A week ago I was in the Whole Foods market parking lot with my two young kids. Two spots away from us, there was an LAPD officer instructing a woman and her three kids to, “just get everything you need out of the car because it is being towed.”
“Please,” the mom begged, “Don’t take the car. We’re living in it right now and we don’t have anywhere to go.”
This could be a story about the amazing lack of compassion that I have (many times) witnessed from the LAPD. It could be a story about about the plight of a homeless family trying to get back on their on feet. It could be about the masculine energy of “the system,” and LAPD, vs. the feminine energy of three moms, circling the children to protect them. But it’s not about just those things. In the end, it’s a story about how we connect today. It’s about the bubbles we live in.
(Photo credit, above left: “Migrant Mother” by Dorothea Lange. The most iconic photo from the Great Depression.)
The LAPD tow truck pulled up in no time, despite my (and another woman’s) efforts to get him to stop the process, even offering to pay (if possible.) The guy was jerk, there’s no getting around that. ”So you think it’s okay for kids to be living in a car?” he sneered at me. ”Better than on the sidewalk,” I said. He left the crying family in a parking lot – a mom holding a bag of clean laundry, two girls holding their pillow pets, and a kindergarten boy clinging to his basketball.
My own kids started crying. We offered help. At the first the mom was too proud, but when I came out of the store, she took me up on my offer to give them a ride to get some things out of their car.
That’s the point at which, I’m “in,” and I’m in pretty deep in something I hadn’t really meant to take on. Because they’re in my car, and even after we make the trip to the police station, and then the tow lot, they haven’t got anywhere to go, and I’m certainly not going to just drop them off at the beach. I quickly learn that all the kids are in good schools, and get A’s. I learn they’re pretty much vegetarians and eat healthy. I hear this 30-year-old mother’s story and realize all the odds she has been up against. Despite their circumstances, she is a phenomenal mother. I couldn’t do what she has done.
They are sleeping in a Denny’s parking lot at night. They buy a little breakfast there in the morning and Denny’s lets them wash up before school. There is a kind lady at the YMCA who lets them sneak in and shower if her colleagues don’t catch on. They spend most afternoons at the public library studying. They go to church every Sunday.
They’re kind. Well spoken, well taken care of. Well loved. They just slipped through the cracks. And I felt like maybe I was put there at that moment to help give them a chance to get out.
I get them a hotel for the night, and emailed all my friends and asked them to contribute. They did – and they sent the email to their friends. Overnight, my anger for what kind of a society we might be that a police officer (paid from my taxes) might treat another human so badly…into compassion and faith that people are frigging awesome. We care, we want to help, we understand. Overnight we raised $4200, and we needed $3800 to get the car back. Even more people got involved. A city council person got the email and is pulling strings for us.
The email went a little viral, and I got more than a couple of emails from people who had recognized a child in the photo in the email (oops, my bad, I hadn’t planned on that!) and they wrote me that they were completely shocked that this family was homeless. Their school is in the center of one of L.A’.s wealthiest, most privileged neighborhoods. Yet no one knew. The mom volunteers regularly at the school – and even sits on their committee to ‘help families in need’ – and never once let on that they might need a hand.
I got endless emails from people who want to help further. People who know people who help people who know someone who runs a shelter or who have a guesthouse, or etc, etc. Now I can’t even keep up with the emails. Now I’ve also learned that the mom’s license is suspended from all the unpaid tickets, which in L.A., accumulate fees at what should be an illegal rate. We all know this from living here. I’ve also learned that they have tried many shelters. And that shelters and cheap hotels have bed bugs and lice. If they get those things, the kids can’t go to school and it’s too hard to get it out of their stuff again. Shelters are dangerous not only because of the other “clients,” but also because different agencies have to report them, and this mom was not only a foster child herself, but she knows many women in her situation that have had the kids taken away from them. And her family will not be separated, unless it is over ‘her dead body.’
Now we’re on day three or four. Thank you universe that another woman, an amazing single of mom of two, with more resources than I have, has stepped forward to help in the efforts to find a more permanent situation. At this point, I have sat through really uncomfortable meetings with well-intended shelter people questioning her on her habits/addictions (none) crimes, felonies or arrests (none) credit situation (in the toilet, no bank account.)
Transitional housing or low-income housing is all full and has months long wait lists. We have tried to rent her an apt for 30 days that my new cohort would help fundraise for. No one will rent to a single mother of 3 with bad credit, no bank account and no job, even with a co-signer and the cash upfront. Mom has $50k in debt, including student loans. She gets about $600/month from the state and food stamps. They quiz her on her “expenses,” she has an extra $90 a month after gas, food, cell phone and car insurance. They dig deep into whether she really needs to spend $30 every 6 months on hair product. They quiz her on why she doesn’t have a job. (Because she doesn’t have a home.) Why she didn’t get a job in the 60 days she was at a shelter (because no one gave her one, because she didn’t have anyone to care for the kids or pick them up from school.) She is alone in the world. Except these three beautiful kids who love their mom very, very much.
We drive them home from school and the kindergartner excitedly shows us that he lost a tooth. My girls are over-joyed, “Now you’ll get money!” they shout. The other kids look confused; their tooth fairy does not leave money.
We have spent a lot of time together. The car wouldn’t pass the smog test so we’re trying to get it fixed so we can get it re-registered, and there’s lists of other things to help this family tend to.
Over the weekend, I’m hard on myself. “Why have I taken this on? What was I thinking? I can’t really make a difference, and I’m falling behind on my own responsibilities.” The “system” is tapped out. It’s bureaucratic. It’s hopeless- that I am seeing first hand. And I come across this article on the Huffington Post. The article says:
“The statistics are staggering. According to the Census Bureau, the nation’s poverty rate is at its highest level in decades. More than 46 million people — one in seven Americans — are living below the poverty line, 16.4 million of them children. Another 30 million Americans are just a lost job or serious illness away from joining them. And in the last six years alone, more than 20 million people have joined the ranks of those relying on food stamps to get by. Meanwhile, the rich are only getting richer. Income inequality in the United States is greater now than at any time since 1929.”
There are so many people falling through the cracks. This woman and her kids are only a drop in the bucket. In the U.S., our child poverty rate is second only to the country of Romania. Yes, we’re #2. We beat everyone except Romania. I can help this family up, but chances are, they’ll fall back down again. And there are so many more families like hers. What am I thinking?
And then I get a text message that the 5th grader just won 1st place in the 50 m dash at her first track meet. Mom texts me a picture of her proudly holding up her medal with a huge proud smile.
Okay, I’m back in with my whole heart again. These are some really precious little human beings.
“You may never know what results come of your actions, but if you do nothing, there will be no results.”
― Mahatma Gandhi
There’s no way to keep this story short. It goes on and on, like the cycle of poverty that they’re in. I can’t decide which details to cut out or not even mention while writing and editing. There’s SO much to tell, so much that I thought I knew, but didn’t.
The problem is the bubble. I do read the headlines, but I’m an armchair activist at best. I ‘participate’ mostly in a computer bubble of knowing the basic problems, the stats, the ‘stories,’ and sign the online petitions without really interacting with anyone outside my circle of friends and family who are pretty much like me. In fact, even with social media, those connections are often not real human connections. They’re just updates. Overviews. We don’t really have to feel that much. Plus, I work hard on manifesting inner peace and bliss, and the reality of this woman’s situation really has poked at that bubble. (Insert wink.)
I happened to be where this woman was at the time when she needed someone. I’m glad God or the universe put me there. But to be honest, I hope it doesn’t happen any time soon again. I will always be there for this family, and I know that all of the people who contributed, myself and now this other mom, have saved her from a potentially extreme disaster. But there is a lot work to be done, not only for individuals, but at the top levels of where decisions get made – politics.
I’m inspired by Marianne Williamson’s Sister Giant organization. She is creating a social force for good. I call it Soul Force. She urges that those of us that have a voice need to start talking, we need to keep loving, and we need to make a difference at the local human level, and also where it starts – in our politics. We need to stop people from demonizing the poor. We need to see our country and our politicians for what they are. And we need more women, and more minorities in office. That’s where it starts for me, and I hope you’ll also feel inspired to speak up as well. Even if it’s uncomfortable. At first.
As Marianne’s website says, that’s what the spiritual path is actually about. “True connection to the universe, and something greater than our individual self. No true search for enlightenment ignores the suffering of other sentient beings. Ever.”
Never adopt a homeless family. Unless you’re ready to have your bubble burst and your heart cracked open. (And even if you think you’re not ready, you might be.) I do get up in the morning and think about how to make the world a better place, but I realize now that it can’t be done in a vacuum, without my actual participation, and I’m grateful to have had that brought to my attention.
“We stand by as children starve by the millions because we lack the will to eliminate hunger. Yet we have found the will to develop missiles capable of flying over the polar cap and landing within a few hundred feet of their target. This is not innovation. It is a profound distortion of humanity’s purpose on earth.”
—Senator Mark Hatfield
P.S. An update on this story. We have the car back for the family, but that’s just the start. Stay tuned for more. We are building a HopeMob page for them. Updates next week!