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When someone mistakes you for homeless and poor...

On the way to dinner the other night, we turned down a street and my mother said, "Hey Julie, look at those apartments right there---they just built them..."

And I said, "Are they full?"

Which she misheard, unsurprisingly considering the amount of noise six children can make, and said, "No, no they aren't for the poor, it isn't subsidized housing, I think anyone can live there."

Which caused my sister to say, "Are you telling your HOMELESS daughter about alternative housing possibilities?"

We laughed---a little at my mother for misunderstanding, and a little at me for the homeless thing.

See, the homeless thing is a joke. It came from this whole incident at the school, when I tried to register my kids for temporary enrollment.

When I went by the local school to see about sending the kids there until our school district opens, they handed me a form that I had to sign, declaring myself homeless, so that my mother---with whom we are staying---could be declared our host, so that we qualified to enroll in the school.

It seemed wrong.

I protested, "But we aren't homeless," I said, "We're just very temporarily displaced. I could go back," I explained, "Except I want them to have as normal a life as possible right now."

"Oh but if you're declared homeless you can get the breakfast and lunch for the kids," the lady said.

"But I brought their lunch kits, and I already have breakfast and lunch food at home," I said.

"Well this has got to be so expensive already," she said, confused by my protests," You don't want to spend money you don't have to." She shoved the form back at me.

I don't want homeless status. I don't want the school to feed my kids. I am providing for them. I can provide for them.

We are lucky.

My husband has a job, we have insurance, my mother is generously and comfortably hosting us. We have other generous offers from others who want to help if we need.

We are lucky.

We do not need to take resources, such as free lunches at the school.

If I needed to, I would.

But just in that moment, I felt it: that loss of status, that sucking up of pride. I built a new empathy for people in this position. People not in my fortunate privileged position, people like me who can say no thanks.

I, unlike some in my town, still have a house. My house is still there, and despite wind and water damage, and a power company cherry picker that sunk in our still sodden yard, it is habitable.

Although the power company said another three weeks to power up my area, because we are on the same grid with essential services (in this case, a lifting station and a pumping station---those are to do with water and wastewater for the record) we may get power back as early as this week.

My husband said crews were still clearing trees, but had begun freeing power lines, stringing power lines and working hard to get power restored, all day every day.

So I am hopeful we can return home sooner rather than later.

My husband went to cruise our small town and said quite a few houses are completely gone, others look like a blast blew through them and the frame is mostly there, but the interior is missing. The water has mostly receded, but it left debris, and a lot of marine life died. He said the stench is dreadful.

We are lucky.

That's why the homeless thing is both so funny and not funny at all.

All things considered, I have thought of myself as fortunate. And yet, in that moment, that woman thought of me as poor.

It makes you think. It makes your mind open. It makes you realize about perceptions and circumstances and you and others and everything.


Anonymous said…
I'm glad for you & your girls, Julie. You are fortunate, and I knew you would perceive it this way.

The think is, there are many who would take what they could, whether they really needed it or not, actually thinking it was "free" or not caring that it's not.
Girlplustwo said…
the flip side of this is the subtle and not so subtle losing of human-ness. you are homeless, so the school decides what your kids eat. or where you sleep. it's generally substandard, or at least not what you've pictured for your babies, and yet poverty forces you to turn your instincts over to someone else, to a bureaucracy. and you need to be grateful. and you are grateful, but you also need to be.

julie, i very much appreciated this post.
Unknown said…
It is a perspective-giving experience, isn't it?

I'm glad you guys can laugh about it, but I'm also glad that you, in your usual Julie way, are able to reflect on it in a meaningful way.

I was also thinking about something along the lines that jen commented on... imagining what your response was to the situation at the school, how it made you feel... then wondering at how people feel when they don't have a choice... what does that to to them over weeks and months and years... how does it wear them down... Obviously, these are all just wild ponderings because I've never been in any situation that is remotely similar.

It's a hmm'er, isn't it?
thailandchani said…
I agree with Jen on this one. There's a lot more I could say but it would turn into a book - and then I've probably said it all before.

The main thing is that you are safe and well - and I'm grateful for that.

Melissa said…
Again, something I had never considered before: how your options narrow. You guys are lucky; this is a temporary situation. But it gives some perspective on what it must be like for those who aren't so fortunate.
Anonymous said…
My daughter attends the "poor kids" school because living outside town as we do, we fall into the boundaries. I had many moms question our decision to let her ride the bus to "that school". I was counseled to just enroll her in the separate school (Catholic) and drive her. But that was a silly waste of my time and gas when the school she attends has wonderful teachers and having been a teacher I know that it takes a lot to ruin a smart kid from a good home. Mingling with "less privileged" children in the first few years of school will not harm her intellectually.

They have free breakfast though and my daughter has discovered it. She often goes and helps herself after her bus drops her off. There is nobody IDing the kids at the door, and her dad and I have tried to explain that the breakfasts are for kids who don't have a chance to eat in the morning like she does. I don't worry much about stigma at this point.

I understand the stigma though. I felt it when my late husband had to go on SSDI (social security disability) and when I had to make visits to the "welfare office" to take care of his Medicaid related issues. The people who run those things try (well some don't) to make it seem okay, but you never feel okay about it. You feel as though you have failed. So I get not wanting to be seen as someone who needs help. There is a perception of people as lazy or that they did something to bring on their circumstances.
SciFi Dad said…
The sad thing is, services like that are abused by so many people that, at least to that woman, you were the exception and not the rule. I get that it wasn't just a matter of pride, that it was more than that, but still, you are the exception Julie.

I hope this time of displacement goes by as easily as it can. I'm sure your kids are enjoying visiting their grandmother, but soon you'll be back in your own home with your own stuff.
Mad said…
I just can't help but think how many people have been put in this situation by Ike who do need whatever services might be offered. Thank heavens those services are in place even if only inadequately.
Anonymous said…
You are homeless right now but rich in so many ways.
Unknown said…
yes, as Jen said, one of the first things to go when we need help is our dignity, our humanity. That sentiment of "poor you" really masks other people say, "please God not me."
With our status - the kids on WIC and the Husky healthcare - our oldest gets a reduced lunch price & that causes people to call us all the time to make sure we have healthcare & we do. I realize they are calling who they think we might be - not who we are. As are the people at the grocery store who take a second look at our WIC checks - they think they know why we use them.
All this to say, you are right to hold on tight to the fact that you have a home, to not get lost in what is happening to you all right now.
Emily said…
Wow. I was moved by this post, and then I read the comments.


I'm so glad you're not homeless, but what a voice you are for your entire area.
Julie, that really is using your words, and beautifully.
jeanie said…
Hugs to you Julie.

It is semantics - you have a home - but you can't live there at the moment.

Homeless is such a loaded word. Home-forlorn would be so much better - with an option for no special benefits.

I remember my parents having to find a definition they and the government could both live with that would allow the parent who took all the area kids to a far distant school coverage and reimbursement.
Anonymous said…
Julie, I'm saying hi for the first time, but I've been visiting (via Mama Drama and The Bloggess) for a while. I really enjoy your well-written and thought-provoking (or is that "hmmm"-provoking?) posts.
Gwen said…
I'm glad you're not truly homeless, either. Good stuff here, Julie.
KL said…
Hello. Perspective is everything. I live in Ohio and two Sumdays ago we had a bad wind storm as a result of remnants of Hurrican Ike. Last night I wrote a post about not having power for a week at home. Thanks for your post, Julie; I think I needed that!
Anonymous said…
What I took from your story was that at least the school staff was trying to help

I was horrified to learn that a school in our area was making children whose parents were behind in paying for school lunches THROW AWAY the hot meal when the child got to the cash register. They were given 1 cheese sandwich instead.

Basically a scarlet letter for those kids.
We have a policy at my daughter's school where EVERY kid is entitled to go to EVERY field trip regardless of financial ability. If the parents can't afford it, all they have to do is fill out a form and they're in, no questions asked. Unfortunately, there are several families that cannot bring themselves to do that, and the child is left with the uncomfortable position of having to bring some excuse back to their friends of why they couldn't go. What I'm saying is, I understand how hard it is for some families to sign up for the help, and by filling out the form they are in a sense admitting that they've somehow failed in some way. And in the end, the child is the one losing out on a positive experience. It's a very sad and complicated conundrum.
Anonymous said…
You are so very lucky, and it's good that you know this. I totally get why this is a confusing situation too. I'd be feeling exactly the way you do now.

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