Profiles in Extreme Poverty

Michelle stands with her partner Juan and their friend Angel in the shade against the brick wall, trying to avoid the full 90 degree day, waiting for 9 a.m. to arrive.  She has an off-the shoulder floral blouse on over a tank, paired with tight jeans.  Juan has the wire cart they’ll need to tote any groceries they glean from this west-side food pantry.  They are among the first to arrive this morning; each takes a number—3, 4, 5.  As they sit and wait for their turn at intake, Michelle shares that she hasn’t eaten in 4 days.  Then she shares why—2 years ago, Juan lost his job at the Ford Motor Plant.  The savings eventually ran out.  Then he, Michelle, and the three kids were evicted.

A friend let them bed down in his unfinished basement—where they tried to make a semblance of a life between the water heater, furnace, and pipes.  Suspicious—perhaps because of a sudden rise in the water usage—the landlord illegally entered the home and found the family huddled there.  The friend refused to throw the family out in the face of a threatened eviction.  Two months later, all of them were out on the street, possessions scattered across the lawn for neighbors to pick through before the landlord hauled the mess away. 

Since the loss of his factory job, Juan had been making the trek to a day labor facility several miles away, starting out at about 2am to arrive at 4, when the first picks were made.  By eight, he knew it was either time to begin his walk home or he was out on a job.  Unfortunately, he was put on a job only about one day out of five.  Even then, the yield—after FICA and transportation deductions, is just 30 bucks.  Prior to the eviction, Michelle had been cleaning houses in the suburbs.  To make ends meet, she cleaned like crazy, taking every job she could get in the wealthy Cleveland suburbs, where work was to be had.  But then the car was repossessed. Undaunted, Michelle hauled herself to the local plasma clinic—on west 25th street—about 2 miles away.  She “donated” steadily before being pronounced anemic and barred from giving any more.  Soon afterwards, she was rushed to the emergency room after passing out—dangerously low levels of potassium was the cause.  She is unsure whether that was related to the plasma donation or not.

As a result of her efforts, over three months’ time she managed to save the $425 to secure an apartment just four days after the second eviction.  With too many evictions on her record, the lease was held only in Jose’s name.  But it was a one bedroom, meaning the kids had to be sent off to live with relatives.  Michelle wept as she told me that she had said goodbye to her 15-year-old just that morning, before coming to the pantry.  She had never been apart from her children before.  When I asked her why she hadn’t applied for TANF, she looked at me blankly.  A TANF check would have kept she and Jose in their apartment, their kids in their schools.  It would have shielded the family against that stay in a damp, unfinished basement.  It would have kept the little family intact.  Yet Michelle had never even heard of the program.

Finally, her number was called.  She emerges from intake on moments later.  She had been denied.  Her name was not on the lease so she wasn’t eligible to receive food at this particular pantry.  She’s not on anybody’s lease anymore.  Hungry beyond belief she sits in a chair while Jose is called, approved, and apportioned enough to feed one person for several days.  Jose had exhausted his SNAP benefits.  Michelle has not yet claimed SNAP, but now, as a “single”, she would be limited to three months.

- Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer