Because of our location, it doesn't happen a lot, but it does happen. We sit together, talk together, often pray together, and most everyone who comes through asking for help needs a hug in the worst way. I realize that many of us are blind to the poverty and struggles around us. Because my soul is often wounded by their stories, I'm sharing some of the horrible stories I've heard.
- "I was staying in a hotel and was kicked out with no notice." Other versions: I was staying in a hotel and it went bankrupt, so I became homeless. I was staying in a hotel and I got bed bugs. I was staying in a hotel and didn't feel safe, so I left. (By hotel, they're usually talking about flophouses. There are several about three miles west of here.)
- "We were doing ok and then I got sick." These are stories about waiting on approval for disability benefits, or being denied disability benefits and still not able to work. The bills mount. Households combine to try to survive together. Every utility is near being shut off.
- "I'm in the wrong zip code." I happen to live and work in Maricopa County, where two-thirds of Arizona's population also lives. In other parts of the state, it's referred to as "The State of Maricopa." We have services here. But if you live in an adjacent county, you're often out of luck. Access to services is even worse in the rural areas.
- "I thought this car would be better." A tax refund becomes a down payment on a POS car. (There's just no polite way to talk about these cars.) The problems have been hidden, so someone drives off the lot thinking they're fine. Then something major goes and there's no money to fix it and no expectation it would have to be fixed so soon. The interest rate is insane, of course, because that's also what we do to poor people. In one case, the payment on a 2003 small SUV was the same as my 2013 small car.
- "But they started using." Drugs aren't usually the problem with the people who make it to my office. Well, at least they aren't using themselves. Instead, a partner started using and the household collapsed. Or a child. Or things have been wrong for as long as they can remember because drugs are part of their parents' stories.
- "I used all my paycheck already." There's this idea that poor people squander money when the truth is there's just not enough of it. They're used to having to defend themselves and what they do with the few financial resources they have, so they bring documentation and run down the list. "My paycheck was $254, so I paid my car insurance for thirty days, the electric bill, put gas in my car, and there's nothing left." It's amazing, actually, to sit with people who know down to the penny what needs to be paid and how much work they need. Many of them are hoping for $9 and looking for the jobs that offer at least weekly pay; they'd prefer daily. It puts "give us this day our daily bread" in a whole new context. Also, a forty hour week at $9 an hour is $360 before taxes, just in case you hadn't bothered to do the math.
- "Work is bad." Someone lands one of those $9 an hour jobs they've looked so hard for. Of course, there are a few teenagers working alongside them. One or two of those teenagers are the ones whose parents made them get a job, but the household is far from falling apart without the income. It's easy to pick on the person who is sleeping in their car. It's easy to make life miserable for the person who really needs the job. (These stories are actually the most horrifying for me.)
Still, y'all, the things we do to poor people.
We have to do better.