By ELLEN ELDRIDGE
In Cobb County, where only 12 percent of residents live below the poverty level, one in five Marietta residents are within a few missed paychecks of living in their car. This is a fear that the Washington family faces on a daily basis.
Homelessness doesn’t happen overnight, however. The stones on the path out of poverty are often slippery, and a sick parent, car accident or home fire could easily deplete the savings a family with little income.
A year’s annual salary is a rule of thumb for the amount of savings a 35-year-old should have, according to Time Magazine, but Erica and Joel Washington had only $800 when they moved from Bainbridge to Marietta in 2007. They hoped to make the most of a new job and give a better life to their 16-year-old daughter.
During the summer of 2007, the Washington’s were forced to live in their car for several weeks, desperately trying to keep doctor’s appointments and find work.
Erica and Joel met in high school and shortly after graduating in 1990, they had a gave birth to Britteny. The young couple was only 19 years old and not sure what to do with a newborn, but Erica still managed to complete her goal of graduating college. She earned an associate’s degree in medical billing and coding with hopes that her education would gain her family a spot of financial safety in the world.
Unfortunately, she quickly found that her college education would go to waste when sickle cell anemia took over Erica’s body. The disease that she genetically inherited kept her from working full time. This forced the Washington family to continue to live paycheck to paycheck with little opportunity to get ahead in part-time jobs.
“As an adult, stress triggered my disease,” she said. “I was only able to work part-time shifts on the weekends.”
Sickle cell anemia is when the body makes red blood cells in a crescent-like shape instead of round. Because the red cells carry oxygen to the heart, the abnormally-shaped vessels have a hard time traveling through her veins, making it difficult for Erica to get the proper amount of nutrients to certain parts of her body.
“My sickness makes it hard for blood to go through the veins, like crimping off a hose so the water can’t go through,” she said. “That causes excessive pain and fatigue.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people with sickle cell anemia can expect to live life 20 to 30 fewer years than people without it. There has yet to be a cure. Washington said doctors had to put an IV port in her arm because of the excessive times her veins were accessed at the hospitals.
The family took what they thought was a calculated risk for a better opportunity when Joel accepted a job offer with a $4/hour pay raise.
They packed only what they needed for the move to Marietta, leaving their furniture and household belongings in Bainbridge.
“Joel’s job called and said they needed him to start right away,” Erica said. “We put our things in storage and planned to come back for them after we found an apartment.”
To make things even more difficult for the Washington’s, a car accident totaled one of the family’s two cars.
“The insurance reimbursed us…I want to say, $2,100,” Erica said. “We used that money with the money from Joel’s paychecks during the first month to move into an apartment.”
However, the job didn’t work out; the company went bankrupt after only a month, leaving Joel without a job and the family with less income than what they started with.
They continued to sleep in their Buick Regal, setting up camp wherever they could park, from shopping center parking lots to parking overnight in Marietta Square.
“We even slept in Wal-Mart parking lots,” she said.
Her voice cracked when she admitted her family tried to park at the Town Center at Cobb mall, but they were chased off by security.
The Washington’s had only two paychecks left and had to make a decision to either pay the rent on the storage unit in Bainbridge or pay for a week in a hotel. They had no one to lean on for financial support.
“My mother had heart disease,” she said. “She was unable to work and only had social security to stay afloat. We had no one to call to send us a couple of bucks.”
By the time August rolled around, reality really sunk in.
“School was about to start and we didn’t have an address to give,” Washington said.
“My daughter asked, ‘Mom, are we homeless?’ and that cut me. She was used to having things, and when she came to the point where she had to ask me if we were homeless, it cut me like a knife.”
They invested the last of their money in a hotel room for a couple weeks, but when they couldn’t find work, they were forced back into their car unable to even pay the rest of their hotel stay.
Erica continued her job search regardless, saying she had been spending her days driving around and visiting churches.
“I went to First Baptist Smyrna,” she said, “and when I pulled up, the car was on [empty]. I just leaned over the steering wheel and started crying and crying.”
When Washington looked up from the steering wheel, she said she saw a 50-something-year-old Caucasian woman in casual clothes asking if she was okay.
“‘No, you’re not,’ is what the lady said to me when I told her I was okay,” Washington said. “I thought the lady was the church secretary. I could tell that she could feel my pain, and she knew something was going on. She said, ‘Something is not right – come in and let’s chat.’”
Washington started out by blurting, “I’m homeless. I’ve never been in this position in my life.”
The woman ran to get pastor before he left for the day, catching him before he walked out.
Sitting down in the conference room, Washington said to the pastor and the secretary that she had a 16-year-old daughter, “and this is one day where I cannot face my child with nothing to eat,” she said.
Washington described how she’d been pinching pennies to buy her daughter chips and burgers, but on this day, she had absolutely nothing left.
“’Stop right there,’ the pastor said, and he asked the secretary to see if the church had any more Kroger cards.”
Washington said she remembered the exact amount on that Kroger card because the $25 credit meant she could feed her daughter.
“He said, ‘Drive to the BP on the corner’ and to my disbelief, the car made it,” Washington said. The pastor followed her and filled her car up with gas and bought her snack food. He also put Washington in touch with MUST Ministries where she and her family were able to find help getting food and clothing, though they were still sleeping in the car.
“You don’t always have to help a homeless person with money,” Washington said, adding that when she found help, she made the most of it.
Information and reaching out to those in the community proved to the Washington family that they weren’t alone. Washington said her family didn’t apply for food stamps because her husband was constantly looking for work. She had to be encouraged to make use of the services available to her family from people in the community.
Holly Casey, program director for MUST in Smyrna, worked with the Washington family in 2007. Casey currently oversees Erica Washington’s volunteer work.
“Most people don’t like to ask for help,” Casey said. “People are underemployed and can’t purchase what they need to survive.”
Casey described Erica Washington as delightful, always with a smile on her face despite her family’s tough position.
“They availed themselves of all the services,” Casey said, noting that the Washington family accepted clothes and food, but then continued to take advice and strive for employment. “She was a hard worker, determined,” Casey said. “She knew, with faith, it would happen for her.”
With the help of her community and her family’s determination to strive against the cycle of poverty, the Washington’s finally saw the opportunity to climb out of their car and into an apartment where Joel found a position as a security officer. Erica volunteers with MUST in Smyrna several times a week.
“With faith all things are possible,” said Erica. “God is in control.”