by Beth Foster
No dam broke.
No funnel cloud split the trees or gobbled up houses or flattened crops.
The earth did not not shake.
But, the waters still rose. And there were no first responders pulling those caught in its muddy mess back to dry ground.
It was the middle of the night and there was no where else to go.
It was pouring rain.
Exhausted and soaked, she didn’t demand a copy of the lease then. She just wanted a dry place to lay her head for a few hours and she’d figure the rest out in the morning.
Now, two days later, the giant of a man who was the clerk at the long-stay motel tore the receipt from her hands. He roared at her to get out when she asked for a copy of her lease. For asking, the time she had to get out went from 30 minutes to 15 minutes, despite the $500 she’d paid two days earlier to secure the dirty little room for a week.
She was a woman with whom Mercy Junction had been working. She’d called me during church that morning to tell me she was being kicked out and could I help her. I went with her to talk to the clerk.
She’d been brought to this place by a steady trickle of bad luck that became a flood when a family member was murdered in an incident of domestic violence.
To whom could she complain about the clerk’s treatment? No one chose to stay at that place. No one read reviews or checked social media before signing a lease. No one went there until the waters around them were so high that there were no other options.
No government officials cared about the safety of the 1,500 people in the decaying structure that was Superior Creek Lodge except for a few hours on Sept. 9, 2015. They didn’t care about them as they clung to a crumbling edge, paying exorbitant amounts for decrepit rooms, as the waters swept them into that place in the days and months and years before. They didn’t care about them in the hours and weeks that have since passed. When the building was condemned and 300 families – infants, children, pregnant women, and elderly people – were suddenly set out with night coming, government officials said that was not a disaster and no help would be provided.
A few churches, a few individuals, responded. There was no lead agency to point volunteers in an organized direction or give the former residents information. There were only a few people with pickup trucks and a police presence to ensure those being evicted didn’t steal anything from their former slumlord on the way out.
While 1,500 people reeled, as the edge they’d been clinging to gave way, local talk radio hosts painted the suddenly homeless with the worst stereotypes of poor people. While remnants of the 1,500 slept in cars and tents and on church floors, and the really lucky ones got a place to rest on a family member’s couch, landlords refused to rent to the former residents even if they could prove their ability to pay. They’d heard about Superior Creek Lodge, they said. They knew what kind of people came from there. That’s when I learned discrimination in housing may be illegal based on race, religion and sex, but it’s legal and acceptable to discriminate on the basis of class.
As the weeks pass, I learn more from families who are still clinging to that edge between rent money for their plasma and life on the streets.
There is the vegetarian of many years whose mother-in-law screamed at her and told her she just wasn’t hungry enough yet after she declined the only job she’d been offered. The job was at a slaughterhouse. There is the felon who accepted the slaughterhouse job without reservation, thrilled that anybody would give him work. There was the man who took a construction job and who, after working hard for three days, still didn’t know what he’d be paid. He felt so privileged to work that he was afraid to ask about the hourly rate or when payday would come.
I am learning that those who might be their rescuers don’t reach out with loving arms to pull them to safety, but often contemptuously dangle the life preservers just out of reach.
A caseworker from the food stamp office called my phone to reach one of the women. I said that I wasn’t with her but could give her a message and have her return the call. The caseworker gave me an angry lecture about the necessity of a viable phone number if help was desired. I bit my tongue as the tirade continued, and then explained that I worked for a church that had been assisting the woman. She didn’t have a telephone and used my number instead. Suddenly, the caseworker deemed me worthy of being treated like a human being and we were able to make arrangements for a call to be returned.
This woman, with sleeplessness and worry bruising the skin under her eyes, asked me to help her make a plan to escape. I didn’t know where to start. So I asked, “What are your dreams?”
She couldn’t answer.
She taught me that poverty doesn’t just swallow dreams, it drowns the ability to dream.
I think, maybe, of all that is broken and at the bottom of these waters, the ability to dream is what we have to resuscitate first.