Phone calls from the Great Recession
This is how the first call to my cellphone began. Until that point, the human toll of the Great Recession was much less immediate.
Two years ago, the Community Foundation for the National Capital Region established the Neighbors in Need Fund to help nonprofits meet the growing demand for services in the wake of the economic meltdown. Working with the foundation, I have written about many individuals and corporations that have supported the fund, which makes grants to groups that provide food, shelter and clothing to the region’s most vulnerable. But until that call, the story had not hit home.
Of course, I was aware of the grim statistics relating to unemployment, hunger and foreclosures in the region, and I was able to appreciate the depth of the crisis on an intellectual level. I knew that many low- and middle-income families would be left struggling in its wake. But I was emotionally unprepared for the calls from desperate men and women who saw me — a stranger whose cellphone number appeared on news releases on the Community Foundation’s Web site — as their last hope.
The first call came when I was on a family vacation. The caller was a 50-year-old living on disability benefits in a low-rent apartment in Ward 8, and I suggested he contact Bread for the City, a Neighbors in Need Fund grantee. He had already received a three-day supply of groceries from the nonprofit’s Southeast Center, and he was eligible for more food the first of the month, which was a week away.
Through my work I know that groups like Bread for the City have faced crushing demands for services and simply can’t keep up with the need. But hunger doesn’t know the difference between the beginning and end of the month. We mailed him a Safeway gift card, distressed to know it would not arrive for several days.
The second call came from a 39-year-old college graduate with a political science degree who had been laid off from his job, spent his savings and was scared to death about an impending eviction. “I need a miracle,” he said, and then told me his story.
A sales job brought me to Washington. In the fall of 2009, things began to unravel. I fell behind on payments, and my car was repossessed. Two months later, I was laid off. My number was up. I was behind in my utilities. Behind in my phone payments. My health insurance ran out. There’s a real domino effect. I survived on peanut butter sandwiches. I watched out my window as families were evicted from my apartment building; one had relocated here after Hurricane Katrina. Their possessions were laid out on the curb. It was heartbreaking.
Determined not to let that happen to me, I prayed, applied for jobs and put the few sentimental possessions I had in a box and stored them at a friend’s house. No matter what happened, I was not willing to have my treasured possessions put out on the curb. I may not have much in my bank account, but I still have my pride.
My husband and I took the man to lunch and brainstormed about job and housing opportunities. When we parted, he seemed optimistic. But we never heard from him again. We don’t know if his prospects improved or darkened.
More recently, there was a message on my cell.
I am a substitute teacher and a graduate student. I paid $900 toward my rent two weeks ago. Now the house is in foreclosure and they need me to leave. Immediately. I have no money since I’ve given it all to this current landlord. He told me if I leave today or tomorrow he would give me $200 back. That’s it. I don’t know where to turn. I have visitation with my two children ages 6 and 7 and need a place that would accommodate them for visitation.
The federal government may have said that the recession is over, but the weak economy has lingered. Thousands of our neighbors are hungry. Thousands more, who once thought they were secure, are on the brink.
With miracles in short supply, our neighbors need us. The professional distance began to dissolve with that first phone call. If anything, the calls and e-mails have helped me to be a better professional. More important, they have helped me to be a better neighbor.
Janice L. Kaplan does communications work for nonprofits in the D.C. region.
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