Faces of Poverty
Two women living below the poverty line share their stories
West Oakland, California
By Sara LaFleur
Things would have been fine for Ramona if she hadn’t become pregnant at 15, and had to drop out of school in the eleventh grade.
Today Ramona is 34 and has six children, ranging in age from 2 to 14, by three different fathers. She cares for her three youngest children; the others live with their fathers.
Before she became pregnant with 3-year-old Quincy'ana, Ramona worked as a caregiver for the elderly. The house she was renting was foreclosed on in 2008, and she lost her Section 8 benefits in 2009. Ramona fought the foreclosure for three years, managed to get the case to court, but didn't make it to the court date because her foot was fractured after the property gate fell on her.
In October 2011, Ramona was forced out into the streets with her three kids. From October through January 2012, she stayed at the West Wind Lodge Motel, paying about $1200 a month to keep a roof over her kids' heads.
In January 2012, when she ran out of money, she actually called Oakland Mayor Jean Quan's office to get help. The administration tried to connect Ramona with a shelter, but the plan didn't succeed and Ramona ended up traveling to San Rafael to stay with her sister. After a couple weeks, Ramona felt like she was no longer welcome and returned to the Bay. By the beginning of April 2012, Ramona found herself on the streets. The shelters were full.
Ramona won’t say how she survived on the streets. She says not knowing where her family was going to sleep was her biggest fear every day. She got meals, diapers and was able to bathe and do her laundry at St. Vincent De Paul, a church in Oakland that Ramona had attended since she was a child.
Ramona was able to find housing, get her Section 8 back, and get off the streets thanks to her Uncle John. In September 2012, he found her a house in West Oakland, and worked out a deal with the landlord.
Still, life remains struggle. Ramona is living on the $300 a month she receives in public assistance. Soon, her youngest children will be old enough for school, and Ramona dreams of going to Laney College, to get a business license to open her own business.
By Thomas Pearson
Brenda has spent most of her life living in Hattiesburg, working full-time and raising four daughters, mostly on her own. At 51 she now faces, for the first time in her life, the scary reality of unemployment and poverty.
Six months ago she lost her job as a home caretaker due to legal problems stemming from her identity being stolen. After living in various apartments, shelters and even her car during the hot Mississippi summer, she was befriended by Jessie, a man who is now her boyfriend, and is now living with him in his one bedroom apartment.
"This is a temporary thing," she says, "but we make the best for now and I'm just grateful to have a place for us to stay."
Brenda and Jessie live on about $100 a week—money she makes from braiding hair and government assistance. They also receive support from a local food pantry once a month. Brenda says she is grateful, but confused that she cannot find work.
"It's hard to find a job. I'm willing and able and I have been working all my life, but I usually get passed over for someone younger," she says. "I feel like it’s partially my fault in some ways, because I lost my job and I don't feel like there’s an excuse for that, but at the same time I feel like people don't care. I just want to work and provide stability for my family, and I don't understand why I can't get that opportunity. I'm supposed to be settling down at this point in my life and I have nothing and it really scares me."
To make matters worse, Brenda's daughter is nine months pregnant.
"I'm not ready, it's really scary. This baby is coming and we're going to be okay, but this isn't how it's supposed to be," she says.
Brenda would like to braid her way out of poverty, and relies on her faith to keep pushing toward that goal.
"I've been braiding my whole life, my grandmother taught me when I was a little girl and I think that it is a gift that I'm just now understanding," she says.