People treat you differently when you’re more than poor. I have been poor all of my life, but its not until the past year that I have felt more than poor. For the first time in my life, I understand what poverty is, not poorness, but poverty. And although my life has been lived mostly on the margins, I now live outside the margin and the only thing keeping me from homelessness is the house I rent that is a contributing factor to my headlong dive into poverty.
When you speak to people from companies on the phone and they realise your calling because you cannot pay, need more time, can’t just hand over your credit card details and sort the matter out, their tone changes, becomes a little more frosty, you are asked curtly to please hold while you are transferred to the – even icier tone – credit department. Your friends tones become hushed when speaking of outings. Your kids stop having all their friends over. It happens over time but it happens.
I left a position over reasons at the time that felt empowering. I never thought in a million years I would not be able to get another job. I am experienced, hard working and qualified for many roles. In the 15 years to the minute I left my job, I had been out of work but had always been able to find another position within a few months. But not this time. I have become persona non grata in my very small community. I am an Indigenous woman who works in Indigenous fields that are managed by white people.
My last role required a lot of community engagement, nationally. To cut a very long and complicated story as short as possible, we were woefully under resourced, inadequate conditions were contributing to the deterioration of important materials and my pleas to management were ignored. My decision to be more proactive in addressing these issues was met with disapproval and subsequently relations became strained to say the least. I am blunt and don’t believe in sugar coating problems and took all my concerns directly to management, the dance that ensued is one many Aboriginal people are familiar with. It led to me resigning and it seems, has led me to permanent unemployment.
For a few months I held it together admirably, Foxtel went, the gym membership, the mowing company (now we borrow a mower and do it) good cuts of meat went, no more rocklmelon or watermelon, certain fruits and vegetables (wow, expensive) along with most other groceries that were priced over three dollars. Everything but the bare and utter basics. Then disaster struck. Julia Gillard removed me, along with around 80,000 other people onto Newstart. I thought we were poor before. Silly me, that was luxury. On Newstart all cuts of meat are gone except cheap fatty mince and ditto sausages. We exist on those, potatoes, pumpkin, cheap cereal and milk. 2 minute noodles reign supreme in this house.
The kids Sports club memberships are no longer in reach, along with shoes and clothes. It takes around 6 weeks to pay off decent shoes, if the cheap pairs are bought, they last around 6 weeks on teenage boy feet. Both of my children will now walk around with holes in their shoes until the next pair can be paid off in lieu of buying cheap shoes that blister and pinch. Now that the schoolkid bonus will no longer be around, I am walking around with my stomach clenched and my hands are white knuckled. I thank my lucky stars that I can buy school uniforms on a payment plan. This is yr 12 for my eldest. I don’t want him to worry about our situation; I want him to concentrate solely on his studies. But my smiles of reassurance are wearing thin and I’ve noticed he’s long stopped asking me for ten bucks when he goes and hangs out with his friends.
I have a payment agreement with the electricity company called a ‘hardship plan’. When I call the energy company I ask for the hardship team. I must never not be reminded of my poorness it seems. I had a payment plan with an internet and phone company, I skipped some payments before Christmas, I did the same to my electricity company. The electricity company understood. The internet company did not.
The mental stress and anguish I feel on any given day has now doubled. There is no relief from the inside of my head. No outings to dinner, no day trips to the movies, no relaxing shopping trips. Just an overwhelming sense of hopelessness that things may never change, no matter how hard I try to keep it together there is no relief from this, this grinding and relentless lack of finances, my every waking moment is filled with constant and utter dread about what my family may have to go without next.
I now fully understand every single story I have ever read and heard about people and families that are homeless and exactly how it happens. I now understand the stories about people eating catfood, living in tents, homeless shelters and refuges. I thought I understood, but not really. I had no idea about the loss of pride and dignity. The inability to look lifelong friends in the eye after borrowing yet another twenty dollars. The toll it exacts on everything you always thought you would never do. I had no idea about the shame.
I live in a private rental house. The rent alone takes three quarters of my payments. I am on the public housing list, but it may take years. I live in a three bedroom house in a bad neighbourhood a long way from amenities that is falling apart. It’s two hundred and seventy dollars per week. With the kids school year approaching, and without the safety net of the schoolkid bonus, homelessness is looking more and more likely. I have picked up the phone to call the womens refuge 3 times today. Each time I have started to shake uncontrollably. I know I have to make the call, I can no longer afford this rent. My ability to put three meals per day on the table for my kids is becoming more and more precarious. I cannot afford to skip another long ago cancelled credit card payment, I am already on the lowest possible repayment plan they have. This is the price I am paying for attempting to give my children one gift each this Christmas. In hindsight, a mistake.
I used to check realestate.com along with the local online rag daily to look for a smaller cheaper place, and once almost succeeded, my application landed mere seconds after the first. Gone are the days where I could agononise over selection criteria in the privacy of my home, now I do it in front of an audience of people waiting for their turn to agonise. I also pitched stories to get a few extra dollars here and there. All of this online. But no longer. I must walk to my job network company every morning, which has one computer with one hour slots. One day I might get lucky and get 2 hours. One day it wont be 38 degrees when I leave the house. One day I might get a job. One day I wont be so poor.
I have a hole in the lining of my stomach and my blood pressure is too high. I sometimes get headaches so bad that my vision doubles. The health effects of being poor are beginning to surface. I’m sure a google search would unearth a study that shows my health problems are par for the course of people with money problems. Malnutrition, heart and skin problems are no doubt just around the corner.
I tentatively made plans for this year. Plans that are now scuttled and turned to dust. There is one thing I never read about being poor that happens. The loss of hope and sense of desperation that comes with the first sleepless night on an empty stomach, and never leaves. The minute I make that phone call to the refuge is the minute I cross from more than poor to poverty.