Milking the Poor: One Family's Fall Into Homelessness

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The descent into homelessness can be equated to falling off a cliff. Wealth buys passage on toll roads a safe distance from the edge, but poverty's foot path runs along the craggy and unstable lip of a gaping precipice. Emma and her family hit a few ledges on the way down, blown by winds of misfortune every time they began to regain stable footing. As Emma describes their story: "It's too much bad luck for anyone to believe." 

At the moment, Emma's fiance, Wilkins, sits in a windowless cell of the Lynnwood City Holding Facility serving a 30-day sentence for driving with a suspended license--the result of an unpaid ticket for driving without insurance. Though the term 'debtor's prison' evokes Dickensian inequalities of a past era, I find it difficult to characterize Wilkins's incarceration as anything more just.

"If you don't have money for insurance, and you get pulled over, then you'll never have money again," Emma explains, summarizing the painful lesson realized through her entanglement with Washington law. "Fines rack up every time they make a judgment against you. If you don't respond, if you don't get the notice, then it goes to collections, additional penalties are levied. It just gets worse and worse. And that's how our hole got deeper and deeper."

If Emma had to pinpoint the moment their life began to lose footing on solid ground, it would go back to the ticket she received for driving without insurance in February 2008--the fourth month of her pregnancy with daughter Elizabeth.

Wilkins's license had been previously suspended after he couldn't afford to pay a ticketed fine issued for driving without insurance, so Emma was behind the wheel of his car when they were pulled over on their return from visiting family in Montana. The cop issued Emma her own $550 ticket for driving without insurance.

The couple arrived home in Seattle to learn two housemates had abruptly moved out, leaving them $1000 short on rent. "You have 15 days to respond to a ticket, and I got wrapped up in trying to save the house," Emma explains. "I don't know why I bothered. We lost the house anyway. And basically my life has been downhill ever since." After a new housemate's rent check bounced, the landlord filed papers for their eviction.

The couple had begun the process of moving belongings to an apartment when Emma, by then seven months pregnant, realized she hadn't felt any movement in her womb for two days. Diagnosed with intense preeclampsia, likely caused by stress, Emma was admitted to the hospital for an emergency C-section. While in the recovery room with Wilkins at her side, the landlord emptied their house, piling their possessions out on the sidewalk for anyone to claim.

Emma doesn't care about the furniture, but still laments losing her cherished collection of books. Compared to the terrifying medical crisis that could have killed their baby, however, fallout from the eviction felt like a minor blip. The couple had no idea their streak of misfortune had just begun.

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The hospital discharged Emma after one week, but baby Elizabeth had to be kept isolated in a preemie incubator. En route to a friend's house on the day of her release, Emma was surprised to see flashing lights in the rearview mirror. She had been obeying all traffic laws, but the cop had apparently run the license plate. That's when Wilkins learned a ticket for driving with a suspended license had been converted to a criminal warrant. It didn't matter that he wasn't driving on that occasion--the police took him into custody and impounded his car, leaving Emma stranded in an unfamiliar area, phoning friends for a ride.

Though Emma had cash in hand, the impound lot refused to release the car because it was registered in Wilkins's name. By the time he got out of jail a week later, $50 daily storage fees had added $350 to the original $250 impound charge. Their 1990 Mercedes 300 was worth a few thousand, but they had to abandon it for lack of $600 to pay its ransom.

After that burst of trouble, life seemed to stabilize over the summer. Wilkins, a union roofer by trade, had a big job working on the Bravern Building. Putting in ten to twelve hours a day, seven days a week generated enough income to resolve past due fines, buy a used car, and even insure it with the bare minimum required by law. Then over winter, recession woes halted new construction, effectively crippling the family's livelihood.

Seattle's rainy winter months always require a break from roofing, but things typically ramp back up in the early Spring. This year was different. "When work didn't happen and didn't happen and didn't happen, we got scared," Emma recalls. Wilkins was finally called back to work in May, just as they reached into the last of their savings.

A few weeks passed worry-free before tragedy launched a new phase of hardship. One Saturday afternoon, Wilkins was installing a window for a friend in Section 8 housing when he slipped, his arm crashing through the glass. The accident severed an artery, his ulnar nerve, and two tendons. Four hours of surgery reconnected it all, though he may never regain full use of his arm.

To compound the depth of this misfortune, Wilkins's injury occurred just three weeks after he had returned to work. Since it takes thirty days of employment to resume benefits, he had no health insurance. After the state picked up a portion of the medical bills, Emma estimates about $12,000 in debt remains.

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Christina Davidson is a writer, photographer, and book editor who specializes in national security, terrorism, and war. She also writes for the food blog Feed The Masses.

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