I certainly didn't think I'd find myself back in this same place after so many years. Then again, my luck hasn't always been great, and making desperate decisions based on which was the lesser of two evils doesn't exactly make for the best of circumstances either. I know, based on the most recent financial news, that I am not the only person going through these issues. There are two entire generations that are struggling financially, and can no longer make ends meet where they used to be able to. More are joining our ranks everyday, and the cries for relief are getting louder.
But I am getting ahead of myself. Should I start from the beginning?
With the exception of some short stints of living with others (I'll get to those later), I have been living on my own since my early 20's. I readily admit that I was ill-equipped to handle this responsibility, as the jobs I was qualified for back then never actually paid enough money to afford rent in Los Angeles, but I have also never really had a choice in the matter, as my family is not the type that lends itself to long term co-habitation. Those situations were sticky at best, and explosive at worst. So I did what I could to make the best possible go at living on my own, then with my son, now with my son and daughter.
Back then, I worked as a temporary employee. Before I learned to be registered with multiple agencies, I generally only worked for one at a time, staying with one agency until they stopped calling, then moving on to another agency. When there is rent, childcare and bills to pay, temp work doesn't always cover everything, so I was always on the lookout for that elusive permanent job. In the meantime, I learned to dread dry spells, those seasons when the temp jobs dried up for a couple of months due to the comings and goings of college students that are often used as unpaid interns for the companies that usually employed me. It was during these dry spells that I became very familiar with evictions.
The pattern would go something like this: While I was working, everything would be okay, but just barely. I had no car or bank account, so I would pickup my check at the temp agency, cash it either at the bank the check was drawn on (before that option was taken away by the banks) or the check cashing place, then on Saturdays, hop on the bus with my son to go pay bills. It was always a careful dance on the edge, quite literally living paycheck to weekly paycheck, while trying to move forward. Whenever an assignment would end, two things would invariably happen: There would be just enough of a wait before the next assignment to put me behind on bills and rent; and I would also have to repair or replace an (always purchased used) appliance. It never failed. It would be a tragic comedy if it had not gotten so predictable that I could pinpoint, almost to a day, when something would go horribly wrong. Shortly afer putting out that fire, the 3-day notice would appear in such a way that there was no way to answer it in a timely fashion, followed by the Unlawful Detainer, followed by a tear filled court appearance (which usually cost me a day of work from the assignment that I had usually JUST STARTED, which I was not going to get paid for and usually made a poor impression which hastened the end of that assignment as well) that generally ended with me getting a crappy note in my credit record, and a extremely small amount of time for me to convince someone to rent to a single parent that worked low-paying temp jobs.
If this sounds familiar, it is because this has been the subject of quite a few recent documentaries, most notably HBO's Paycheck to Paycheck: http://www.hbo.com/documentaries/paycheck-to-paycheck-the-life-and-times-of-katrina-gilbert#/ , and more recently, Spent: Looking For Change: http://www.spentmovie.com/. Both films detail the lives of those who, 20 years ago, might have been squarely middle class, but due to inflation, accidents, illness and other unexpected circumstances, have found themselves in deep financial holes, struggling to meet basic daily needs for themselves and their families. In these scenarios, even two parent families aren't spared, especially when the other parent (or partner) either can't work, or is unable to find stable employment. Spent specifically focuses on the the financial lives of those who for various reasons are unable to participate in the mainstream financial systems in the United States. These are people unable to have bank accounts, or get needed small business or personal loans, or have faced some crisis that started a painful downward financial spiral. Those without the ability to participate in a regular banking relationship, are all too often at the mercy of all manner of high interest, theoretically short-term loans, utilization of check cashing services, and associated bill paying services which charge additional fees of their own, which all adds up quickly, and can be devastating to low-income, and middle to low income families.
Setbacks only too easily become the last step before complete financial collapse for families already on the edge. The car that either broke down or got repossessed that was the only link between the only employed person in the house and the well paying job that required it. The emergency room visit that empties a checking account, or worse, has to be billed as it comes up at an extremely inopportune moment. Having to make a heartbreaking choice when you realize that you can either eat or pay a bill, especially when there are children involved. Wanting to be strong for everyone else, and be the stable provider that you feel like you should be, but being denied the resources needed to remain on your feet through a storm, so that you have to rely on less than palatable sources that become the anchor that finally sinks your situation.
For me, it was the discovery of payday loans. Let me start by saying that of all of the Seven Deadly Sins, I have the largest issue with Pride. I refused to let anyone know that I was having money issues, lest they think me incapable of "handling my business". Being unable to handle one's business is a cardinal sin among minorities, and will get you singled out for derision and long term condescension very quickly. Having been bullied relentlessly as a child, teen and young adult, I was willing to do just about anything to avoid being perceived as a failure for not being able to adequately care for my children and myself. With a payday loan, I could discreetly handle any shortages that came up, and there were many since, as I stated earlier, I wasn't making enough money to cover everything, and soon between the loans to cover the bills due to the loans, and my bank's love of re-ordering the transactions to create as many overdraft fees as possible, 13 years ago, I found myself in an impossible situation. I had been laid off from a long term assignment right in the middle of a dry season, I was having a hard time finding another assignment, so I decided to go to trade school to help me change careers, 9/11 happened, and before I could find another job, I got evicted. My credit was destroyed, I couldn't get another bank account for a long time, and for the next five years, my son and I alternated between living with my older sister, living with my soon to be daughter's father, a brief stint in a 3rd floor walk -up apartment that ended when the above scenario repeated itself, and, when my daughter was a little over a year old, a year spent living in a residential motel. Somewhere in the middle of all this, I finally acquired a driver's license and a car, hoping to expand my options in terms of both where I would be able to live and work. Although I had sworn off payday lending, auto repair emergencies on an overpriced car would conspire to bring me back into the very expensive fold, especially considering that I lived somewhere not readily accessible by frequent, convenient public transit.
I've talked extensively earlier about making do as a single parent: http://www.houseofperpetualdistraction.com/thoughts-feelings-impressions-blog/song-of-the-single-mother , and trying mightily to create a life for my children where, at the very least, their needs are met, and they may even get a couple of wants, here and there. What I didn't mention was the fact that I never wanted them to know when things got really bad, although they knew that we were barely making it, and could not afford things. Like most of the parents you see in the documentaries, all we want is to take care of our children to the best of our ability. We love them, we want the very best for them, and despite less than optimal circumstances, we don't want them to suffer from our mistakes and missteps. It's crazy making that even when you work a job making a decent wage, no matter how hard you try to live within your means, even allowing for a little extra, there is always something that comes up to create a wrinkle in even the best of plans. Since moving into this apartment seven years ago, I've endured two separate judgments, where substantial money was removed from my paychecks, two rounds of furloughs, a change in apartment ownership, bank shenanigans with transaction order and overdraft fees, several cars with huge mechanical issues, a voluntary car repossession for the aforementioned car that ALWAYS had something wrong with it, a car accident that I am still paying for as it was not covered by insurance, and due to trying to keep everything paid in the meantime, more payday loans. Believe it or not, for a few months a couple of years ago, with the assistance of Lexington Law Firm, my credit score had actually gone from Poor to Fair. Then I traded in a car that had a low payment, but a transmission that was on it's last legs, for a new car with a huge payment and insurance cost, but lower maintenance costs, which was crashed 9 months later. Which killed my credit, and started the payday loan cycle all over again. Like so many others, all over this country, I made a decision out of the desperation that arises when someone is trying to hold it all together for those they love, and is reduced to choosing between the lesser of two evils. It wasn't really that much lesser, however.
I opened my front door this morning to find a 3-day notice taped to my screen door, ironically dated October 1st, which means I got it one day later than the time I was supposed to be given to respond to it.
The cycle begins again...