Were just barely makin it, she says. Thats why Im down here because, after awhile, things are catchin a domino effect. Im robbin Peter to pay Paul. Now Im here. Hopefully, I can catch up when I leave here and then Ill start the process all over again until something else comes along.
Ive worked, she says. Ive owned my own businesses. But it got to the point where people cant afford to have what I used to provide for them. Michelle, who was a self-employed appliance repair technician, says, thats kind of dried up and basically gone. Its not even cost-effective for me to have inventory because the inventory isnt moving. Im not lazy at all. Right now, my goal is to keep a roof over my daughters heads.
Walker itemizes Michelles expenses. Her monthly net income is $694 from Social Security, plus food stamps. Her rent is $600, her electric bill runs $150, she spends $30 on the bus. Her expenses total $830.
Walker does some calculating, then tells Michelle the Crisis Ministry will pay her electric bill for her. And Michelle, a composed woman, thanks her. Then Walker says something Michelle did not expect: The Ministry will also catch her up on her rent. Michelle gasps. Then she weeps. Oh my God, she says softly, her head sagging. Oh, Jesus.
Anybody can be on any side of this desk at any time, Walker tells her. We all struggle. And that is why this agency is here, OK?
You dont know, says Michelle, dabbing at her eyes, struggling to rebuild her composure. I just try to be a good person. I try not to ask anybody for anything. I just want to raise my girls.
And, yes, the fact that Michelle is still not out of the woods is as obvious as the gap between the $694 she receives each month, and the $830 she spends. Still, it is unlikely Walker will see her again anytime soon. She will find some way to make it. Those the Ministry assists typically only need help that one time.
Making it or not
It is uncommon for counselors to see the same people twice in one year. What is striking, in watching Walker work, is how heartbreakingly little money can represent the difference between someone making it and not, between staying on the tightrope or falling down and through whats left of the safety net. We are talking the kind of money more fortunate people might spend on a cable bill or a restaurant meal.
Carson Dean, executive director of the Mens Shelter of Charlotte, tells this story of a veteran who had driven heavy trucks in the military. He had to apply to the N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles to have his military credentials transferred into something he could use to get a job in civilian life. He was $2 short on the fee. This veteran stood in the DMV parking lot for 45 minutes, begging for $2 without success. So he didnt get the license, and he didnt get the job.
Two dollars, says Dean. The guy could have had the license and been able to get a job driving a truck because of his military experience. Two dollars. And instead, hes living in a homeless shelter. Thats an extreme case, but were often talking a matter of a few hundred bucks.
The frustration you hear is not just for the piddling amount, but also, more broadly for the sense that fixing this is doable, if we had only the will. Not easy, not fast, but doable. Granted, this is not the conventional wisdom where poverty is concerned. The conventional wisdom says poverty is immutable and intractable. The poor you will always have with you, Jesus is often quoted out of context as saying. Talk to advocates for the poor, and they beg to differ.