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Life Story

March 13, 2013 By: NCVeditor Category: Community, Culture, Economy, Pat LaMarche

A Woman Struggles with Poverty, Race, and Education in America

by Pat LaMarche

I had lunch this week with a woman who was homeless for a number of years. She’s in Section 8 housing now with a slumlord who doesn’t fix what breaks and has ignored the cockroaches that move from rental unit to rental unit easier than a breeze on a cool night. No surprise there, as breezes don’t have legs and the ability to seek out moisture and food.

She’s found two prospective places and hopes to move, but the federal housing inspectors haven’t given her the okay yet, so she struggles to tolerate her home. She reached out to me because she’s in a bit of trouble and she needs some help.

Let me go back to when I met Rosemary. She became homeless when she left the halfway house where the state correctional facilities arranged for her to live and where she had been robbed twice. Rosemary, a woman in her early 40s, had spent 27 years with a very definite place to sleep — ‘3 hots and a cot’ is the joke — and had no idea what homelessness meant, but decided it was better than the halfway house.

Rosemary was once a teen mom. An acquaintance of hers came into her home when she was a young girl; they argued and he started assaulting her. According to Rosemary, she was holding her baby at the time and he knocked them both to the ground. He kicked her and when he kicked the baby free from her arms, he started kicking the baby. Rosemary got to her feet, grabbed a kitchen knife from the counter and stabbed her attacker in the upper chest. She told me, “If the paramedics had just tried to save him first instead of the baby, he might have lived.” The baby had been kicked under the stand which held the television and they had to extricate the baby before they could work on her.

Rosemary went to prison for 27 years for murder. Rosemary lives in a death penalty state. She was offered the option — as a teenager — of pleading guilty and being sentenced or pleading innocent and risking the death penalty. What’s a young black girl to do? Her attorney advised her to plead guilty.

Some people told Rosemary this week that she shouldn’t go to school. No one will ever hire her. They are right, of course. Certainly no one has hired her. But is that a reason to miss out on school? Does education have no purpose other than preparing someone to enter the work force?

I remember back when Rosemary was homeless. She applied for a lot of jobs. She explained to me one day, “My social security number has never been used. What do I list for work when I have never used my social security number?” I told her to write that she had made license plates for the federal government for decades. She smirked at me, put her hand on her hip and said, “They were name tags and I was in a state prison.” We both laughed but the sadness lingered underneath. No one would hire Rosemary, no one.

So we conjured the idea that she should go to school. She started at a community college and her entire world seemed to change. She still lived in a shelter, she still ate at soup kitchens, but a local family of kind people paid for her books and purchased her bus passes and she was going to college!

She started writing stories about her life. One of her English professors told her that — except for the grammar — Rosemary was the best writer she’d had in 12 years of teaching.

That was 3 years ago. Last week Rosemary violated a policy at the school and got suspended for a year. Rosemary claims she was unaware. I believe her, but clearly others don’t. And anyway it doesn’t seem to matter. I can’t write the details but I understand the policy and can’t comment further because of Rosemary’s appeal. It’s just a sad mess.

It’s hard not to wonder — as her story got around — if her presence hasn’t just made others uncomfortable. But going to school is more than an opportunity for Rosemary’s life to have meaning. It’s also her means of survival. Out of desperation, she’s appealing the decision. I read her appeal — her school should be proud, it’s wonderfully well-written, and the grammar’s impeccable. But in the meantime she’s lost access to her student aid. And student aid is what she’s been living on.

Rosemary can go to an online college. But they’re twice as expensive. And once she graduates, Rosemary hopes to be able to pay back every cent she owes. Somehow.

But for now, her phone’s about to be shut off and she can’t pay her bills. Her church helped her and she stocked up on laundry detergent and other personal items that food stamps won’t buy. Thirty years ago she was an inner-city teen, a victim of abuse, with a baby to love. Then her whole world changed. She said to me one day, “I can’t help but wonder if that had happened to me, but I was a middle-aged white woman who tried to save her baby, if they’d have made a ‘Lifetime Special’ about me.” I can’t help but wonder either.

Pat LaMarche has extensive experience working with the nation’s poor, most recently as Vice President of Community Affairs at Safe Harbour, Inc. As a former journalist and award-winning broadcaster, LaMarche spent more than two decades studying and reporting on poverty issues both in the U.S. and abroad. During her 2004 Green Party Campaign for U.S. Vice President, she took to the streets to uncover the lives of the homeless in what she called the “Left Out Tour,” resulting in the book Left Out in America: The State of Homelessness in the United States (2006). Among other venues for her work, LaMarche is a Contributing Author for New Clear Vision.

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