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Living in poverty

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To successfully raise children as a single mother living in poverty in Central Arkansas requires a staggering amount of resilience, a significant amount of support from loved ones and the community, and at least a little bit of luck. To illustrate what I mean, and what I see every day at Our House, I asked one of the clients of our homelessness prevention program, called the Central Arkansas Family Stability Institute, to share some of the details of her life. Her name has been changed, but the details are true.

Last year, Sarah, 33, had a 2-year-old daughter and a baby on the way. She had been working at a chain fast-food restaurant for five months for $8.75 an hour when she had to take several months of unpaid leave after her son was born two months early.

Sarah and her daughter were living in an apartment that she considered unsafe. A serious pest infestation, a door that wouldn't lock and sporadic violence in the complex had already made her want to leave, but now that she was no longer able to work, she had no choice. When her son came home from the hospital, she moved into her mother's apartment, where Sarah and her two children shared a bedroom and slept on an air mattress.

At this point, Sarah and her family had no home of their own, no suitable place to live. But with a lot of resolve, and a little help from Our House, Sarah began climbing her way out.

Sarah's baby son had a host of health problems in his early months, including a respiratory virus, but, as soon as he was healthy enough to attend day care, Sarah returned to work at the fast-food restaurant, where she entered the management training program. After six weeks, she was made manager and now makes $9.75/hour. She takes a bus to and from work, a 90-minute trip each way. She works 36-40 hours each week, more if she can get it. She receives SNAP benefits of $357/month to help with the cost of food. She found an apartment for $550/month (after paying $895 in rent and utility deposits). During their first month in the apartment, a cold month, her utility bills totaled $520, but she hopes they will fall below $400 quickly. So she can go to work, she sends her children to a local day care, at a cost of $120 per child per week. Her cellphone bill is $60 per month. Her monthly bus pass is $40. You don't have to be a financial wizard to see that the numbers are already straining to balance, and we haven't yet talked about diapers, clothing, shoes, additional food beyond what SNAP covers, toys, children's books. Sarah is working incredibly hard, with no luxuries and no margin for error, just to make ends meet.

Our House's role in supporting parents like Sarah is to provide resources, encouragement and a community of support to reinforce the hard work they are investing in themselves and their children. Sarah's Our House case manager, Kelsie, helped her develop and stick to a budget that allowed her to move out of her mother's house. Kelsie helped connect Sarah with generous donors from the community who provided a real bed and other furniture for her new apartment, and Christmas presents for her kids.

Kelsie has had hours of discussions with Sarah about her goals, her hopes, her dreams and how Our House can help her get there. Sarah comes to Our House's evening parenting support groups (childcare and a meal are provided). Kelsie meets up with Sarah at the restaurant to have a chat before her shift, or at the hospital to provide emotional support when Sarah's son needs medical care.

Support from Our House and the community plays an important role, but the unstoppable force driving Sarah through this challenging uphill obstacle course is her fierce determination to provide a better life for her children. She is focused on being an excellent manager at the restaurant so she can get promoted and, she hopes, make $11.50 an hour within a year. Her now 3-year-old daughter will attend public pre-K in the fall, giving Sarah a little budgetary relief. The big goal on Sarah's horizon is buying a car. She estimates it will take two years to save $3,000 to get a car that is reliable and safe enough for her family. For Sarah, a car means 12 fewer hours each week that she has to spend on the bus, and 12 more hours each week that she can spend with her children. The first place she says she wants to take them is on a vacation, to Six Flags or the beach or wherever they want to go.

Ben Goodwin is executive director of Our House.

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