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Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Homeless Girl Next Door

Life has taken me to parts of the country left largely untouched by generations of progress or improvement. My latest domicile is back in bear country. Literally. We have bear warning signs along all the roads because hitting a brown bear is worse than hitting a deer in terms of things you are unlikely to survive. It does encourage locals to keep a curfew though. No teen wants to have a romantic interlude interrupted by a bear trying to open their car like a tin can*.

With rural living comes poverty.

I could give you the stats. The percentage of local kids who get free lunches. The number of families who live below the poverty line in this small town. The budgets that show just how underfunded the schools are out here. But the worst of it is a little girl living next door.

Not physically next door, this is a rural area and there isn't anything like neighborhoods out here. No, she lives a few miles down what only recently became a paved road in a stand of trees in a RV meant to sleep two. Her family of four lives there without air conditioning or electricity.

From the road you see a very different picture. My daughter pointed out her friend's house as we drove past one day, a faded but still beautiful white two-story built in a slightly older style. There are little details that tell the story of a house, this one spoke of gentile poverty and slight neglect. In an area where three or four generations might share a house that large I see anything amiss.

It wasn't until June that I found out the real story. The little girl came over for a sleep over and I drove her home the next morning. "Go past the house," she said as we turned onto a dirt road that can only be called a road because I won't admit to four-wheeling in a minivan.

Past the fading house to a little glen where a weekend camper was parked and laundry hung to dry between trees. There was a little camp stove and a pair of lawn chairs by the door, the kind you get for five bucks at the dollar general.

"This is my house! Want to see my puppies?"

Her mother stepping out of the RV in her bathrobe must have seen my expression of confusion. "It's only temporary," she told me. "My husband got laid off last month and we're just here until work picks up again. He has an interview Monday."

Maybe it was a lie. Or maybe he did interview and just didn't get the job. I don't. This is not the kind of place where questions are encouraged, and I am a stranger in this small town, even after two years. The sleep overs became more frequent. I don't mind an extra kid and the girl is a sweetheart. Sometimes she'd come for play dates at dinner time. Her mother would give me a grateful look and I'd make sure my daughter's friend went home filled up, and sometimes with leftovers because she liked dinner so well and our fridge was full.

Poverty is balanced on little lies like this. The willingness for everyone involved to not talk about the elephant in the room so no one has their feelings hurt. Anyways, this is 2013. It isn't poverty, it's frugality. It wasn't like they were sleeping under a bridge.

Until they were.

The little girl's mom came over in tears a few weeks back. Her daughter wanted to say goodbye because they were leaving. I hoped it was for a new job, but in a moment of weakness my neighbor admitted the man they'd been renting the land from was kicking them out because they couldn't make the rent. It was the end of the month for us too, and we're a family who always has more month than money. I still asked if there was anything I could do. She said there wasn't. They had family up north toward Birmingham and they were headed there.

A few weeks later they were back, cash enough to pay rent in hand. The little girl came over to play. Her mother never said a word. The children are healthy and happy with no sign of neglect or abuse, and that's where my prying ends.

It's frightening, and humbling, and makes me exceptionally grateful that somehow I've always managed to dodge the worst life has to offer. We may not always have luxuries, but my kids never go to bed hungry. We're the lucky ones.

When you see those school supply donation drives, and the food drives that come with the changing autumn leaves, try to give. Even if it's only a 50cent pack of writing paper. If you've got fifty cents to spare you're doing better than a lot of people, the forgotten ones living out here in the sticks. Go on. Count your blessings. Give a little to those in need. And don't forget to make an extra plate for dinner in case the little girl from next door comes over to play.

* This never happens. We don't have teens out here. We have little kids and Very Old People(TM). 


  1. Wow, that's rough. I was very afraid that my decision to return to school recently would land our family in a similar spot, and I shudder to think how close we came. It's a frightening reality, though, because, no matter how "well off" we are, our culture is structured in such a way that any of us are only one bad accident or one poor decision away from being that family down the road, no matter how much we have today.

    Good post.

  2. While we never were in the situation of not having a roof over our heads, we have been in some pretty tight times where we literally counted pennies and tried to figure out how to stretch what little money we had to cover everything.

    Things are better overall, even though we're in a period of low income until next month, but we're still paying off debts incurred years ago and trying to keep our current bills from slipping into past due status more than once a year. We expect it to take a couple more years before we will see ourselves on the positive side of our finances.

    We've known people worse off than we've been and we help where and however we can. We've passed on clothes our daughter outgrew or we no longer wished to wear, always in good condition of course. I've fed the neighbourhood kids whether we were in a good financial period or not. I've made hats, scarves, and mittens for the kids down the street or simply seen on the playground shivering because they don't have any.

    My daughter doesn't go to school any more, She graduated several years ago. Yet I still drop off school supplies in the donation boxes at the grocery store and at some malls. It costs me a dollar or so and will provide several kids with much needed supplies. Our last major cleanup at home had us taking a couple of boxes of books and cds and dvds to the nearest library as a donation.

    We don't forget what it was like to live near the edge. Although we also know how lucky we've been to never be on the actual sharp edge. So we help, in whatever way we can.