Just Get a Job!

Photo taken by Ben Ostrowsky and shared on Flickr.

Photo taken by Ben Ostrowsky and shared on Flickr.

We gathered as family groups in the large student center. I was Laura Thirty-Six, age 15, and soon got acquainted with my sister Jenny (age 13) and widowed Dad, Mike (age 37).

Our situation looked bleak from the outset. Dad was out of work and collecting unemployment. His check didn’t even cover our rent – nonetheless food, utilities, gas or medical expenses. Desperate to provide for his family, he had been applying for five jobs a week, and eventually found a part-time minimum-wage job. The good news? He had a job. The bad news? We lost our unemployment check, and his paycheck was less than what we were getting before. Our rent had gone unpaid for two months, and shortly into the second week of the month, we were evicted.

Jenny and I started the month hoping to participate in school activities – basketball and the school band – but Dad couldn’t pay the fees. At first we attended school regularly, eager to do well. Eventually school became a chore of avoidance – going unnoticed seemed the best option with Social Services, police and drug dealers constantly trolling the hallways.

By the end of the month, we were skipping school, trying desperately to help Dad – to help ourselves – to help our family. Jenny visited the pawn shop to sell our family’s baseball card collection that had been handed down through the generations. We only got $50, but that was enough to at least buy a few groceries. I stood in lines for hours, trying to open a bank account. Without an account, we had no way to cash Dad’s paycheck. We both went to the community interfaith center, eagerly asking, “How can you help us?”

In the end, we were living in a homeless shelter, and on the verge of being kicked out. We had twice missed our 8 PM curfew. It seemed there just weren’t enough hours in the day to go to the bank, seek assistance with community organizations, apply for housing, buy gas, cash checks, and help Dad look for a job.

And we were exhausted. Basketball and band seemed a distant memory. We couldn’t remember when we last ate, and we never even had the chance to visit Mom’s grave on the anniversary of her death. Everything in our lives had become about the tyranny of the moment, and in desperation, we had devolved into persistent – dare I say ‘pushy’ – frustrated, angry individuals who were hopeless anything would ever change.

But we were fortunate. We had stayed away from falling into illegal activities – though I wouldn’t be honest if I said it hadn’t crossed my mind. The lure of a quick, easy answer when nothing was simple was enticing. We also thankfully – amazingly – stayed healthy. I can’t imagine how, what with our irregular eating habits, and our lack of fresh food choices at the Mega Mart and food pantry – our only sources of food.

Well-meaning individuals told us to save money. To go to church. To get a job. To have family time. To make plans for the future. When? When could we have done that? We worked from sun-up to sun-down, desperately trying to survive moment-to-moment. Doors slammed in our faces. Opportunities seemed slim. At every office, after standing in long lines, we were given impossibly long applications to fill out, and told to wait in line again when we were done. Those intended to help and protect were often ruthless and unfair. They didn’t understand. They couldn’t.

I just wanted to eat a solid meal, to live somewhere – anywhere besides the streets, to play my trumpet in the school band, and to laugh again. My mind constantly whirled with anxiety and frustration. Every task was a chore, and nothing came easy. It was exhausting.

For the first time, I despaired at life.


On Monday evening, I participated in a “Poverty Simulation” at Hesston College together with approximately 80 other individuals. The simulation was sponsored by Peace Connections and Circles of Hope. The family situation I was assigned was unique, but shared similar characteristics with the many other family groups who also desperately tried to navigate the hopeless maze of poverty.

Having worked with individuals in poverty, I knew going in that poverty was not simply about “working harder” or “making better decisions” or “getting a job”. What I did not know was how stressed, overwhelmed, exhausted and frazzled I would feel after a “month” of simulation activities. I am thankful for the opportunity for “a closer look” and pray that this experience will guide and aid me as I interact with, engage and walk alongside those truly experiencing poverty.