LaJuana Clark’s Story: ‘It’s Not How I Start. It’s How I Finish.’
Author’s note: Last week, we discussed the Coalition on Human Needs’ June 16 event, What Works – And What Doesn’t – To Reduce Poverty and Expand Opportunity. As part of that event, we heard the story of LaJuana Clark, who has struggled with homelessness and under-employment. This is LaJuana’s story.
We encourage you to watch a recording of the event and visit the event webpage where you can get more resources. We also hope you’ll continue the conversation either by commenting at the end of this blog or by using #talkpoverty and @CoalitiononHN on Twitter.
By David Elliot
LaJuana Clark was born and raised and lives in Washington, D.C. She works part-time as a security officer at Potomac Job Corps Center and attends college three days a week at ITT Technical Institute, where she is working toward an associate’s degree in network systems administration.
She is no longer homeless – but she struggles to maintain her viability in life, faced with a lack of work hours, low salary, and the high costs of living in the District. “It is impossible for a person to survive off of $1,000 a month,” she said. “Just picture trying to get to school three days a week, $15 a day (for transportation), $50 a week. That’s a car note!”
LaJuana experienced a downward spiral into homelessness, familiar to many, when years ago she lost her job. “I was living with my significant other then,” she recalls. “We had a house in the District, Northwest. My name was not on the lease, but I was paying my rent every month, helping pay the bills in the household. And when I lost my job she decided that I had to leave. And it made me homeless. First time I had ever been homeless. I didn’t know anything about it. I didn’t know what to do. I ended up on the street.”
After living in a shelter for one year, one month and two days, LaJuana eventually found an apartment, but then found out part of her paycheck from work was being garnished. She missed her rent and found herself evicted. And the cycle continued.
Today, despite a struggle that includes not enough hours, too low a salary, the cost of getting to school and to work, and wading through SNAP and Affordable Care Act applications, LaJuana talks of hope. “There’s hope in working that 24 hours a week, hope in school, hope in church, hope in what I do for the community, hope in serving, to help others like me,” she says quietly. “There are many LaJuanas out there. Men. Women. Children. People who don’t have anything.”
Last week, LaJuana was interviewed about her experiences, now and in the past, by Olivia Golden, executive director of the Center for Law and Social Policy. Olivia told a CHN gathering that LaJuana shares several common denominators with many other working poor people – but there are differences as well.
Similarities: First, like most low-income people, LaJuana is working, contrary to popular stereotype. Second, she wants and is seeking a better-paying, more stable job with more hours – but so far, such work is elusive. Third, like many of the working poor, she’s needed a little bit of help as she seeks to make her life more stable. “Getting some help is necessary to stabilize your life enough so that you can even look for work or succeed at work,” Olivia says. “Thinking about the stability that comes from the safety net as a step on the way to work is really important.”
And finally: LaJuana defies the public’s stereotype of “college student.” Most students today, especially students of color and those attending two-year technical institutions, are well past their teens and 20’s. They are adults supporting themselves; LaJuana turns 50 this fall.
But, Olivia added, LaJuana’s story is also different in some ways. Example: despite the expense of living in D.C., D.C. at least has bought into the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act. Nineteen states haven’t done that, including very populous states such as Florida and Texas. LaJuana’s life would be all the more difficult if she lived in one of those 19 states.
Another example: LaJuana does not have children. That cuts both ways – child care costs are a huge problem, but then again, parents with children receive a larger Earned Income Tax Credit.
During the June 16th CHN program, which in part examined House Speaker Paul Ryan’s anti-poverty proposal, LaJuana was asked what she would say if she had a chance to speak with Ryan. Characteristically, she did not mince words:
“I would tell him: Put yourself in my shoes. I think people are seeing just the surface. They’re not coming out in the neighborhoods to see actually how people live. They assume everyone is an alcoholic or drug addict or a person in incarceration….They think those people are not trying to do better. Well, yes we are. We are trying to better our lives. It’s not how I start. It’s how I finish.”