In my position as CEO of St. Vincent de Paul Georgia I face the daily trap that I think many nonprofit leaders face; becoming so focused on the business side of the job that I lose sight of the mission side of the work. So in order to try and avoid that trap I periodically spend time participating in direct client services through our primary means of helping people we serve, the home visit. The home visit is foundational to who we are at SVdP. It is the essential to our core value of helping people in a way that respects and celebrates their human dignity.
I want to tell you about someone I recently met on one of these home visits. I’ve changed her name but the story hasn’t been changed.
Jane is in her 50’s. A mother of three, two still in the house, the father of the kids not in the picture and certainly not supporting them financially or emotionally. Jane is a former drug addict with a felony conviction. She lives in $773 a month in disability and SNAP that (until July 1st) excluded her due to her drug conviction. Formerly living on the streets, she had lost her kids due to her drug problems. But her love for her kids helped her get clean and turn her life around. She has the kids back and is trying desperately to make a life for them. She knows she can’t live and raise her kids on $773 a month and food stamps, so she works cleaning houses. Sometimes she can make as much as $1000 a month cleaning houses. And then they can eat, and maybe keep the heat or a/c on, or maybe she can pay for the kids to participate in something at school. Maybe, in those months, she can have something close to a ‘normal’ life and dream about a better one for the kids.
In order to clean houses Jane needs to get to the houses. Public transportation can’t get her there and a cab or Uber is too expensive. So Jane bought a car. And so it began.
Given her lack of adequate income and past felony conviction Jane couldn’t just do what you and I could do; go to the bank or credit union and get a reasonable interest rate car loan. That was not an option. So she turned to the option that was available to her. A pay-as-you-go car lot that was more than happy to sell her a 20 year old car with 200,000+ miles on it for $3000 at only 29% interest. What a deal. So she bought it. Because, as she said, “How could I clean houses and take care of my kids without a car? What else could I do?”
But the story, believe it or not, gets worse. The 20 year old car fell apart; literally fell apart; the rusted-out floor fell out. So Jane, thinking that it really wasn’t right that she should have to pay for a car that had no floor, brought it back and dropped it at the pay-as-you-go lot. And the pay-as-you-go lot sent her a certified letter saying thanks for the car, but by the way you still owe us $1800+ so we’re going to sell it for you and if we get more than that we’ll send you a check (yeah, right). If we get less we’ll have to sue you for the difference. But wait, we have another idea; why don’t you come in and get another car and we’ll just roll that $1800+ into that price. And so it continued. Another car, another 29% loan, and $4000 in debt; a debt that she could never pay off.
So how did SVdP get involved? Jane came to us to help pay her rent because she used the $400 that she had saved for rent to put the down payment on the car. And that was when we heard this story. And that was when it hit me again just how important the human-to-human contact of the home visit was so critically important.
Because Jane’s needs go far, far beyond a $400 rent payment. She needs a fair and equitable way to access the financial marketplace so that someone like her trying desperately to make a life for her family doesn’t have to start with two strikes against her already. She needs access to support and counseling that will give her options and ideas when her life choices seems to only include bad and worse. She needs a fair and equitable criminal justice system that doesn’t brand her for life as a felon even after she’s paid her debt to society. She needs people who care.
We need to listen to people’s stories because in those stories are life lessons for each of us about people who don’t live like we do. We can’t help if we don’t understand and we can understand if we don’t listen. Issues around poverty and equity cannot be just concepts and academic interests that we theorize about and make grandiose plans on how we’ll fix them. They must be the faces of real people living real lives. People that we get to know, and understand, and love.
And then, and only then, try and help.