• RTHA

The School of Hard Knocks: Being a Poor Family in the City

By Solange Quarshie

The illusion that is “charm city” quickly wears off when you are poor and black. My family and I begrudgingly learned that lesson when about a year and a half ago, the unexpected happened and we found ourselves homeless.

We were finally beginning to cope with a horrible job market that limited our housing options, unsafe living conditions, and a system that seemed to favor landlords over tenants, regardless of the circumstances. I always had hope in the system and thought that if we did everything we were supposed to do, the law would be on our side. I was sadly mistaken. Despite winning an escrow case against our landlord, our month-to-month verbal lease was not enough to withstand her subsequent retaliation, which eventually led to her termination of our lease.

Before she maliciously evicted us, we endured crazy hijinks that included her henchmen throwing our fridge away and leaving our food out, painting our floor at odd hours of the day, ransacking our apartment and scraping peeling paint that was suspected to contain lead. Having an impressionable infant was not enough to incite her empathy, nor that of the police. When she perpetrated these disrespectful acts with little consequence, we realized that a well-off landlord will always have an advantage over impoverished tenants.

Through the hard times we experienced in this city, and the stories of other families in similar situations, we learned that there is a pervasive hatred of the poor in this world; when poverty is coupled with “minority” status, that hatred seems to be amplified. Along the way, there were several set backs including incidents of racial profiling that made success seem unattainable; we were often confronted by authoritative figures whenever we were in places they deemed us too poor and black to be worthy of.

It didn’t matter that we had a baby with us nor that we spoke articulately; we were in heavily gentrified areas of the city and our presence was an eyesore for the affluent. That attitude was implicitly evident when we had job interviews, took our son to parks in nicer areas or applied for apartments. My husband and I quickly developed an ability to tune out the unsolicited suggestions such as “why don’t you just move” that were made by well-intentioned individuals who nevertheless, were out of touch with the logistics of poverty.

The lengthy process of applying for rental housing becomes a full time job when one doesn’t meet the income and credit requirements. The $15 per hour jobs needed to qualify for the decent apartments, seem not to exist in this economy. These factors have continued to limit our searches to substandard housing in crime-ridden areas. While living in these areas, we noticed that the majority of the residents looked like us. It seemed like a conspiracy and we had never considered our selves “conspiracy- theorists.”

The biggest lesson we have learned is to rely solely on each other because the government isn’t going to save us; we have to save ourselves. I don’t have much faith in politics and I know that the interests of private interests can no longer trump the very real and very basic needs of the poor. We all need food, clothing and shelter; if public policy cannot protect those rights, the innate will to survive will surpass any former rules of etiquette.

SQ is a RTHA Leadership Council Member

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