The New Homeless: A Young Widowed Mom's Bleak Christmas in Camden
Jennifer Paul and her nine-year-old daughter Alyssa are trying %%DynaPub-Enhancement class="enhancement contentType-HTML Content fragmentId-1 payloadId-61603 alignment-right size-small"%%to make the most of things this holiday season. Since October, the two have been living in the Anna Sample House, the biggest shelter for families in Camden, N.J. -- one of America's most downtrodden cities.Paul, a proud 33-year-old woman who sports tattoos of a butterfly and her daughter's initials on her hands, has managed to scrape together enough money to buy her daughter a few small presents. The shelter has a nice artificial Christmas tree and Paul figures there will be some sort of celebration, but she's not sure what it will entail. Creating a festive mood in any homeless shelter is difficult, particularly when many of the residents don't feel like celebrating.
A Painful Journey to Camden
The mother and daughter's road to homelessness has been fraught with heartache and bad luck. About two years ago, Paul's husband Christopher died suddenly. At the time, Paul was still mourning the loss of her mother who had died less than a year earlier. Her father died years ago.
In hopes of starting anew and escaping some of the painful memories in New Jersey, Paul and her daughter moved to Fort Myers, Fla. where she secured a job doing data entry work. Just a few months later, however, disaster struck. Suffering under the weight of the Great Recession, her employer abruptly shut its doors.
Devastated, the mother and daughter slinked back up Interstate-95 to New Jersey. "Home" for them was crashing on the couches and in the spare rooms of friends and relatives. In March, things were looking a little brighter. Paul landed a job working for food service provider, Aramark, at Camden's Adventure Aquarium, one of the Philadelphia area's major tourist attractions. With the money she earned, she and her daughter moved into a seedy motel. But the two soon had to pack their bags after the state Division of Youth and Family Services deemed the place unsuitable for Alyssa. By October, they had moved into the Anna Sample House.
As if things weren't bad enough, Paul recently lost her job at the aquarium. Aramark told her that the stresses of being homeless were hurting her job performance. The Philadelphia-based company promised to rehire her once her life had become less chaotic. Paul isn't bitter. She even says she understands the company's position. An Aramark spokesman said the company won't comment about specific employees.
Getting by on Food Stamps and Unemployment Checks
These days, Paul doesn't get much sleep at night. She collects unemployment and has managed to save about $200 of the $825 she needs to put down a deposit for an apartment. The shelter provides them with most of their food. Anything beyond that, though, Paul buys using Food Stamps. She says she used to be embarrassed about using Food Stamps but "not any more. I got over that."
Paul is irked by the constant solicitations she gets for drugs in her neighborhood. She doesn't do drugs, but quips that it would probably benefit her financially if she did. Non-drug addict homeless people get less state aid " because you are not completely down and out," she says.
Not surprisingly, Paul hasn't been able to afford to pay her cell phone bill and her service was disconnected, making it that much harder for her to find a new job. Undaunted, she presses on.
Alyssa, one of thousands of children that now call a shelter home, is the one ray of light in Paul's life. She knows this life is hard on her daughter. In her nine years, Alyssa has attended five different schools. Nevertheless, the third-grader has maintained her spunk. She likes to draw on loose leaf paper that she carries around in a red binder and dreams of becoming a police offer so she can "save the world."
Right now, the only person Paul is concerned about saving is her daughter. "No one is going to do anything about our situation," she says. It's up to her to turn things around.
To help the homeless in the Camden/Philadelphia area, you can make a donation to the Volunteers of America Delaware Valley, a nonprofit human services organization. Donation information is available at www.voadv.org. Or, for more information call 856-963-0430.
More from The New Homeless series:
The New Homeless: Candido Gonzalez at New York's Bowery Mission.
The New Homeless: Shawn Martin at the Coalition for the Homeless
The New Homeless: Aspiring Web Developer Ends Up on San Francisco Streets
DailyFinance Readers Chip in to Help Homeless Mom in Camden