The Indignities of Poverty, Compounded by the Requirement to Prove It

In an excerpt from her debut memoir, Stephanie Land recalls being poor, and moving with her young daughter from a homeless shelter to transitional housing.

Stephanie Land| Excerpt adapted from Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive | Hachette Book Group | January 2019 | 8 minutes (1,790 words)

 

My daughter learned to walk in a homeless shelter.

It was an afternoon in June, the day before her first birthday. I perched on the shelter’s threadbare love seat, holding up an old digital camera to capture her first steps. Mia’s tangled hair and thinly striped onesie contrasted with the determination in her brown eyes as she flexed and curled her toes for balance. From behind the camera, I took in the folds of her ankles, the rolls of her thighs, and the roundness of her belly. She babbled as she made her way toward me, barefoot across the tiled floor. Years of dirt were etched into that floor. As hard as I scrubbed, I could never get it clean.

It was the final week of our ninety-day stay in a cabin unit on the north side of town, allotted by the housing authority for those without a home. Next, we’d move into transitional housing—an old, run-down apartment complex with cement floors that doubled as a halfway house. However temporary, I had done my best to make the cabin a home for my daughter. I’d placed a yellow sheet over the love seat not only to warm the looming white walls and gray floors, but to offer something bright and cheerful during a dark time.

By the front door, I’d hung a small calendar on the wall. It was filled with appointments with caseworkers at organizations where I could get us help. I had looked under every stone, peered through the window of every government assistance building, and joined the long lines of people who carried haphazard folders of paperwork to prove they didn’t have money. I was overwhelmed by how much work it took to prove I was poor.

I’d grasp onto those daydreams, like they were a string tied to a huge balloon. The balloon would carry me over Jamie’s abuse and the hardship of being left as a single parent.

We weren’t allowed to have visitors, or to have very much at all. We had one bag of belongings. Mia had a single basket of toys. I had a small stack of books that I’d placed on the little shelves separating the living area from the kitchen. There was a round table that I clipped Mia’s high chair to, and a chair where I sat and watched her eat, often drinking coffee to quell my hunger.

As I watched Mia take those first few steps, I tried to keep my eyes from the green box behind her where I kept the court documents detailing my fight with her father for custody. I fought to keep my focus on her, smiling at her, as if everything was fine. Had I turned the camera around, I wouldn’t have recognized myself. The few photos of me showed almost a different person, possibly the skinniest I had been in my whole life. I worked part-time as a landscaper, where I spent several hours a week trimming shrubs, fighting back overgrown blackberries, and picking tiny blades of grass from places they weren’t supposed to be. Sometimes I cleaned the floors and toilets of homes whose owners I knew, friends who had heard I was desperate for money. They weren’t rich, but these friends had financial cushions beneath them, something I didn’t. A lost paycheck would be a hardship, not a start of events that would end with living in a homeless shelter. They had parents or other family members who could swoop in with money and save them from all of that. No one was swooping in for us. It was just Mia and me.

On the intake papers for the housing authority, when asked about my personal goals for the next few months, I wrote about trying to make it work with Mia’s dad, Jamie. I thought if I tried hard enough, we could figure it out.

Sometimes I would imagine moments when we were a real family—a mother, a father, a beautiful baby girl. I’d grasp onto those daydreams, like they were a string tied to a huge balloon. The balloon would carry me over Jamie’s abuse and the hardship of being left as a single parent. If I kept hold of that string, I’d float above it all. If I focused on the portrait of the family I wanted to be, I could pretend the bad parts weren’t real; like this life was a temporary state of being, not a new existence.

Mia got new shoes for her birthday. I’d saved up for a month. They were brown with little pink-and-blue birds embroidered on them. I sent out party invitations like a normal mom and invited Jamie like we were a normal co-parenting couple. We celebrated at a picnic table overlooking the ocean on a grassy hillside at Chetzemoka Park in Port Townsend, the city in Washington State where we lived. People sat smiling on blankets they’d brought. I’d bought lemonade and muffins with my remaining food stamp money for that month. My dad and my grandfather had traveled for almost two hours from opposite directions to attend. My brother and a few friends came. One brought a guitar. I asked a friend to take pictures of Mia, Jamie, and me, because it was so rare, the three of us sitting together like that. I wanted Mia to have a good memory to look back on. But Jamie’s face in the photos showed disinterest, anger.

My mom had flown in with her husband, William, all the way from London, or France, or wherever they were living at the time. The day after Mia’s party, they came over— violating the homeless shelter’s “no visitors” rule—to help me move to the transitional apartment. I shook my head a little at their outfits—William in his skinny black jeans, black sweater, and black boots; Mom in a black-and-white-striped dress that hugged her round hips too tight, black leggings, and low-top Converse shoes. They looked ready for sipping espresso, not moving. I hadn’t let anyone see where we’d been living, so the intrusion of their British accents and Euro outfits made the cabin, our home, feel even dirtier.

William seemed surprised to see that there was only one duffel bag to move us out. He picked it up to bring it outside, and Mom followed him. I turned back to take a final look at that floor, at the ghosts of myself reading books on the love seat, of Mia rummaging through her basket of toys, of her sitting in the built-in drawer under the twin bed. I was happy to be gone. But it was a brief moment to take in what I had survived, a bittersweet goodbye to the fragile place of our beginning.

Half the residents in our new apartment building, the Northwest Passage Transitional Family Housing Program, were like me, moving out of homeless shelters, but the other half were people who had just gotten out of jail. It was supposed to be a step up from the shelter, but I already missed the seclusion of the cabin. Here, in this building, my reality felt exposed for all to see, even me.

Mom and William waited behind me as I approached the door to our new home. I struggled with the key, setting the box down to fumble harder with the lock, until finally we were in. “Well, at least that’s secure,” William joked.

We walked into a narrow entryway; the front door sat opposite the bathroom. Right away I noticed the tub, where Mia and I could take a bath together. We hadn’t had the luxury of a tub in a long time. Our two bedrooms were on the right. Each had a window that faced the road. In the tiny kitchen, the refrigerator door grazed the cupboards on the opposite side. I walked across the large white tiles, which resembled the floor at the shelter, and opened the door to a small outdoor deck. It was just wide enough where I could sit with my legs stretched out.

Julie, my caseworker, had briefly shown me the place in a walk-through two weeks earlier. The last family who’d lived in the apartment had stayed for twenty-four months, the maximum amount of time possible. “You’re lucky this one opened up,” she said. “Especially since your days were up at the shelter.”

When I first met with Julie, I sat across from her, stammering in my attempts to answer questions about what my plans were, how I planned to provide shelter for my child. What my path to financial stability looked like. What jobs I could do. Julie seemed to understand my bewilderment, offering some suggestions on how to proceed. Moving into low-income housing seemed to be my only option. The trouble was finding an empty slot. There were advocates at the Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services Center who kept a protected shelter available for victims who had nowhere to turn, but I had gotten lucky when the housing authority offered me my own space and a path to stability.

My thoughts were stuck on when my caseworker called me ‘lucky.’ I didn’t feel lucky. Grateful, yes. Definitely. But having luck, no.

Julie and I went over a four-page list of terse rules during that first meeting, rules I’d have to agree to in order to stay at their shelter.

Guest understands that this is an emergency shelter;

it is NOT your home.

RANDOM URINALYSIS may be requested at any time.

Visitors are NOT allowed at the shelter.

NO EXCEPTIONS.

Julie made clear they’d still do random checks to make sure the daily household chore minimums were met, like cleaning the dishes, not leaving food out on the counter, and keeping the floor tidy. I again agreed to random urine analysis tests, random unit inspections, and a ten p.m. curfew. Overnight visitors were not allowed without permission, and for no more than three days. All changes in income had to be reported immediately. Monthly statements had to be submitted with details about what money came in and how and why it went out.

Julie was always nice and kept smiling as she spoke. I appreciated that she didn’t have that worn, drawn-out look that other caseworkers in government offices seemed to have. She treated me like a person, tucking her short, copper-red hair behind her ear as she spoke. But my thoughts were stuck on when she called me “lucky.” I didn’t feel lucky. Grateful, yes. Definitely. But having luck, no. Not when I was moving into a place with rules that suggested that I was an addict, dirty, or just so messed up in life that I needed an enforced curfew and pee tests.

Being poor, living in poverty, seemed a lot like probation— the crime being a lack of means to survive.

 

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Excerpted from the book Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive by Stephanie Land, to be published on January 22, 2019 by Hachette Books, a division of Hachette Book Group.

Copyright 2019 Stephanie Land.