Pierre Tristam/Candide's Notebooks, February 16, 2007
There’s a family we know, Cheryl and I. They’re nearby neighbors. They have three children, one of them in middle school, one of them in third grade, one of them less than a year old. The third-grader plays with my daughter and all the other kids in our cul-de-sac. She’s also in Cheryl’s string orchestra. The family arrived here last summer, washed up from Katrina. They’d lived in Mississippi. They’re poor. Their phones, land-lines or cell, have worked only periodically, so that they’ve often come by to use our phone. During the summer on weekend nights the little girl used to knock on three of the cul-de-sac’s doors, in turn, to try her luck at who would take her in as a sleep-over. Her birthday is coming up, on the 24 th, two days after our daughter’s birthday. Yesterday we found out they’re being evicted. Cheryl found out by chance. The little girl was telling her that she’d overheard her parents say something about moving to a shelter, that she was already withdrawn from school, Friday would be her last day, and she was turning in her violin, which the program had granted her on an instrument scholarship (Cheryl’s program, underwritten by the school district here, is free, precisely to ensure that income is never an obstacle to string education; the instruments scholarships are provided through our own fund-raising). What were we to do?
I spoke to the man of the family, a young sort, former Navy man, he’s been doing odd jobs, construction when he could, landscaping when he’s hired, although I’d also heard him previously complain of bosses, of being fired, maybe serially. That’s not the point. The point is that three children are about to go without a roof and two without a school, and there seems to be nothing to do. I made a few calls. The eviction notice turned out to be something of an intimidation tactic, an attempt by the landlord to get them kicked out without having to go through the usual process, the legal system (as required). So that buys the family a few more days. County services are available for emergency rent or bills, but only to the tune of $400, maximum, and only if a job has been lined up.
The man has no job, and he owes $2,300 on rent alone. The state Department of Children and Families will put up another $400, but on the same conditions as the county service. The school district is hiring bus drivers and custodians. I called those I know there who can speed things up. But it’s the luck of the draw at best: the jobs are sought after, and certain qualifications are required. A clean record, too. He tells me he has all that. But you never know until the background checks are run through. Last night in their spare home, carptless, almost without furniture, the girl sitting at the kitchen table doing homework, the boy working on a calculator, it was the two of them who were most vocal with their thanks that someone was intervening—even though nothing had been accomplished, even though it was just talk of temporary reassurance, of delaying tactics, of bare possibilities that maybe a miracle job could be turned up, nothing more. Chances are nothing will turn up, and within days they’ll be gone, turning up who knows where.
No assistance, no support, no prospects but periodic migrations from place to place, chancing one grace period of unpaid bills after another until another move becomes necessary. In another society, maybe even in this one in another time, the neighborhood might have pooled its good will and found a way out for them. But charity is a conditional hive of suspicion anymore, a lifeline to dependence. We seek out official resources and lacking those, we rationalize the limits of the possible and go on our way. As they’ll go on theirs, if not now, then in a few weeks, a few months, after the next job goes sour.