Friday, December 16, 2011

Sister to the Stranger

I'm not the only ex-New Yorker in my new home town.  In my peregrinations on foot and by bus, I have discovered that there is a small contingent of poor single mothers from the outer boroughs of New York City who have migrated here, some two hundred miles away, in the hopes of a better life.

The other day I got a phone call from one of the Sisters of Life. She was working with -- or "walking with," as the Sisters say about their ministry -- a young unwed mother of two toddlers who was very down on her luck. The family was staying in a shelter, but their eligibility was about to expire. The mother, A., had a tenuous connection to my new home town. Would it be a good idea, Sister M. wondered, if A. relocated here?

This is a complicated question, and I tried to give Sister as clear a picture as I could of what things might be like here for A. and her children, but it's really anyone's guess. The poor single mothers who move here are largely welfare-dependent, as is A., and it might seem, on the face of things, as if moving here would be a step up for anyone trying to get by on the very little money offered by welfare; the cost of living here is very low, especially if you're coming from New York.  But that's not necessarily how it plays out. People are able to get by on welfare in New York because everyone has a hustle.  There are all kinds of shadow economies there, and women on welfare work in all kinds of sub-rosa ways; without another income stream, welfare recipients in New York would simply be ground-down destitute -- and some are, but those are mainly the ones who cannot work because of disabilities -- because things are so expensive. But here, there are virtually no jobs. What would happen to a young single mother, barely out of her teens, with no high school diploma, and no car in a part of the country where public transportation is spotty at best? How and where would she find work? How would she get to work? How would she pull herself and her children out of poverty?

I've heard that the administration of social services is quite generous here, which is not the case in New York, where it generally takes four appointments and hours of waiting for each one to qualify even for emergency food stamps. I surmised to Sister M. that A. would probably qualify for a variety of benefits, including a housing allowance.  But this is still a city, in spite of its tiny population, and even though I can find myself in the middle of ramshackle farming country by driving five miles, there are also dangerous neighborhoods closer by. These neighborhoods are where the poor single mothers live.  The social problems of the big city exist here in microcosm, especially when bad relationships can't quite be sundered, and boyfriends follow the single mothers here; there is even a brisk drug trade, with supplies being muled in from New York City.

 I have heard, too, that sixty percent of the county budget goes to social services, and that, because of declining population, this little city has in fact been actively recruiting poor single mothers from New York for relocation here.  I'm not sure this is a good basis for urban planning, especially for a place already so economically devitalized. Our downtown could be beautiful -- apparently it once was -- but now, half the shopfronts are vacant. This is not only because of the proliferation of suburban strip malls, but also because people are afraid to shop downtown; it's where the poor single mothers live and where the sketchy-looking men hang out on the corners with pit bulls. I do go downtown every week to make the rounds of library, independent coffee-roaster that does most of its business through mail-order, and, occasionally, crazy department store with falling-down ceiling tiles where everything is always on sale, but I'm one of the very few. And now that I'm a homeowner, I have other feelings of shadowy discomfort about the whole notion.

But I look around here, and I see such crushing loneliness: the loneliness of the single mothers, the absolute heart-emptiness that leads them to so carelessly disregard their lives and the lives of their children. As a post-abortive woman, as someone who sought so desperately for love in self-destructive ways, I am intimately familiar with this loneliness. It concerns me deeply, and I don't know how to help.

A. chose life. She needs help. She's desperate to leave her old life behind, and she's getting kicked out of the shelter on January 1st. I told Sister M. that she should definitely come up and look around before making a decision, but that may not be possible, since she can't afford the bus fare. I told my husband the whole story, and, after rolling his eyes and mouthing some conservative platitudes, he said we should wire her some money. If she comes for a look-see, I will meet her, and try to take her and her children around and be helpful.

As a final note, could you please add A. to your prayers?


Elise said...

Will pray. I live in a small town. It can be a good place as a safety net, but as you point out, the net is very, very small in a rural area.

Jesus, be with her.

Dandelion Wishes said...

I will pray for her. So very sad, and so very common in these times.

marie therese 1 said...

I've missed your writings. I will pray. Hope your holidays are blessed ones.

Melanie B said...


ex-new yorker said...

Yes, I will add her to my prayers. To think I was thinking earlier how exhausting it sounds just to face the coming months with my newly toddler-esque 1-year-old and still toddler-esque 3-year-old, when I'm neither single nor homeless, and am in general possibly happier than I've ever been. I bet you could be a lot of help to her with just your understanding, as well as that bus fare...

Lizzie said...

I will be praying for her and for you too. As a single mum, I am so aware of the importance of support and friendly faces in what can be a very tough situation.