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Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Lawyer. Doctor. Banker. And the Body Behind the Dumpster.

Nothing is both funnier and sadder to me than Facebook posts describing the lives of poor people as written by Team Trump members. They talk about how easy it is to be poor. They talk about government programs that turn people who might otherwise be industrious, law-abiding, and contribute to society into beggars who are spoon fed easy lives.

Recently I had to make a phone call, and request something. Really. That was all I had to do. Make a phone call. Request something.

An economically comfortable friend, a good person, volunteered to help. I don't think she understood why I asked for her help. Until she helped.

It took us two days. Really.

Dialing the same number. Getting the same phone tree. Talking to the same customer service representatives located in India or the Philippines. Explaining the same situation, over and over. And being put on hold, or cut off, or encountering people who had no idea what to say.

It was a *really simple request.* And it took two women, with two phones, two days.

My friend said something that I often think. If you were seriously ill, or had a short temper, or suffered from any degree of dementia, or were otherwise inarticulate, how could you navigate this system?

My brother just died. I'm really sad. And around the same time, something came up that threatens my healthcare and my housing.

It's been three weeks. Every single day in that time I've been researching, phoning, emailing, and no one seems to know the simple answers that would get me out of this trap. I've gone to elected officials, social workers, and the administrators who directly handle the paperwork involved.

I heard this story years ago. I don't know if it was true. Even before I tell you this story, I rush to tell you that the main character was not only white, she was German. I mention this because there are so many lies about poor people in America, and many of those lies are wedded to race.

"Mary" was German-American. Working class. One day she heard some beautiful music in school. It was classical music. She asked the teacher if she could borrow the LP. The teacher lent the LP to Mary. She took it home, listened to it … and her father lifted the needle off the record. "That is not music for people like us."

This story says so much.

Mary married a Vietnam vet, and had four kids by him. She discovered that he was harming small animals in front of the children. She got a divorce, and went to college. She'd get the higher education that was not part of the plan for someone from her milieu. She'd be able to support her kids. She also began to receive government benefits.

Her dad got old and sick, and could no longer drive. He gave her his junky old car. Mary's social worker told her that unless she got rid of the car, she would lose her benefits.

Again, I heard this story years ago, and I don't know if it's true, or if I am remembering it correctly. What I do know is that every one of these programs is a trap. You live within the trap, praying that you never step on the mechanism that springs the trap. Thing is, you can't avoid the mechanism if you don't know where it is. Mary didn't know that accepting her father's jalopy would put her kids' food in jeopardy.

After I was first diagnosed with cancer, that same good woman I mention above went with me from hospital to hospital, begging for care. This was before Obamacare. No, I was told. You don't have insurance, you don't have money, so we can't do anything for you.

Late one day, we were meeting with a plump, kindly, harried woman. She said that given the specific body part affected by the cancer, her hospital would give me care. We were so relieved. We knew it would all work out. We smiled at each other.

The woman left the room to get the forms. And then she came back in, looking sad. She discovered that one of the requirements of this particular program was that my cancer had to have been diagnosed at this particular hospital. And it wasn't. It was diagnosed by a private physician I had paid out of pocket. My paying for my own care knocked me out of consideration for this program.

I don't receive all the benefits for which I qualify. That's partly pride, and it's mostly the trap aspect.

My apartment gets very hot in summer. So hot that I once bought chocolate chips to make cookies. In my cupboard, in hours, they melted into a puddle. That hot.

One of my chronic illnesses makes it hard for my body to handle extreme temperatures.

So, I swallowed my pride and applied for LIHEAP – help with paying utilities. I'd buy an air conditioner. I was told I qualify, in terms of income, but I can't receive it, because PSE&G has not cut off my electricity. I said I would never let a utility company cut off my electricity, because I always pay my bills. I've never had a late bill in my life. I didn't want to have one now. I didn't want to have that on my record.

So, no LIHEAP for me.

Now I'm facing bigger challenges. They are so stupid, I know there must be an easy answer out there somewhere, but no one, not even those charged with handling my paperwork, seems to know what it is.

So, I'm living with daily terror.

And that's what it's like to be poor. It's not the peel-me-a-grape, lying back on one's couch life that my Team Trump Facebook friends depict in their posts and memes.

How did I get this poor? Many factors contributed, but a medical catastrophe played a big role. Medical bills, they say, are the biggest cause of bankruptcies in the US.

Some of the folks on Facebook talking about how easy it is to be poor are Ayn Rand supporters. Ayn Rand, that famous champion of individualism and bad hair, ranted against Social Security and Medicare. Ayn Rand received both. Ayn Rand was a big, fat, phony. Read more here.

I phoned an organization that says it helps the poor with legal issues. They said they'd help only after I am evicted. I said look, I'm old; I'm chronically ill; I'm a single woman. Do you really want me living on the street? Yes, they said. I said You should be ashamed. They said we are very proud of what we do.

I phoned another such organization. They were REALLY hard to get through to. I had to jump through numerous hoops. Lengthy phone trees, a lengthy internet form I had to fill out four separate times.

They sent me an email saying they'd phone yesterday morning at nine. I sat by the phone. They did not call. I sat by the phone for half an hour. I then received an email saying that I did not pick up the phone when they called (!). That email offered a number that an actual live person answered. I got to talk to the adviser. She interrupted just about every sentence I spoke.

I'm not stupid and I'm not inarticulate. She asked a question; I tried to answer in an efficient and courteous manner; she interrupted every sentence. It was humiliating, but I knew I had to endure it. She's doing something kind and helpful for a poor person and she's probably pressed for time.

Then I went to the doctor. I am seen by students at a medical school. Had to drive far through driving rain. I had one of the worst medical experiences of my life at this school. Three hours of minor surgery with minimal anesthesia in a public place, followed by a narcotics prescription. All necessitated by a student's error. I didn't sue. I still return. I have no choice. Yesterday was no big deal, but I was still afraid till it was all over.

Then the banker, in yet a third city. I like driving but I was on four major highways yesterday, in bumper-to-bumper traffic and rain, and I had to swerve onto ramps on roads I'd never driven before. I'm surprised I survived. I'm surprised there aren't many more traffic fatalities on New Jersey's crowded highways.

The banker's office served bottled water, Danish butter cookies, and miniature Milky Ways and Three Musketeers bars. The waiting room furniture was supple leather that I enjoyed stroking entirely too much. I almost felt that the chair should start purring. I wanted to take it home.

The banker was as clueless as everyone else. She kind of said, "Why don't you just give up?"

Given the tension I've been feeling lately, I feel I'm gaining insight into my poor neighbors who have given up. The folks who inject heroin on my street.

So much easier to forget about phone trees and threatening numbers and guidelines out there, somewhere, like an enemy in tropical jungle, whose locations and demands I cannot know, because no one, not even the social workers working the system, know them.

Yesterday, after I was done with the lawyer, the doctor, and the banker, I went for a walk in Garret Mountain, even though it was raining. So much rain this spring that I must saturate my sneakers with Lysol to fight back smelly growth. And my apartment clothesline is always crowded with clothes and backpacks I'm trying to dry.

There is now a small memorial to Samuel Nunez, the adjunct professor who apparently ended his life by jumping into Barbour Pond on April 24. There is a cross with his name on it, a bouquet of what appear to be real roses, and a bouquet of plastic, white flowers. I wanted to leave something. I wanted whatever I left to be beautiful, spiritual, and biodegradable. I left a wooden crucifix on a cotton cord and a long, beautifully formed turkey feather.

I frequently walk along the Passaic River. Every now and then I see a flat-bottomed aluminum boat and white men in helmets and fluorescent vests, or men along shore with long poles. I go home and google "body found in Passaic River" and I then have to differentiate *which* body was just found in the Passaic River. Was it the miracle baby, whose corpse was used in a black magic Palo ceremony? Or the rich white man who committed suicide, whose corpse, following some class-inflected physics, migrated to be found not among his native McMansions, but in low-rent Paterson?

Today's headline offered a variation: "Body Found Behind Dumpster at Fried Chicken Spot in Paterson." FTA:

"Drug use is often reported in the area …

Victoria Oquendo … noticed police lights flashing and saw the body … Oquendo was not surprised, calling the neighborhood a 'valley of death.'

'It's so common, it's like finding that on the ground,' she said, pointing to a dirty, empty Styrofoam cup … Oquendo described him as 'purple,' with rigor mortis having set in, his hands curled. Another witness, Renee Dickson, said the body was 'twisted,' with the man's pockets turned inside out, as though someone had gone through them.'"

I don't know this man. I didn't know Prof. Nunez. I didn't know the rich, white guy whose body was found, incongruously, in Paterson. I pray for all of them as if they were distant family.

I suspect that we all have two things in common. I suspect that others talked about our struggles in clueless ways to make political points. And I suspect that we all heard the invitation to give up. I understand. But for now, I am still resisting.


  1. Nancy Forrest posted this on facebook

    I worked for the State of Oregon processing medicaid and food stamp applications for a couple of years; that experience left me heartbroken because the most vulnerable people find it very difficult to navigate the system and they live anxious lives, in constant fear of loosing everything they have, partly because of how the system works.

    I now work with individual people who don't have homes, don't have income, and don't have the ability to navigate the system without help. I am paid by small nonprofits and even landlords who want to keep vulnerable people from becoming homeless. What you describe is very accurate. I meet a lot of young people who have lost hope. I work with a lot of older women, some who never worked, and will live for the rest of their lives on $750 per month. Those women will be dependent on a wide variety of social programs for the rest of their lives if they want to remain housed, be able to eat and have access to medical care. In my humble opinion a great country offers it's most vulnerable citizens assistance in such a way that they can live with dignity, without shame or stigma. For all of our largesse, the US does not do a good job of offering assistance in a dignified, effective way.

    It has always struck me as particularly frustrating that most programs are limited to picking up the pieces, slowly, one at a time, but only after a person has hit rock bottom. So many people end up homeless, for example, because they could not get help that would have kept them from becoming homeless. Once a person is homeless day to day existence becomes the focus and it's hard to find time for anything else. Once a person is homeless, or seriously ill accessing services is just another burden and so many service providers to not get that.

    What I've learned is that there is always a way to get what needs to be done, done, but it requires a lot of patience, a lot of time, the ability to travel to appointments, use of a phone on a regular basis, use of the internet, the ability to read and write well, the ability to ask thorough questions and the ability to put up with unskilled, uninformed, and sometimes angry gatekeepers. It also requires being open to following any and all leads, even if you are convinced it's a waste of time. I always encourage my clients to apply for everything they are eligible for and if they don't want to accept that help, later, they can always decline. Many solutions are made up of individual actions and some processes take a very long time. Knowing that getting from point A to point B is going to take time and requires us to make numerous adjustments while pursuing the goal allows my clients to develop system navigation skills that they begin to use in other parts of their lives. I experience such joy when a client transforms from hopeless to skilled and displays genuine pride in themselves and their accomplishments. If I hadn't witnessed this myself I would hot believe it possible.

  2. More from Nancy Forrest

    In the beginning I accompany my clients to appointments or sit with them while they place phone calls to make sure that we have all the info needed to submit a complete application that meets the exact criteria for each and every program, grant or voucher. I can't stress enough how important it is to follow the exact instructions given for submitting a request for assistance. Most government assistance is limited to specific groups or types of people based on specific eligibility criteria. People waste a lot of time and energy and then give up because they apply for things they are not eligible for without knowing there were other programs they were eligible for. Most government employees are trained to do one small thing and provide referrals for all other services without really knowing what those services are or who is eligible for them. My clients rely upon the accurate information I provide and the ability I have to interact effectively, getting thorough information from gov't employees and other gatekeepers. I tend to function more like a second brain, another opinion, or another way of looking at things, as support for the person who is building a sustainable path. This one on one relationship is an excellent vehicle for helping people figure out what they are eligible for and where to begin seeking assistance. Unfortunately most service agencies haven't created such positions, but that is slowly changing, in some places, as awareness grows.

    I don't know the specifics of your situation. I don't live in New Jersey. I can't sit with you or accompany you to an appointment. If I could I'd make that offer, as a skilled professional who is also a friend. I can offer to help you in finding a wide variety of options and then determining which one's you are eligible for and how to rank them in terms of where to put energy. It's surprising how many different ways there are to solve problems but it may require cobbling together a lot of different things taking into account what you are uniquely eligible for. I am not working at the moment and have been volunteering at a local micro housing village where people are transitioning from the streets to the rest of their lives. I would love to be able to assist you at this time.

    How may I do that?