The summer can be a slow time for anyone looking for jobs, housing or just trying to get things done. That’s true for must of us, and doubly true for people who are dependent on multiple social service and governmental agencies with shifting personnel and rules. For many of the women, the dominant theme of the summer was waiting, waiting and waiting some more.
Ginger (see “The New Price of Freedom“) was super excited last spring when her case manager at a housing agency told her she would get her into an apartment soon. In mid-summer the case-manager took Ginger she was taken to see an apartment in a community right outside Boston. She was thrilled – oohing and aahing as she described “my stove” and “my floors” in this recently renovated flat. She was waiting for it to be approved by the Housing Authority and she was sure there wouldn’t be any problems because the apartment seemed in great condition. We talked about where she would get a bed and what color sheets she wanted. She lined up my help to drive her possessions to the apartment (it turns out all that she owns — aside from a few outfits and toiletries — is a box of assorted glasses and cups she has received as Christmas presents or won at raffles at homeless programs over the years.)
And then she waited some more. Finally, the inspector came and found a leak in the basement of the building. The landlord was told he had to fix the problem before it could be approved. She waited for the repair and then she waited for the inspector to come back. Her housing advocate repeated to her that she just needs to be patient, that these things take a while.
They seem to have taken too long because in early October the landlord withdrew the offer of the apartment.
As of this writing, Ginger remains homeless, though her case-manager has promised to take her next week to see another apartment.
Isabella (see “Failure by Design: Isabella’s Experiences with Social Services“) is still in prison, waiting to find out when she will be let out. Her release date is up in the air while the system sorts out various old charges, warrants, and probation and parole violations.
Kahtia (See “Prostitution, Decriminalization and the Problem of Consent“) is still trying to regain custody of her children. It’s been two years at this point and she is beyond frustrated. In the middle of the summer I accompanied her to a long-awaited Court date.
We met in front of the Court House. Kahtia was sitting outside by herself, an hour before the scheduled Court time – she wanted to be sure not to be held up by public transportation or arrive looking disheveled. In fact, she looked lovely. She had a nice, modern haircut, was wearing beautiful make-up, had her new teeth (they look beautiful and natural), and was wearing a long flowing dress. She was very optimistic because the judge had told her that this would be it – that she would get the kids at this hearing. We joked around and made small talk and reminisced and talked about movies and news stories until it was time to go upstairs.
Outside the courtroom we sat down to wait and wait and wait. And as the hours went on Kahtia wilted.
Finally, a social worker from Kahtia’s lawyer’s office came out to show her the report DCF had filed. The report included descriptions of her visits with the children (all positive reports) and reports from her therapist and psychiatrist. And here is where it got weird. The therapist wrote that Kahtia has done well and learned to manage her emotions, but then commented that she has failed to go for some of her urines (drug tests). The strange part is that Kahtia is not mandated to go for urines. It was her own idea and she goes voluntarily because she believes this will help her show that she should get her kids back. She missed one or two urines when she was sick. But DCF seized on that one comment from the therapist and gave it more weight than all of the positive feedback. When Kahtia saw this document she became upset and interpreted it as further evidence that DCF has it in for her.
After another lengthy wait, the social worker returned to tell her that it’s time to go in to Court, but that she can’t bring anyone with her (she had hoped to bring me or sister with her for support) and that a new judge would be hearing the case. This was particularly devastating because Kahtia felt the judge who had been on the case since the beginning was fair and understood the issues. He was set to retire but told her he’d stay on her case until the end. At the last hearing he had berated DCF for dragging things out when Kahtia clearly was complying with all of their requests.
Kahtia was shocked by the news and furious to learn that her lawyer likely knew about the new judge a couple of hours ago but only told her as she was walking into the courtroom. We begged for a few minutes to help Kahtia calm down.
She went into the court room and came out a few minutes later. It turned out that one of the translators hadn’t arrived.
Another wait and she went in again, just for a few minutes. The case was continued for two months, at which time the lawyers will offer motions. Her lawyer will ask to increase her hours with the girls (for no known reason the hours had been cut from 2 per week to 1 per week). DCF will ask to see Kahtia’s mental health and other records for the two years preceding the opening of this case as well as a report from her domestic violence counselor. We asked why this necessitates a two month wait. We were told that all of the lawyers couldn’t find a date that worked for them any earlier.
The delay means the girls won’t start the school year in their mother’s neighborhood and likely will have to transfer schools mid-year, again.
The day that started so hopefully ended with crushing pain, again.
Melanie, one of the few women who has been employed for most of the past ten years, was let go from her job last spring because of health problems. Earlier in the summer her mother — a woman who had held her family together even when she herself was extremely ill — passed away. “I feel the hits just keep coming, with losing my job and then my mother,” Melanie told me.
Francesca (see “The Bitch at the Welfare Office“) has been busy. During the summer and into September her time and efforts revolved around caring for her granddaughter. She and her son mostly got along well and were doing a good job of raising the child (whose mother died about a year ago.) Francesca organized pool parties, took her granddaughter shopping for school clothes, and more or less lived her long-time dream of having a house with her kids and being a Mom and homemaker.
Unfortunately, about a month ago she and her son had an argument during which “he disrespected me. He said I’m dead to him he doesn’t want me in his or [his daughter’s] life; that I’m a loser and never will get anywhere in life. That’s something his [abusive] dad would say to me when we were married.” He kicked her out of their house and threatened to throw her possessions onto the street.
Francesca handled the situation with a great deal of grace and a maturity that, she told me, she knew she didn’t have even a few years ago. She moved in with her boyfriend, continues to spend time with her granddaughter, and has started an on-line business that she conducts from her phone. The downside, and this is not new for her, is that her boyfriend lives in a fairly remote community and Francesca does not have a car. He has a car and a steady job so she is dependent on him for transportation and for financial support. In the past, this sort of power imbalance has not ended well for her.
Tonya continues to amaze me with her resilience and resourcefulness. In July everything seemed to be going wrong. “The blows are coming left and right. They cut my income. I go into panic mode at the threat of being homeless. My mother is 70 years old and out on the street [due to a fire in her apartment].”
Tonya’s check was cut because she did not consistently make it to her required community service (required in order to get cash benefits – transitional assistance). She was supposed to go to a certain office in downtown Boston everyday, but often did not have money for transportation to get there. “It costs almost $100 a month and the trip takes an hour and a half. They cut me from $490 to $478.” I asked how she’d been able to stay on transitional assistance for so long – the usual cut-off is two years. “Because I’ve been applying and reapplying for Disability. I have pain in my body. So many forms to fill out. Susan, I don’t want to do it anymore. I’m 42 and I’m exhausted. I gained 65, 70 pounds.” She described pain in her knees, back and hands.
“The one good thing is that “my record cleared through Annie Dookhan [the state employee who tainted evidence in the state’s drug labs] but ten years of my life were ruined [because of her record]. I feel I won’t last a lot longer. My father died at 52. I’m going down the same path. Drinking, stressed, tired. I just keeping do more programs and more job training.” One recent program “told me I need to wear business clothes, but I can’t afford to even do my hair, I wear a scarf all the time. Susan, nothing has progressed since you met me. I just want to be a normal person but you can’t on welfare. They want you to be then they make it impossible. … It’s an ongoing battle. Non-stop.”
A month or so later I ran into her as she was walking her son home from day camp. (Full disclosure: I’ve known her son since the day he was born and I can say — with full scientific integrity — that he is the cutest child in the world!) She had signed up for another job skills program but missed the first day of the because she did not have money for transportation. So she enrolled in another program that teaches people how to be an employee (how to look for a job, how to set an alarm clock, how to talk to your boss). The program is far too basic for her; in fact, she could teach it she has taken it so many times. “But I have to be in a program in order to get help for sending my son to camp. He is at the  Camp and loves it!”
Tonya always manages to surprise me. Yesterday she sent me a photo of the broccoli she managed to grow in the little patch of dust outside her apartment. I told her that I believe the success of her broccoli plant is an omen of good things to come.
For those of you who have come to know the women — and for those of you meeting them here for the first time — please feel free to ask questions. You can post your questions in the Comments or email them directly to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll pass along your questions to the women as best I can. They know that I write about their lives and are eager to share their thoughts and opinions with more people.
Check back often for more updates on the women of Can’t Catch a Break!