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Sophia's World

A broken system

Supporting those struggling to escape poverty can be a blessing for Christians

Since I started reporting on homelessness three years ago, I’ve been learning a lot about poverty—who it affects, why it happens, and how it keeps someone there for a long, long time. One common thread I’ve seen among people experiencing homelessness is a lack of social support. Without consistent, empowering, dignity-giving help, it’s almost impossible for someone to lift themselves out of poverty, because the entire system works against them.

I witnessed this broken system again through a church friend named Olivia (who gave me permission to write about her). Olivia and I became friends two years ago when we both joined a new church at the same time. She had just moved back to her hometown, Los Angeles, after a stint in Arizona and was working as a regional manager over a restaurant chain. Because she had just moved to LA and had really bad credit after a terrible marriage with her ex-husband, Olivia was staying at Airbnbs, hoping to save enough to eventually rent an apartment in LA. Then one storm hit—and then another, and then a full-blown hurricane and hail and earthquakes, until it seemed like her life was shattering.

It all started with the repossession of her car. I was with Olivia when repo men took away her red Kia. We had just finished eating dinner at a Korean restaurant and were walking into the parking lot when we saw a man fiddling with her car door. “Hey, hey, hey! What’s going on?” Olivia exclaimed.

The man showed her documents from a car repossession company. He was towing her car away because she apparently hadn’t been making her car payments for the last two months. Olivia was flabbergasted. Her ex-husband had verbally agreed that he would make her car payments in lieu of paying child support. But now that her oldest daughter had graduated high school and joined the Navy, her ex-husband had stopped paying without bothering to tell her. So we sat on the sidewalk, watching the man hitch her car onto another car and drive away, while Olivia muttered over and over again, “I don’t understand. I just don’t understand!” 

That was the first storm. Olivia bought a dinky used car for $6,000. It was a dud. Within two weeks, the car gave out in the middle of the highway. She exchanged the useless vehicle for an extra week of free lodging at her Airbnb. Her cash reserves were almost dry, but at least she had a job—and then the next storm hit: The company that hired Olivia faced a lawsuit that forced it to shut down its operations. The company laid off Olivia and all her staff. Now she was jobless, carless, and soon-to-be homeless.

A note on Olivia’s history: When she was a baby, her mother left the family because Olivia’s father was abusive. Olivia said he became physically abusive toward her instead. A teacher noticed Olivia kept coming to school with bruises and told authorities. Olivia testified in court against her father and entered the foster care system. She lost a lot of family that day—her relatives blamed her for airing the family’s dirty laundry in public. She had no helping hand in her life except a church she had been attending for a few months. 

We reached out to our church, and people poured out love offerings. The church raised enough funds to pay for Olivia’s Airbnb for a month while she applied to as many jobs as possible. One place reached out for an interview but required her to work on Sunday. So she turned it down, telling them she could not miss church on Sundays. Then a start-up company reached out, willing to let her take Sunday mornings off to attend church. 

Meanwhile, because of her horrible credit report, nobody was willing to sell her a car. So she rented one for about $1,300 a month (she had to pay extra because she had no credit cards—due to bad credit). Her $50,000-per-year salary was barely a middle-class income in LA. She still couldn’t afford to rent an apartment: Most apartments in LA require tenants to pay at least a security deposit and one month’s rent up front. But continuing to stay at an Airbnb would be unstable and more expensive than a monthly rent. So I helped pay the $3,600 for her to move into a modest apartment. 

Things seemed to be looking up: Olivia had a new job, and she was saving to buy a car. Then three months later, her company’s investors suddenly pulled out, and the company shut down their operations overnight. Once again, without warning, she was out of a job. She received no severance.

That was November. Today, Olivia still hasn’t found a new job even though she’s been applying to anything she can find. Most good-paying jobs she applied to require a weeks-long application process. My fiancé and I helped her rent a car for a month to get to interviews, and although she reached the final interview process for several positions, she never got a job. She even dumbed down her resumé and applied for positions at Subway, McDonald’s, Starbucks.

Her savings dwindled to nothing. She advertised for a roommate. One woman responded, but then she too abruptly lost her job and couldn’t pay rent. Olivia canceled her internet service. She couldn’t pay her cell phone bills. She couldn’t sign up for quick gig jobs such as Uber or Postmates because she had no vehicle. She tried to apply for benefits such as unemployment and food stamps, but the government said she had previously made too much money to qualify. Come back in six months, they told her. But she had $0 in her bank account and was subsisting on runny rice porridge and cheap tacos that gave her diarrhea. 

One Sunday, she came over for lunch after church and sat at the counter crying: “I’m just so exhausted, Sophia. I feel like I can’t breathe. I just don’t know what to do anymore.” 

I share Olivia’s story to show how expensive it is to be poor, and how self-reliance and self-determination only go so far.

I share Olivia’s story to show how expensive it is to be poor, and how self-reliance and self-determination only go so far. No matter how hard Olivia works, all it takes is one crisis for someone who’s already teetering on the edge of poverty to tumble onto the streets. She may be an able-bodied, smart, hard-working individual with an impressive resumé. But she can still be stuck in poverty when the only jobs available are entry-level, minimum-wage positions with companies that won’t hire her because she’s overqualified. Liberals understand this broken system, which is why they advocate for more government assistance, more social programs, more progressive policies. 

But there’s something different about Olivia that sets her apart from other people trapped in the cycle of poverty: She’s been free-falling for the last year, but before she smashed rock bottom, she always had a church community that stepped in to catch her when even social welfare programs couldn’t. At some point, she had to give up her pride and not be ashamed to ask for help from her church family (nobody knew she had been behind on her cell phone bills until she lost her phone service). 

When I first met Olivia, she told me her favorite Bible verse is Romans 8:28: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” That’s still her life verse, even when she feels like some stranger has punched her in the face and she’s lying flat on her back, wondering what just happened. That faith gives her hope and purpose. It gives her awe and insight as she reads the Scriptures, breathing in the fresh power and sweet grace of God’s Word, divinely tailored to strengthen and encourage her weary soul.

Olivia worries that she’s a burden to the church. But I wish she’ll see what a blessing she is to us, for pushing us to reflect what the Church is called to be as the body of Christ (Hebrews 10:24-25), to witness a faith standing strong while tested, and share the love and grace that we ourselves first received.

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Howard Lipin/<em>The San Diego Union-Tribune</em> via AP

HUD Secretary Ben Carson participates in a roundtable discussion at Stella apartment homes in San Diego, Calif. (Howard Lipin/The San Diego Union-Tribune via AP)

Sophia's World

No simple solutions

The problem of homelessness involves much more than a lack of housing

Last week, U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Ben Carson came to my city to discuss Los Angeles’ homelessness crisis with Mayor Eric Garcetti. While in L.A., Carson bused down to South L.A. to visit an accessory dwelling unit (secondary housing in a single-family unit’s backyard) as one possible solution. The Trump administration has criticized California for having excessive red tape that makes it harder to develop new housing but hasn’t offered many strategies to address California’s housing and homeless crisis other than to remove regulatory barriers. 

Carson is not wrong about the cumbersome regulations—and it’s something many California politicians are working on—but to get a clearer understanding of why it’s so hard to solve homelessness, it would also be worth the secretary’s time to sit with a street outreach team and observe the cases they deal with on a regular basis. 

That’s what I did one morning. I visited the Echo Park branch of Homeless Health Care Los Angeles (HHCLA), a nonprofit clinic that treats the most impoverished population in L.A., to join a medical outreach team composed of a physician and two nurses. Because of patient confidentiality laws, I can’t provide the names of the patients, but here are three typical cases that show why helping the homeless involves more than offering them shelter, treatment, or housing. 

Let’s start with an elderly woman, whom I’ll call April. April has a bad injury on her leg. It’s so bad that the flesh is stripped off, leaving a red, infected gash. The infection has seeped into her leg and is now dissolving her bones. The last time she agreed to see a doctor, the doctor said she needed surgery soon or she would lose that leg. 

The infection is getting worse and worse, but April still has not been admitted into a hospital for surgery. Partly, it’s because many specialized surgeons in the area don’t take Medi-Cal and thus refuse to operate on her. But mostly, it’s because April herself has refused to go. She says she’s unwilling to leave her belongings. 

That’s something many people don’t realize about chronically homeless folks: The stuff they have piled high on a cart that they push around all day? Those things may look like stinky, rotting junk to you, but to them, it’s their entire economy. It’s their life. April’s case is complicated by her undiagnosed mental illness. She picks up random stuff from the streets to hoard, and they’ve become as valuable to her as high-priced items are to a collector. Something in her mind finds enough security and comfort from these seemingly worthless belongings that she’d rather hobble in pain than give them up. 

Over the last few weeks, the outreach team went to visit her regularly, trying to convince her to go to the hospital. It almost worked twice—the pain was so excruciating that April let the nurses accompany her to the ER. But the wait at the ER takes as long as 12 hours, and during that time, the woman began worrying about her belongings, and so left. The nurses can’t force her to stay, so they let her go and tried again the next day. 

The physician suggested giving April some psychiatric medicine, which might alleviate her hoarding symptoms. Legally, they cannot force her to take medication against her will unless she’s a danger to herself and others or is gravely disabled. April’s injury and lack of housing do not make her gravely disabled under state law. She is willing to take medication, but few people living on the streets are capable of taking medication consistently and regularly. Without constant monitoring, many of them lose their medication or completely forget about it.

The day I visited the outreach team, April finally seemed ready to go to the hospital. The nurses recommended that she divide her belongings into three categories: One pile for “must haves,” another for “maybes,” and the other for “throw outs.” She agreed to do it, because she said she couldn’t bear the pain anymore.

The outreach team hurrahed, but as soon as they got together to discuss the situation, they scrunched their eyebrows with worry: Now, where were they going to put her belongings while she’s in surgery? April has two carts packed with things, and it was highly unlikely that she would be willing to part with more than half of those things. And after her discharge, where will she go? After working so hard to convince patients to seek treatment, the outreach team now has to scramble to make that happen, and it’s not easy. 

“That’s the hardest thing about this,” one nurse sighed. “She’s finally willing to go to the hospital, and we need to strike while the iron’s hot, but we can’t just snap our fingers and make it happen for her.” 

The nurse calls a program in L.A. that helps with housing, employment, education, and mental health services to the homeless. They say they may be able to get her a motel voucher to store her belongings, but it could take a week to get one. Unfortunately, April doesn’t have much time. She might have a flash of rationality to seek treatment now, but in a week she might lose that resolve. Worse, if she waits any longer, the doctors would have to amputate her leg, or she might become really sick from the infection. 

Later, the team talks about another patient. Let’s call him Adam. Adam also has a mental illness. He has delusions that cause him to wrap wire around himself to “protect” himself from outside forces. Those wires cut deep into his skin and are very painful and potentially dangerous. Adam has a housing voucher, but housing won’t do him much good when he’s constantly psychotic and refuses to take medication for his mental illness. Again, doctors cannot legally force medication on him unless he meets specific criteria for involuntary treatment—and even with his delusions, Adam is well-versed enough about his “civil rights” to insist on living his life the way he wants to live it. 

One more case: an old woman who sits at the bus stop all day, wrapped in layers of coats and sleeping bags. People can’t tell if she’s blind, but she wears thick sunglasses and crumples newspaper between her eyes and the glasses. Passers-by became concerned—a heavily bundled old woman sitting exposed to the blazing sun for hours could suffer from heat stroke. So they called the police, but when the police tried to take her to the hospital, she flipped out. “You have no right to take me!” she screamed. “I have rights! I know my rights! You have no right!” The police officers stepped away, knowing how it looks to the public for a poor old lady to be screaming about her rights at the cops in L.A. 

The physician turned to look at me: “See? Not so easy as it seems, huh? So many barriers!” 

Multiply these cases by hundreds and thousands. Currently, California has more 150,000 people experiencing homelessness. Officially, about one-third of them suffer from a mental illness, but people who deal with the homeless on the streets tell me the percentage of those with mental illness is much higher. 

That’s why even as I get frustrated with my state and local leaders for not solving the homeless crisis quickly enough, when I look at how homelessness looks on street level, I get it: It’s not easy. It will never be easy. If there’s one thing I learned from reporting on homelessness, it’s this: Fellow citizens, be wary of anyone who tries to present simple solutions to this mind-numbingly complex issue, because there is none.

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Robert Alexander / Getty Images

(Robert Alexander / Getty Images)

Sophia's World

Losing a friend

I didn’t set healthy boundaries with Joseph, a man who had lived his life in a climate of abuse, manipulation, and dysfunction

I had a friend, whom I shall call Joseph. I say “had” because we are no longer friends. Our friendship fell apart about a week before Thanksgiving, after I had invited him to celebrate Thanksgiving with me and some friends. 

A little background history on Joseph: Joseph is a crack addict who had been homeless for 36 years. He slept on cardboard mattresses in Skid Row, and sang for food and drugs. In a way, Joseph didn’t have many chances in life: He was born to an addict, raised by an addict, stuck with addicts. When I met him, he was on a rocky path towards sobriety, and later, we celebrated his one-year sober-anniversary together with chocolate cake and candles. Though I had at first met him as a journalist for an interview, I enjoyed him as a person—his humor, his wisdom, his uproarious laughter, his enthusiasm to use his new life for good—and we became friends. 

We never got the chance to celebrate his second sober-anniversary, because several months after the first celebration, he called and said he had relapsed. He promised he would check into a rehab facility and said he was in contact with a local service provider who would connect him to various services, including housing. Our communication then became sporadic, with him messaging me or my fiancé whenever he needed some kind of help—usually petty cash for food or gas money. He always promised to pay us back but never did. 

I finally told Joseph I was uncomfortable giving him money anymore, so he changed his requests to food. He would ask for very specific things—a large Meat Lovers pizza with Pepsi and wings and triple-chocolate brownies from Pizza Hut, for instance—and ask them to be delivered to a certain address, wherever he was staying at the time, usually in his van. I knew he was struggling and had no income at the time, so I did it for him, but I struggled internally over what was the right thing to do: Shouldn’t I as a good Christian neighbor feed the hungry? Yet how do I trust an addict? How do I know I’m not just enabling his addiction? 

For a while, Joseph dropped out of communication. When I texted him, he never responded. Then one day, out of the blue, I received a Facebook message from him saying he had a new phone number. He was doing well, he told me. He found low-income housing at a neighborhood by Los Angeles. He said he was going to support group meetings several times a week and taking classes in drug counseling. He asked if we could do a movie night with my fiancé again, as we used to do before he relapsed. 

I was happy that Joseph seemed to be getting back on track—until he sent me a panicked message saying he was at risk of losing his first apartment ever, because he was short $75 in rent. He sent me pictures of his three-day notice and invoice from his landlord as proof. “Sophia, I am sorry. But I need help bad,” he said.

What was I to do? “We can’t keep bailing him out,” my fiancé told me. “He already owes me more than $100 that he never paid back.” 

“But the guy is about to be homeless again!” I exclaimed. 

Somehow, I felt like the burden of Joseph being housed or homeless fell entirely on me. I knew Joseph didn’t have much of a family or social support network, and I knew I had enough resources to help. I simply didn’t know how to say no, so I sent him $75 after making him promise he would pay me back. It wasn’t just about the money—I wanted him to be financially responsible, especially because I knew by that point he had some income from social security checks, and that a nonprofit was already helping him with his rent. 

I was pleasantly surprised when Joseph did pay me back after he got his next paycheck. It made me trust him a little more. Then he asked for money again. He needed food, he said. I sent him money. This time, he didn’t pay it back. 

Come Thanksgiving, I remembered Joseph and wondered what he was doing for Thanksgiving. He told me he was spending Thanksgiving alone, so I invited him to spend Thanksgiving with us. 

“Ooh, I gotta go to Goodwill and buy something nice to get dolled up!” he exclaimed, making me laugh. He talked about his grandmother’s candied yams, his longing for collard greens and pumpkin pie. He sounded excited.

Then he asked me to pay for his food again, this time a bucket of fried chicken. He had already chosen what he wanted on Postmates, and he wanted me to pay the $25 for it. There was nothing in his house, but he would have money the next day and would pay me back then, he promised. 

I felt a dead weight in my gut. I just didn’t feel right about it. We needed to set some kind of boundaries. So I told him, “I’m sorry, but I don’t think I can keep giving you money or paying for food anymore. I just think it’s not healthy for our friendship to have so many money loans involved. It gets messy and I can’t keep doing that for you, and it’s not good for you to have us as a safety net like that. I hope you understand.”

I could hear the disappointment in his voice. “Oh. OK, I understand, Sophia,” he said, and we hung up on what I thought was friendly terms.

Several minutes later, I received an essay-long text from him. He told me he was going to have to go back out on the streets to sing for money. He said when he relapsed, all his “so-called friends” who called themselves Christians dropped him, when friends are supposed to “build each other up.” He quoted Scriptures saying liars don’t make it to the kingdom of heaven, that Jesus called us to forgive our brothers seventy times seven times. He then disinvited himself from Thanksgiving dinner and said he hoped never to hear from me or my fiancé ever again. His last text to me: “God bless you because with friends like you guys, don’t need enemies, got enough of those.” 

I cried. The whole incident deeply upset me, not just because I lost someone I called a friend, but because I couldn’t help feeling guilt—guilt that perhaps I wasn’t a good Christian, a good friend, that I wasn’t empathetic or compassionate enough to his situation. I also felt hurt: After all that my fiancé and I did for him, how could he treat us this way?

My fiancé told me I did the right thing: “Notice that the one time you say no to him, he lashes out. I think that reveals a lot. You can’t help everybody.” 

Honestly, it took several weeks for me to get over it. But it was good, because it made me seriously pray and process through what happened and reevaluate my relationship with Joseph. The Bible is very clear about being openhanded to the poor, about carrying each other’s burdens, to give to those who ask, to sell our possessions and give to the poor, etc. But it also talks a lot about wisdom—and I wonder whether I could have acted with more wisdom in terms of setting healthy boundaries with someone whom I knew struggled with addiction and a history of abuse, manipulation, and dysfunction.

Loving and caring for someone who is as complex as Joseph is just as complex and messy. I wish there was a booklet that lays out exact steps on how best to care for a person according to his unique personality and situation and backstory. No such perfect guide exists, but I do have the Bible and the Spirit in me to guide and correct and encourage me through situations such as this. In the meantime, thank God, for His grace is sufficient for us.

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