The phone call should have been a pleasant conversation, sharing funny stories about the kids, chatting about an exciting new project at work, or complaining about L.A’s infamous traffic. That’s the sort of small talk we housed people usually have on the telephone.
My circle of friends and acquaintances has always been diverse, but none had ever been on the verge of homelessness. Or so I thought.
“I’m calling from a motel,” she whispered.
“Oh, so you’re on vacation?” I responded. “You definitely deserve it.”
“If you can call this a vacation. It could be a long one.”
“Why are you whispering?” I asked.
“My kids and I are living in this motel room, and I don’t want them to overhear our conversation. We lost our apartment.”
For the next hour I listened to a horror story that I would never have wished on my worst enemy, let alone my friend.
She was a single mother of two elementary school children who loved video games and Justin Bieber. For years, she worked hard as an account executive, getting one promotion after another. Her life had always revolved around her kids and giving them the best opportunities she could provide.
Like many of us, her life had fallen into a comfortable, reliable routine. Then, one Friday afternoon, a pink slip was placed on her desk .
Unemployment, in itself, doesn’t mean instant homelessness. But, in an economy where one out of every ten people is desperately seeking work, the odds were stacked against her.
Month after month of fruitless interviews with unsmiling people who looked like they were on the verge of being laid off themselves, all while living off food stamps and meager unemployment assistance, dried up her savings. One month, there just wasn’t enough money to cover the rent.
The saddest day wasn’t the day she received her pink slip. It was the day she and her children had to move out of their apartment.
“Why didn’t you ask for help?” I asked at the end of her story.
“I was too proud,” she said. “I didn’t want anyone to know.”
So she found herself in a motel room, cuddled up with her two children in one lumpy bed.
From the opposite end of the phone line, I wished we were telling jokes or talking about the weather instead of trying to comprehend the sad story she had finally forced herself to tell me.
Without getting into the details, PATH helped her get back on her feet.
Even so, the lingering feelings of desperation and uncertainty continue to haunt her. I feel it too, and I was never even homeless. What if another pink slip appears on her desk? Or what if she gets seriously ill and finds herself unable to pay the bills?
In a time when our nation’s leaders are debating whether or not to cut the social safety net to balance the budget, I hope they understand that homelessness really can happen to anyone unless there is a way to catch people when they start to fall.
When many people hear “homelessness,” the first image to come to mind is a ragged man walking down the street talking to himself. Even I am surprised when I find out that someone close to me is on the verge of homelessness.
When my friend whispered her story into the phone from her motel room that night, I wanted to say, “You’re not supposed to be homeless.”
You’re not supposed to be homeless, because we all should have caught you.