conditions of a mother who labored for a cleaning company stands out. She was part of a team that cleaned houses of the evicted which most of the time did not have water. This woman and her team had to provide the water for cleaning, often begging water off of filing stations or neighbors.
Another solution involves safe and affordable housing. If this means subsidized governmental housing, then it must be up to code and not limited to segregated spaces. If a family is living on a full time salaried job at $15.00 an hour, they could afford an apartment with two bedrooms in twenty-two of our states, the researchers conclude. So jobs and housing go hand in hand. A story about housing stands out because of its consequences. One girl, between sixth and ninth grades shared a subsidized three- bedroom apartment with twenty-four other people. And of course there was never enough food. When this young woman was in ninth grade one of her teachers offered her food in exchange for sex.
Finally, the authors suggest that a program that provides actual cash is important. While SNAP help families with hunger, these benefits are often sold for half of their value to help with utilities and rent. Currently there is no cash safety net for families that fall. And, as the authors suggest: “Without cash, they [the poor] can’t meaningfully participate in society.” There is no need to return to our previous welfare system that stole the dignity of the poor. There are other solutions and this book provides them in its conclusion. Like all of the other books that show how institutions fail—The New Jim Crow; Evicted; Nickle and Dimed, So Rich, So Poor, this book provides amble data and amble solutions for dealing with poverty. Read it. Be depressed but be educated as well.

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The Gardens at the IRC

by Stephanie Thomas

Frequently, the “outside” of a homeless shelters is stark, but the Interactive Resource Center (IRC ) at 407 East Washington Street in Greensboro NC is an exception to the rule. The IRC is landscaped with gardens and trees. What’s even more remarkable is that the gardens and trees produce food including vegetables, herbs, strawberries, black berries, and blue berries, plus 12 different types of trees including apricot, pear, plum and fig. When the gardens were first created, 4 1/2 years ago, they were primarily vegetable gardens. Over time, there was a realization that vegetables not only required high maintenance, and needed excessive amounts of watering, but they were not as useful to people with no means to cook or store them.

I dropped by the IRC one Friday morning to meet with Charlie Headington, the head of the Greensboro Permaculture Guild.  When I arrived, Charlie and his fellow volunteers, Robb Pritchett and Audrey Waggoner, were busy pulling weeds. It was only 11:00 am but hot and everyone had already built up a sweat.

Charlie showed me around the gardens, pointing out particular plants, and explaining what they were. I recognized the fruit bearing plants of course, but many of the plants which looked like weeds to me were in fact there for a particular purpose. The gardens are all natural and rather than using pesticides, they use particular plants and even certain bugs to help keep the gardens healthy.

Not only do folks, like those at the IRC shelter who are without homes, need fresh food, but many of Greensboro’s residents live in food deserts and would benefit greatly from these public gardens. (A food desert is an urban area in which it is difficult to buy affordable or good-quality fresh food).

The Greensboro Permaculture Guild has a number of public gardens in Greensboro, maintained by their 25 active members. They have gardens at St. Elsewhere, The Children’s Museum, Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, First Presbyterian Church and the public orchard on Church Street, just to name a few.

As I watched the volunteers hard at work, I wondered if the IRC guests knew why these gardeners were there or if they appreciated the work. There were a number of individuals sitting outside so I walked over and asked one of the gentlemen what he knew about the gardens. He answered my question when with enthusiasm and pointed out many of the plants and trees, showing a particular fondness for the fig trees.

“It’s good for the people who come here. It’s good for their soul. They need beauty as well as food. And these gardens provide both.” – Charlie Headington

Homeless Again

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Life has a way of throwing us curve-balls.

Sometimes they are for the good and we don’t even really think about what a turn our life has just taken. Other times we are left in a far worse position than before and we instantly notice the change. For me, my curve-ball came back in 2013. I was left homeless and in deep despair.

Some of you may already be familiar with my story, having read it throughout various issues of The Greensboro Voice, but there is always a new chapter being written and in this chapter I once again have found myself homeless.

I have been having housing troubles since the beginning of the year. In December 2015, the property where I living was taken over by new management, from Wrenn-Zealy to Rent-A-Home. Then came the new year and as I prepared for a new semester at GTCC, I excitedly returned home with my textbooks in hand. As my friend, Bob, and I pulled up to the curb outside my house, we saw a man and woman on the front porch. I watched as they knocked and entered my neighbor’s apartment. I did not think much of it as I held a conversation with Bob about the upcoming semester. These strangers then left my neighbor’s apartment and began knocking on my door so I got out of Bob’s car to greet them.

I introduced myself to “Mickey” who advised me that she was the new landlord. She also introduced me to her maintenance man, “Sam.” Mickey said she would like to schedule an appointment for the following week to come out and inspect the property. I agreed and we decided to meet the following Tuesday. Before they left, we engaged in some minor chit chat in which I told her I was a student at GTCC and that I received Section 8 Housing via the Greensboro Housing Authority. She told me that would not be a problem for her.

After the new landlord left, I got on the phone with Greensboro Housing Authority (GHA) to make my case worker aware that the management had changed and that I had just spoken with the new landlord. My case worker requested that I let the new landlord know that they needed to go to the GHA office to fill out some paperwork and I agreed to do so. The weekend felt a bit slow as I awaited the first day of a brand new semester.

The following week I met with Mickey when she came to examine the property. After the inspection I stepped out with her on the porch and passed along the request from GHA about the paperwork. Mickey then told me that she would not go to fill out any paperwork but that I was more than welcome to get the paperwork for her and bring it by her office. I was left a bit stumped at this point because I knew that the paperwork would be a contract between the landlord and GHA because GHA would be paying my rent as they had in the past. I then called GHA and explained the response I had received from the landlord. They took Mickey’s contact information and informed me that they would handle the matter with the landlord.

College work started at GTCC and I had to focus on my studies. However, one morning there was a knock at the door. It was the new landlord’s maintenance man coming to tell me that Mickey had not received rent for the month of February. I pointed out to him that I already explained to Mickey that under the Section 8 rental program the landlord is required to fill out the Section 8 contract. I also told him that had I talked to the Housing Authority and they said they promised to take care of it with Mickey. I told the maintenance man I would contact GHA again to see what the issue might be.

Surprise! I then received a 10-day notice of summary of ejectment from Rent-A-Home. This really confused me so I contacted the phone number on the notice. The man I spoke to at Rent-A-Home informed me that they were unaware that I was receiving Section 8, which I found very odd. He also was not sure who this Mickey person was, which left me more deeply confused. He promised to figure out the situation and would call me back as soon as he had some news.

A few hours passed and soon I was contacted by Rent-A-Home who told me that the situation was more confusing than we first thought. It seemed that while Rent-A-Home was taking over the property management in December, they were not made aware of my status as a receiver of Section 8. Furthermore, they also were not informed that the owner of the property had sold my rental home. This was very infuriating since I had received a letter the previous year that promised advanced warning in the event of the house being sold.

I again contacted the Housing Authority and was told that I actually had a new case worker and was given her contact information. Upon contacting this new case worker she said they were aware of the situation and that GHA was working to resolve it. I then made arrangements to go and see the new owner the following day. Bob picked me up on February 8 and we met with Mickey, who informed me she would “not” be accepting Section 8.

Upon leaving her office I contacted my case worker at GHA again and was told that she had been on the phone with the landlord that morning. I was stumped since Mickey just claimed to not have heard from the Housing Authority. I asked GHA who she had spoken to. I was then informed that it was Rent-A-Home, which meant that the Housing Authority was not even speaking to the owner of the property.

Later in the week I was called to come into the Housing Authority offices to be reissued a new voucher so I could move.

It just got more crazy after this. Greensboro Housing Authority kept telling me that they were working on solving these issues so I began focusing more on school. Then on President’s Day I get a text from Mickey who told me she wants to work something out and to have my case worker contact her. I told her that I would not be able to do it until the following day due to it being the President’s Day holiday. Mickey told me that would be fine.

The following day I contacted my case worker and passed along Mickey’s message. I was asked by my caseworker if that would be acceptable to me and I told them that it would be fine because I just wanted somewhere to live.

It seems that while I was under the impression that these two people (my case worker & Mickey) were working things out, something different was going on. They were in fact playing phone-tag and my case worker had not made contact with Mickey (and vice-versa). So at the end of the month I received a lease termination notice hand delivered by Mickey’s maintenance man. At this point the stress of the situation began to impact my school work.

I had at this point spent February under the impression that things were being worked out between the Housing Authority and Mickey, who I soon learned works for Chaney Properties. Not only had Mickey changed her mind about working things out (under Section 8), but she also decided to evict my neighbor as well.

So I began a new struggle to find a place to move and at the same time maintain my school work. Finding an apartment approved by Section 8 Housing has been nearly impossible for the past few months. It seems that nearly all properties I am finding that fit within my “one-bedroom” voucher range will not accept Section 8. I reported this frustration to my case worker. Finally she advised me that GHA will approve raising my voucher authorization to a two-bedroom. My caseworker changed the parameters of my voucher but time was running out fast for me.

I finally found a qualified apartment. It was beautiful! The apartment manager told me they would have to do a background check but they were running a special. No application or administrative fees. No deposit. And they would accept Section 8. I really got stoked, but of course this was at the end of March.

I saw Mickey (my landlord) the same day after I returned home and I let her know I found a new place and that everything was done except for my background check. I knew that Mickey had planned to send a 10-day notice of ejectment due to a letter that I received approximately a week earlier. I asked if she would be willing to work with me on this situation, I could be out of her rental house quickly and with no fuss. She then dropped the bomb and she advised me that she had already filed the eviction paperwork.

Within the next few days I returned home to find a eviction notice taped to my door. Then I received a phone call from the new apartments to which I had applied a few days earlier. Mickey’s eviction notice popped up on my credit record and they cold not rent to me. So much frustration!

It was at this time that upon advice of a friend, I enlisted the help of North Carolina Legal Aid. The eviction process was something new to me and I had no idea what to do. The lawyer assigned to me is easy to talk to and has been very patient in answering my questions and dealing with my frustrations. He helped me file an appeal that would buy me more time. He let me know that by the time the appeal was filed I would have until the end of May to be in a new place.

At this point, the Salvation Army agreed to help me with an apartment deposit and first month’s rent to help get me out of Mickey’s house before I could be officially evicted by the courts. I felt this would protect my voucher contract. With my new voucher in hand, I finally found a two-bedroom apartment. The landlord, who is also the owner, understood my situation. The Salvation Army paid the landlord my deposit, which I was most thankful because I was flat broke.

Unfortunately the day I was supposed to move out of Mickey’s house, the new landlord advised me that his apartment was not ready. My “new landlord” told me he would speed up the process and promised that my apartment would be ready by that following Friday. When Friday arrived the landlord told me it still would not be ready until at least the following Monday. At this point a friend of mine allowed me to stay with him for a short while. With the help of several friends, we loaded my stuff into the back of a U-Haul and moved it to a storage unit so I was out by the date I had promised my lawyer.

Here I am now. For all purposes, I am homeless again. I’m still staying temporarily at an understanding friend’s house. Just recently my case worker at GHA informed me that I no longer have a voucher due to some mix up at GHA and the program I am in no longer has funding.

It is a confusing mess that I am still trying to sort out. The nightmare is not over and I know that the welcome at my friend’s house is soon to end. I really need to be in my own place but everything that has gone on has tapped out all of my funds. I seem to be without options to end my homelessness. I am lost. But I must keep moving forward. If only I knew which direction to go.

Nothing is falling into place. In fact the only thing falling is me…into despair. My depression is the worst it’s been in a long time. In fact, as I sit here writing, I am contemplating checking myself into the hospital. My drive has all but left me.

I am struggling to do the best I can but it feels like no matter how hard I’m moving forward I have a football team driving me backward. It is a horrible feeling. The harder I work to survive, the more things seem to try and push me backward.

I can’t give up and I know this. I refuse to give up.