Betsy Biesenbach special for the Roanoke Times
For Shanell Carter, 27, the most important thing in life is her 6-year-old son.
“I care about him above all else,” she said.
He was born prematurely at a time when Carter was homeless. The boy spent a month in the hospital hooked up to tubes and wires. When he was released, she said doctors were aware of his living situation, but did not give any helpful advice.
“They just said, ‘Don’t sleep with him.'”
For a time, the two lived in a borrowed car, and Carter walked an hour to work each way, sometimes taking the baby with her. Three years ago, they moved from Greensboro to Roanoke, where they now receive subsidized housing, Medicaid coverage and are enrolled in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program.
“I feel a little more relieved here,” she said.
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Carter said she managed to get along well enough financially while working in jobs such as retail, factory work and daycare.
“I’ve done so many things,” she said.
Until her son started school in August, Carter said, she could work because she had full-time daycare for him. But after-school care is hard to come by these days – regardless of household income – as workers have left the field for other jobs since the COVID-19 pandemic.
She has been unemployed ever since.
Carter said she applied for any job she could find that would allow her to do it during school hours. Her situation is complicated by the little help she receives from the few family members who live nearby.
In addition, her son suffers from severe asthma, which limits his activities and requires him to be available for medical appointments and personal care when he is seriously ill.
“I’ve been on Indeed 24/7,” she said, referring to the online job search site. “I’m up all night applying for jobs.” But she does not receive a return call after stipulating that she can only work during school hours. This schedule does not match the service-oriented work she does most often.
Carter has been on her own since she was 16 and not working has been difficult, she said. In fact, it caused a bout of depression, for which she cannot find a cure, due to the cost and scarcity of providers.
This mental state complicated his job search. ” I stay myself. Sometimes I don’t even want to leave the house,” she said.
A bright spot in her life, she said, was the time she spent volunteering with Habitat for Humanity. She enjoyed physical labor and was encouraged by giving herself to the effort.
“I always love helping people,” she said.
Carter’s unemployment has strained her ability to pay her rent. Accustomed to supporting herself, Carter grows weary of poverty and sometimes spends money she cannot spare to buy toys and clothes for her son. These gifts are especially important, she says, because her asthma often prevents her from running, playing and participating in sports like other children.
“I can’t always get exactly what he wants, but I do what I can,” she said.
Carter said she hasn’t gotten much of a boost from the federal COVID stimulus or child tax credit checks that have temporarily propped up many family budgets. His daily needs were such that the money was quickly spent. Most of her stimulus checks went to the surety bond for her current apartment, she said.
Last year, and then again in October, Carter asked for help from the Roanoke Area Ministries organization. There, she received a grant from the Emergency Financial Assistance Program, which is supported by the Roanoke Times Good Neighbors Fund. The program helps with rent, utilities and medication for those with financial setbacks.
“They were very helpful,” she said, but the charity was unable to meet the full amount needed. Carter feels lucky that her landlord is allowing her to pay what she can when she can, but every month she’s still late $50 is added to the total.
It’s nearly impossible to move forward and there’s always the possibility that she’ll find herself homeless again.
Carter said that when she was growing up she did well in school and wanted to be a teacher. She graduated from high school, but never went to college. Nevertheless, she is full of ideas.
“I always thought work would be more than just work,” she said.
She would like to own her own house-cleaning business, Carter said, but her depression and exhaustion kept her from pursuing the idea. In addition to her other worries, she worries about her son’s health and gets up several times in the night to check on him. “I don’t sleep much,” she admitted.
Like most young women, Carter wishes she could enjoy her life. Yet the constraints of poverty are trying. The things that are most often put on hold are those that involve self-care, like getting your hair done.
“There’s nothing I can do,” she said wistfully, but “I’m also tired of taking it out on people.”
In fact, it’s just part of a long list of things Carter is sick of.
“I’m tired of being upset. I’m tired of being depressed. I’m tired of worrying. I’m tired of crying. I just want it to stop,” she said, but the only way out “is to find a job. I want to pay my rent.
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