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.
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.
Whether $12,000 or $120,000, the prospect of such debt held little meaning because they didn't even have enough money for rent. Wilkins couldn't tie his own shoes without help, but he could keep an eye on one-year-old Elizabeth. "I hit the pavement immediately," Emma says.
She had worked in social services outreach for six years until funding cuts ended her program in late 2007. Even though that comprised the bulk of her professional experience, Emma created six different resumes, each fine-tuned for various fields. "There are so many people unemployed in Seattle, you probably need a resume just to pull coffee. I was so despondent for awhile because I was even getting turned down for waitressing jobs."
The landlord wouldn't wait for Emma to find a new stream of income and evicted the family in June. Their last bit of money secured two weeks at a filthy motel in Aurora, an area notorious for pervasive crime, drugs, and prostitution. In better days Emma had worked as a volunteer distributing condoms, toiletries, and informational brochures to hookers and homeless populating the strip, never imagining she would one day end up living among them. "I felt utterly defeated," she recalls.
Faced with a frighteningly imminent prospect of living in the car with their daughter, Emma refused to surrender herself to defeat. Online research and many phonecalls secured assistance from a local non-profit, Solid Ground, which currently provides shelter for the family in one of its transitional housing units. It's not a luxurious apartment, but it's clean, safe, and for the moment, it's home.
In September, Emma finally landed a job--amazingly in her chosen field of social services. It didn't even matter the organization only had a temporary spot available. Maybe this marked the beginning of a change in fortune. Maybe they could finally get their life back, she thought.
Her first check amounted to one day's work, since she started just before the pay cycle closed. Devastating hardship had dominated for so long, Emma decided it would be nice to go out for a celebratory dinner. They never made it to the restaurant.
The cop who pulled them over informed a surprised Emma that she was driving on a suspended license, apparently as a result of that unpaid ticket from February 2008. Back when they were facing their first eviction, she'd gotten an overdue notice informing her that additional penalties had increased the already unaffordable fine to $900, but she never received word the state had actually suspended her license. Doing his job, the cop issued her a new $250 ticket.
But the police had worse news for Wilkins: they had a warrant for his arrest. Though he had paid his past fines for lacking insurance and the subsequent suspended license, one ticket from Snohomish County remained partially unresolved. Wilkins had failed to perform community service required to fulfill his debt to society, and society was not pleased.
Wilkins had appealed his community service schedule because it came during the period when he was working long hours seven days a week. After receiving no response, he quickly forgot about the seemingly insignificant requirement. Judge Stephen Moore reminded Wilkins of his failed duties before sentencing him to thirty days in jail as punishment.
"We know we've made mistakes in our past but we've been trying to do everything right for so long. I don't know--if we'd saved more money, had a better buffer, I don't know if it could have helped," Emma says.
With her husband in jail, Emma had to request a few days off just one week after starting her new job. "I was walking around in the pouring rain crying for two days, carrying the baby in a snuggy, looking for childcare," she says. She learned that it would cost her about $1200, half her monthly salary, to secure care for Elizabeth. "The Department of Social Health Services said I made too much money to get assistance. If I'd been fresh out of prison, or just off drugs, or making $1 less an hour they said they could help."
Emma finally worked out a more affordable arrangement with a childcare provider who watches a friend's baby, but she remains concerned about Elizabeth. "She's been a different baby since he got taken away. She saw me breaking down and reaching for him." At only sixteen months, Elizabeth is too young to understand why 'Da Da' is gone, but just old enough to feel the loss of his constant presence.
"The prison system is run for profit. Isn't that scary? Is that in the public interest? It's costing taxpayers money to incarcerate Ken, and for what societal benefit?," Emma asks. "I've never understood the concept of milking the poor to generate revenue."
Since she learned her license had been suspended, Emma has been taking the bus to and from her new job--a trip that takes an hour and forty five minutes. Her work requirements include driving, so her first full paycheck will be used to get her license back. She hasn't done the math, so we add everything up: $900 for the no insurance ticket, $250 for the suspended license, $75 for the license reinstatement fee, $25 for the new license. That makes for a total of $1250, which is $50 more than she will receive for two weeks work. "I hope they have a payment plan," Emma says quietly.
"The situation doesn't just make things tighter moneywise," she adds. "It also affects your psyche. It's like I'm being two different people." Emma's employer has been patiently understanding about the complications caused by the sudden revelation of her suspended license. No one in her office, however, knows that she is technically homeless, which is why I have used a pseudonym and masked other identifiable biographical details. Ironically, her office occasionally refers clients to Solid Ground, the non-profit providing Emma housing. "I don't want my office to start thinking of me as a potential client," Emma explains. "I don't want to seem like a liability."
During working hours, Emma projects a strong outward image, masking the inner turmoil she feels, rarely speaking of her personal life. But while telling me the whole story, she can't hide the pain. Her eyes well with tears and her voices trembles repeatedly as she recounts the devolution of her once-stable life.
For the past year-and-a-half, the fates have seemingly showered Wilkins and Emma with an increasing level of hardship every single time they feel on the verge of recovering from the previous episode. Despite the fear, sadness, and anxiety that holds her teetering on the edge of emotional breakdown, Emma has no doubt they will recover and become stronger and wiser from the experience. "I love my family and I know that despite all these snags in the system we'll come out on top because everything we do is for our daughter. She'll keep us going. For her, we'll keep fighting."
NOTE: At Emma's request, I have used pseudonyms above and did not identify her employer. If you feel moved to help people facing similar hardship, send donations to Solid Ground.