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The last few months have brought some changes to the women of Can’t Catch a Break. Not all are of the life-changing sort, but I still marvel at the pace in which new crises arise in the women’s lives. Illness, death and disappointment in and of themselves are not extraordinary – they are the stuff of real life that all of us experience at one time or another. Rather, it’s the relentlessness. Some of the women don’t have time to catch their breath and assimilate one set of challenges and changes before the next set erupts.

Andrea is still unemployed and lonely. “I had a poor Christmas,” she told me. On the positive side, she is still securely housed in a well-located studio apartment.

 

Ashley is a gloriously happy stay-at-home Mom. I personally can vouch for the cuteness of her children. She posts daily photos of their antics and they keep me in stitches. Her husband is doing very well at work, they had a lovely Christmas, and both extended families are great sources of support and company.

 

Carly has had a busy few months. She remains fully engaged in her spiritual life – fighting Satan and trusting God — though she has not yet found a church that suits her perfectly. She quit the last church she’d been part of when the pastor “made white supremacist comments.” Having spent years living with a wonderful Black foster family, Carly will not tolerate racist comments in her presence.

Her big news is that she is pregnant! With a baby on the way she enrolled in a job training program which she graduated with a certificate that should pave the way for an entry level healthcare job. She still dreams of being a nurse in the future.

In the meantime, she remains stuck in an apartment that is saturated with mold and covered in rodent droppings. She desperately wants to move out but has not been able to find a landlord who will accept a tenant with a “voucher.” (Typically through the federal ‘Section VIII’ program, these vouchers cover rent according to a specific scale for low-income people. In tight housing markets like Massachusetts it is very difficult for voucher-holders to find apartments, even though the voucher guarantees rent; that is, the government agency pays rent directly to the landlord.) Because her living conditions trigger severe asthma, she has spent a great deal of time in the hospital.

For more on her housing struggles click here.

Elizabeth: See “Eulogy for Elizabeth, Update

Francesca is (still) a survivor. She is happy living part-time with the man she met last year. He is a stable, family man living in a semi-rural community at some distance from Boston. He works very long hours so she often comes back to Boston and stays for a few days with friends or with one of her sons. She has many close girlfriends of various ages and generations, and she enjoys being an “auntie” almost as much as she enjoys being a grandmother to her two lovely grandchildren.

She has had some serious health problems over the past months. She lost over one hundred pounds and spent a few stints in the hospital. She has been diagnosed with Crohns and Colitis, and then developed a C.difficile infection in the wake of antibiotics she was given for back-to-back kidney infections. She felt miserable with all of this, but is thrilled with her new svelte body!

Ginger moved back from Florida. She had moved there to be with a man she had met but that fell apart after a day or two. She called to tell me that, “I came to Fort Myers [and ended up] homeless. Last night I had a stomach virus. I threw up all over the bus. I had to go to the hospital. I was there all night. I’d been eating out of the trash. I have nowhere to in Florida.”

She called me from a local sheriff’s office next to the bus station. We figured out how to arrange to purchase a bus ticket for her. The next bus would leave in 12 hours and the trip would take two days. She had no money for food.

I spoke with the sheriff to see if there would be a way to help her out so that she wouldn’t risk being arrested for panhandling or soliciting sex for money. He said no. I wrote in my notes: “The irony that we’ll pay for a night sick in the hospital from eating in the trash, but we won’t pay for someone to get food.”

We spoke briefly when she returned to Boston, but since November I have not heard from her. I’ve tried every phone number and every friend and relative I can think of. I did catch a quick glimpse of her hanging out in the Boston Common with a small group of people whom I know to be homeless. It’s hard to know what to think. For many years Ginger has called me regularly at least once each week.

Isabella has had a horrid few months. She, her husband and her husband’s teenage son had been staying in the small living room of a one bedroom flat rented by a friend of hers. Both she and her husband were doing quite well on a methadone protocol that required them to come to the methadone clinic daily. In the Fall, after many months of applications, she landed a wonderful job. The new company sent her to a training seminar and she began to work in an office setting that she loved. Then, two things happened just about simultaneously. One, a more extensive background check carried out by her employer revealed her history of incarceration and she was let go. Two, her husband picked up heroin use (again), suffered what she considered a “psychotic break” that landed him in the emergency room and then the psych ward, and he destroyed all of their possessions.

Several weeks later he died of a heroin overdose.

Two weeks after that her roommate was given notice to move out; the landlord planned to empty out and renovate the apartment. She is now couch-surfing with a friend who lives in a town quite a distance from the methadone clinic that she needs to attend each morning. Isabella does not have a car.

Kahtia has been having a rough time. She still has not received her children back from state custody and she pines for them, as they do for her. After a few months in a sub-standard foster care situation they now are living with a foster family that Kahtia (who is not allowed to meet the family) believes is good to her kids based on how they are dressed and what they say when she sees them once a week in a supervised visit at the DCF office. I asked what she has to do to get them back. She said she’s already done everything she has to do — parenting classes, therapy, clean urines — and now is waiting on the next court date which is in February (two months off at the time). I asked her why the date is so far off and she said, “that’s just how it is.” Part of the problem is that she’s had at least three different DCF workers and two different DCF supervisors which “prolongs the case” (her words) because each time the new worker has to do a new assessment. She has gone to Court repeatedly and each time things are put on hold because of the new worker.

In the meantime she is struggling with serious health challenges and now needs to keep a portable oxygen tank with her wherever she goes. She has gained a great deal of weight and struggles getting up and down the stairs to her fourth floor apartment. She says it is highly unlikely that she will be able to move to another apartment on a lower floor.

The good news is that her husband is really coming through for her and the kids. He’s been working steadily and bringing all of his income home, coming to all the supervised visits, and staying by Kahtia’s side through the many medical problems and emergencies. He has sat with her in the hospital, stayed up with her at night, and done whatever he can to make her comfortable.

Melanie has long been one of the few women who has been steadily employed, securely housed, on good terms with her family, and in a stable relationship with a very decent man. I hadn’t heard from her in quite a while until she called this Fall, somewhat out of the blue. Distraught, she told me that she has an enlarged spleen. The doctors don’t know why though they have done many tests. Her concern is that her employer (a social service agency) is going to put her on short term disability which means that she’ll be paid only 70% of her salary and she knows that she can’t pay her bills on that. “If I have to go down to 70% of my salary I will get in my check $352 / every 2 weeks.” We went through her budget together dollar by dollar, and her calculation is absolutely correct. “I’ve used up all of my sick time and vacation time with going to doctors and then just being too sick to go into work.” She went on to say, “My job is the best thing. My Aunt said it’s my calling [to help people].”

Her asthma and depression are also acting up and “I am crying a lot” (my note: which is rare for her). She can’t stand on her feet or sleep on her left side. “I’m literally in pain.” The doctors offered her narcotics but she refused because she is an addict (that is how she defines herself though she has not used drugs at all in ten years.) She’s lost 16 pounds – “I can’t eat and I feel overwhelmed.” She also has gall stones in her digestive system, pain in her shoulder and a broken toe. She said the doctors do not know if these problems are related to one another.

Continuing updates will be posted so check back!

My friend Isabella has been beside herself with worry over her son and her housing situation. Ever since the first time we met (seven years ago!) in a half-way house for women, she has told me that she wants Americans who are fortunate enough to live in secure and stable housing to know what people who are dependent upon the institutional circuit of shelters, clinics, welfare, jails and DYS must go through just to (barely) hang on. I urged her to writer down her experiences. What follows is a Facebook conversation between us about what she’s been going through these past few months.


Isabella: Like many others, my husband and teen-age son and I have been living in what they call “scatter shelters.” What that means is that there aren’t enough good solutions for homeless families so they put us in apartments scattered around the city. Because we are a family, we were given one bedroom in a four bedroom apartment shared by four families. Some of the families have several kids, so it was very crowded. We all shared the living, kitchen and bathroom. One of our housemates at that apartment was an alcoholic and hit our son in the head with a bottle of Grey Goose. After that the manager moved us into another shared apartment in even worse conditions than the first one.

We are not criminals or children, but at the scatter shelter we all have a 9:00 curfew, 11:00 on weekends (though we can get a weekend pass.)

One weekend our son was staying with his grandmother and he called us up to say she had kicked him out. But it was after curfew (he had permission to be out but we had not arranged to be out) so we had to call the shelter supervisor to get permission to go and get him. By the time we reached her and got permission the last T [public transportation] had run so we had to take a taxi, which cost us $120 – a very big part of our monthly income.

 

Susan: Are you able to set up the apartment to feel like home?

 

Isabella: Because of all the moves and living in one room most of our stuff is in storage, including a television and really nice living room set that my father bought us before we lost our housing. But storage is expensive and we owe $3000 to the storage company. The company will not accept a partial payment and told us that they would auction off our stuff if we can’t come up with all of the money right away. But both of us are disabled and we live on Social Security so we couldn’t come up with the money.

homeless-in-storage-unit

I’ve been anxious and depressed through all of this, but what’s happened in the past two weeks has pushed me over the edge and I’m crying as I write this.

 

Susan: What’s been going on?

 

Isabella: Our son had gotten into some trouble for which he was put on probation. Unfortunately, he violated the terms of his probation and so he was taken into DYS (Department of Youth Services) custody for an indefinite time of anywhere between two weeks until up until his eighteenth birthday. So I’m SUPER STRESSED OUT, losing my mind actually, because we have NO IDEA where we’re gonna go. They’re saying that since our son is in the custody of DYS that he cannot be considered a part of our “case file” so we can’t stay in the family shelter. But he can’t be released by DYS to us if we don’t have a stable environment to live in. But we’re going to lose our place in the shelter because he is not living with us RIGHT AT THIS MOMENT and without him as part of our case file we are $26 over the monthly limit to qualify for a homeless shelter.

I called the housing office and was told that our son DOESN’T qualify as homeless, because and I quote the almighty DIRECTOR of DHCD, “He already has a place to stay [in DYS custody]; so he’s not homeless…” They said, “When he gets out and is homeless have him call us to verify he’s on the streets and we’ll reevaluate your eligibility.”

So basically we’re stuck in a Catch 22: Damned if we do, damned if we don’t!!! He CANNOT be released if we do not have a place for him to stay…BUT, we cannot keep a place to stay if he remains in lockup!!! I can’t win! I’m losing my fucking mind!!!!!! I’m so sorry for the vulgarity but I am flabbergasted.

I’m SO SUPER STRESSED I have no idea where we’re going and the thought of being homeless with our son frightens me like nothing has ever frightened me before.


 

While many of the poor, chronically ill and criminalized women I know turn their anger and blame on particular “bitches” who work in social and correctional services, Isabella has made clear to me from the first time we talked that, “It’s a system that is designed for us to fail.” Emergency assistance programs make frequent changes in eligibility criteria for receiving services, causing feelings of uncertainty and vulnerability in those who are dependent upon welfare as well as obligating recipients to spend great amounts of time and energy re-certifying their eligibility for the support and services that, in most other industrialized countries, are considered a basic right.

Even when you qualify for assistance, it turns out that Social Security Insurance (SSI) and Temporary Assistance to Needy Family (welfare) remittances are not sufficient to live on. As a result, recipients also are drawn into homeless shelters or other housing programs. Homeless shelters, while better than the street in most instances, are structured around rules that seem designed for people to break them. For a mother, residence in a homeless shelter is a surefire way to draw in child welfare services. Child welfare services are more likely than not to send women to drug testing programs which in turn easily leads them into the correctional system. Conditions of probation and parole — such as requiring constant urine tests — make it impossible to hold down a job. And children like Isabella’s son who were drawn into child welfare services are more likely than other children to end up in juvenile detention facilities, jails and prisons – all but guaranteeing that they will remain stuck in the same institutional circuit that failed them from the start.

You can read more about Isabella and the institutional circuit in Can’t Catch a Break.