A few days ago, I stopped into two motels on Hwy 99 in Edmonds, WA where they offer weekly rates. My family is nearing the end of its ability to house a single mom, her two teenage boys and two dogs. They have been with us for nearly two months. As I walked into one of the motels, saw the filthy lobby, the woman at the counter doling out cash for another night’s stay in her fuzzy leopard pajamas, the slumped over young man with cigarette hanging out of his mouth and pants barely up pulling a tote of tools, I thought, “This is not an option. How can this be an option??”
I admit I was optimistic taking them in. With my husband’s real estate and other contacts and connections, his rental and property management skills, and my own pastoral experience, connections and contacts, I thought we’d be able, in a few short weeks, to get this family on its feet again–mom a job, stable housing, etc. We could solve these problems for one family and get them out of their car.
Not so fast. I did know it would be more complicated than I hoped, but I still thought we could pull it off. As it stands now, mom is working one almost full-time job and one part time one and the family has had a safe place to sleep and hang and be for weeks–but the housing situation is proving very tricky. We’ve had friends who’ve donated money to help pay for first month’s rent and security deposit (we have raised 1/2 of that amount) that is currently sitting in an account to help her when we find a place. (thank you to all who donated!!). However, Mom has very bad credit from a very bad divorce. How is she going to find someone who will take her, two teenage boys and two dogs on? We have come to the conclusion that the only way she is going to get a spot (unless something miraculously opens up in low income housing) is if someone we know is willing to rent to her. We have rentals, three of which are already occupied with single moms and their kids. No one is moving. In this hot Seattle market, the rental market is tight. When I say in desperation to CC, “Can’t we buy another rental property?”–he looks at me with a special look. So we are thinking of paying for a month of weekly motel stays, hoping in that extra month that something comes open we can get her into. Then do we cut her loose after that, if nothing comes open? We can’t pay $2000 a month for a cheap motel for long (the icky place I looked at yesterday? $419 + tax per week and no kitchenette).
She’s on all the lists–the low income housing lists. The shortest is estimated to be an eight month wait. Most are between two and seven years. In the meantime, she has the 1995 Jeep Cherokee currently in the mechanic’s garage (he’ll fix it for us for just parts–thank you Joe at Hilltop Auto!) and a list of parks it is safe to park overnight in. Now that she has a couple of jobs, she can shell out a little money for nights in motels, but she needs food, gas, etc. and to save some for what comes next.
I’ve learned that people think we are doing a good thing. What is surprising to me is how out-of-the-ordinary it seems to most. Like no one does this kind of thing… Anyway, whether it is good or not, I am not completely clear on. I do know it is hard. It is hard on my family. It is hard at moments on me. It is hard on this mom and two boys and dogs. It’s just hard all around.
I’ve learned my optimism is misplaced. I’ve known the homeless issue is complicated and serious. But I’ve sort of been walking around in this mom’s shoes. A week after she came to us, she confessed, “I’ve been walking around scared shitless for weeks.” I’ve been putting myself in her shoes. It’s daunting on so many levels. I would have trouble sleeping too (she cleans our house in the middle of the night when she can’t sleep). There are no easy fixes. If you add in any mental illness or substance abuse, that just compounds the problem. We don’t have that here. But we do have kids. And dogs. They complicate things.
I’ve been reminded we are all just a few bad breaks away from needing the help of others.
I’ve seen in fresh ways that community is vital. Cultivate it now. Nourish it. If you don’t have it, things can get harder than hard. Scarier than scary. Worse than you imagined. Invest in your community. In the people around you. Realize that how you interact with the people around you is important–perhaps more important than you know. Bridges can be built or they can be burned. You choose. Every day.
I’m watching how hard it is for those who have been in survival mode for a long stretch learn to receive from others. It is easier to give than it is to receive. Learn to receive, not just give.
I learned in my forties, and it really helps here, that I don’t have to carry or fix or give my unsolicited opinions or advice. I can help. I can offer what I can, but I am not responsible for fixing someone or their life or responsible for someone else’s choices or decisions.
I’ve learned anew that my family is quite amazing. We have lots of our own issues–part of the reason we need this family gone is that we have our own family stuff and needs at this time–but my kids are kind and generous and wise beyond their years. My husband? The guy who will readily give you money or anything he can but prefers to do it with a bit of distance? He’s juggled our cars for two weeks and taken Ubers so this mom can drive his car while hers is in the shop waiting to be fixed by the guy who will donate his time when he can. He’s put up with two extra dogs even though it’s taken him about 11 years to warm up to our own. He’s not complained about the extra recycle or water or laundry or handouts. He’s rolled with it all. He’s allowed it to all get up close and personal, in his sacred home space.
And finally, since I need to wrap this up, I’ve learned about myself and others–and this has been super hard to see and learn in this context: people want to help people they think are deserving of help. Because we are backing this woman, people are willing to help. We took her on not knowing a darn thing about her except she was a single mom with two teens living in her car. We didn’t know about the two dogs until day two when they barked at us from the car in our driveway. We let her into our home so we could assess things, determine what was most needed. We’ve gotten a good glimpse of the issues and needs in two months. But I’ve been pondering how we rate/judge/evaluate situations. It seems in most cases, if people even get a whiff that they are being taken advantage of, they are out of there. There have been questions about our wisdom in doing this, concerns we are being taken advantage of, worries about whether we are really helping or just enabling, what we are doing to our own family.
Here’s the thing, people. I’ve done enough therapeutic work and had enough training in trauma, abuse, co-dependence, etc., that I know how it works. I know how it looks and can present and mess things up and keep people stuck and trapped and all that kind of thing. And I know that I am cautious and considering and try to be wise and smart before I hand out anything to the person on the street corner or wherever. And I am aware there are definitely situations where help is not good–where firm boundaries have to be set. But in general, I’m starting to question the elaborate gymnastics most of us go through to decide if someone is deserving of help.
You see, I’m a follower of a man named Jesus. I’m not super impressed these days by many who say they follow this man. I think we wiggle out of a lot of stuff, rationalize and justify our nicely honed positions because of a heck of a lot of reasons that kind of dissipate if you imagine telling why you didn’t help to the man with kind eyes who’s just written in the sand and been kind and firm with a woman who didn’t deserve it. Many of us decide what we are going to give or who we are going to give it to based on how deserving we deem a person to be. I’m gonna catch flack for this. I’m gonna get all your nicely reasoned arguments. But I don’t care anymore. Can’t we just help because that is the good and the kind and the right thing to do? Can’t we decide it’s okay if we get taken advantage of at times? Do we always have to weigh everything? Can’t we just wade headlong into the mess and see where it takes us???
We’re in the mess and it looks like it will be hard to extricate ourselves from it. We know how to set boundaries and we have and we will. But I’d rather have tried to help and failed, than done nothing.
Today, I’m going to keep looking for places for this family to go. I’m going to continue to pray for a miracle and making phone calls. I can do that. And we have had grace and energy and resources for what we’ve been able to do. Not everyone has the space or whatever to do what we are doing here. I get it. But we can all do something. This I believe, We can all allow things to get more close and personal. We can let things in. What’s in front of you today to help with? Where can you show genuine care?