My Groceries Found a Home

Today a woman stood outside of Target with a baby in a stroller. She held a sign that said, “I have three children and I lost my job. I need help.” I looked at her for a long moment unable to find words. She looked very “normal”. By that I mean I could have been looking at my own face. My heart went out to her. When I got inside I decided to buy her groceries. I know that although food pantries help many families, there are those who fall through the cracks. Mostly because they don’t have an address. You have to fill out forms to “qualify” for food at most food pantries. Not having an address sometimes eliminates a person from receiving groceries. Sometimes you have to first apply for, and be rejected or accepted, by social services options like food stamps. Hours of waiting, filling out forms, meeting with case workers, then waiting for the assistance to arrive. And with three small kids? It can be nightmarish. I often hear people complain about “welfare” recipients taking advantage of social services. They see cell phones and new sneakers and think these people cannot really be in need. If you have never been in their shoes, let me enlighten you about a few things.

1. You would not believe how FAST you can get into dire circumstances without warning. There you are going along with life, living pay check to pay check. You drop the kids at day care and go to work every day. You go to Ross or TJ Max and find a little pair of Nikes for your six year old son who has just sprouted about 6 inches over night. On Friday that week your boss tells you they are cutting back and you are no longer needed. He hands you your paycheck. It’s all you have. You go to pick up the kids and you are supposed to pay the day care. What should you do? It’s half the amount of that paycheck. You need groceries, gas and the electric and phone bill are due. The phone bill gets paid first because you need it to find another job. In two more weeks rent is due again, but you have no more pay checks coming.

In a good economy it takes an average of three months to find a new job. In a poor economy it takes six months to a year. And of course the industry you are skilled in plays a large roll in how long it will take.

2. In a few weeks when you can’t pay rent and you receive the notice telling you to vacate by the end of the month, where do you think you will go? You have THREE children. Now, if you tell social services you no longer have a place to live you will be facing the possibility of losing your children. There are not many shelters that take women AND their children. Social Services will be happy to put you up in a shelter and put your kids in a foster home or group home until you are back on your feet.

I once knew a woman whose husband took off to Florida with another woman. He emptied their bank account and disappeared. She was working part time and had two small children. She had a disorder that made working full time difficult, if at all possible. When she lost the apartment she ended up in a camp ground. That was as much as her part time job could afford. She continued to take her children to school and go to work. Then winter came. The park ranger noticed she had been there too long. He noticed the children looked very thin and that they had only a simple tent. He called social services. The police came and collected them. She spent a week without her children, screaming and crying for them. She was fortunate. Possibly because she was white and well educated, someone in an agency took an interest in her and found her immediate housing. She got her kids back. This is not usually how it works. It usually takes a very long time on a wait list to get housing. It also depends on if your application for housing is accepted and if you pass the landlord’s screening. It also depends on the size of your family. Generally, the larger the family, the longer it takes.

3. There is no government agency handing out cash to whoever wanders in. Maybe there should be. Food Stamps is perhaps the easiest assistance to get, but plenty of people are turned down. Read the requirements for assistance in your state. If you have children, especially young children, you are more likely to qualify. But this is temporary. There is an end to most assistance. In North Carolina it is now three months for food stamps. You have to reapply then. You are less likely to be accepted the second time. There is a one-time only bill pay that will pay for your heat or electricity IF you qualify. So what happens if you are still unemployed with three kids after three months? Receiving cash assistance is VERY unusual. If you still have housing you might qualify for this for three months, if you have children and if you can prove you are a legal citizen. (sorry to all of you who like to blame the immigrants) You must first register for employment assistance and show up for this when they say.

The current “housing wage” is roughly $21.00 an hour. This is what you need to earn to afford housing in NC. In 2018 there were 27,800 homeless people in North Carolina.

4. Can you imagine the humiliation of standing on a corner asking for help? How bad off would you have to be to do this?

I knew a young woman who lost her job and as she looked for a new one she sold everything she owned. Everything, including shoes and sneakers. She had nothing but her bed left when she found another job.

Have we become desensitized to the homeless? It’s certainly not a new problem. Do we still notice them? I certainly noticed the woman in front of Target. Target does NOT allow such neediness on their property. They are quick and fierce about cleaning up. Most homeless know where they can go to panhandle and where not to go. This tells me that this woman was probably new to her situation. The look on her face was genuine fear and shame. Are we too overwhelmed to help or are we too concerned about how deserving someone might be?

By the time I came out of Target with the groceries I bought for three children she was gone. I looked around a bit, but didn’t see her. I thought about when my own children were young and I was making $10 an hour. I couldn’t always afford the bills. I skipped meals so my kids would have all they needed. I had food stamps for two years. I had occasional help from friends. I was lucky. I really hope that woman finds the help she needs.

When I got home with her groceries I had a conversation with a friend about it. He just happened to know a man who had been a homeless veteran until a few weeks ago when he got his first apartment in many years. He had three weeks to wait until his food stamps came in. So my groceries found a home.

Former addictions counselor, empty-nester, activist, animal lover, writer and lover of what it means to be human.

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