Amber’s Story. She is 26 years old.
I remember hearing my mother cry, though she did her best to hide the tears. She never wanted me and my little sister to feel afraid, insecure.
“The water will only be off for a day,” she’d say, forcing a smile. She would give us some crackers or popcorn and wrap her arms around us.
I overheard some of the phone calls: “Can I just pay the past due amount?” she’d ask the utility company.
I was poor – but growing up I didn’t realize it. I didn’t realize we were different from anybody else. Homelessness was not a word I ever heard someone say to describe us. We never slept in a car, on a park bench or under a bridge. Now, at 26, I realize we were often on the verge of homelessness.
I was just 9 when our house burned down. My dad died in the fire. My mom was pregnant with my little sister. It may sound harsh, but my dad dying in that fire was likely for the best. He was very abusive. If he hadn’t died I don’t know what would have happened to my little sister. I didn’t want what happened to me happen to her.
We lost everything in the fire. My grandmother lived close by and helped us some but she had very little. My mom cried when we had to go to the food bank. As a little girl I didn’t know why that was so upsetting.
When you’re poor, you feel bad about yourself. One of the biggest hurdles people living in poverty must overcome is asking for help. My mom did not want to ask for help. If you’ve never been poor, really poor, you don’t understand that. You think people don’t want to be selfsufficient.
We struggled to make it on my dad’s Social Security check. My mom had health problems. Some years birthdays and Christmas were celebrated – but there were no presents. My mom doled out love instead. For my sister and me, snuggling together on the sofa, watching a video with mom, was as big a deal to us as a trip to the circus was for other kids.
My mom began taking us to church after my grandma started going. I loved the music, the preaching and the warm smiles people gave me. I didn’t realize it was a church founded to minister to the poor and disenfranchised. I thought everyone was the same. I had adult women who showed an interest in me. They came to my school programs. I didn’t realize until later that some who were part of the church – and who still belong – are well off financially. I never saw a difference. Now at age 26, I realize that was a true gift given to me by all the adults in my life who gave me unconditional love.
When I hit the teen years, all was not so rosy. The realization we were not like everyone else took hold of my mind and heart. I became very judgmental of others. I decided if I couldn’t have or be like everyone else, I would just go through life with an angry chip on my shoulder. I was mad all the time, quit going to church and nearly flunked out of high school.
One day in math class I watched the girl next to me yell and cuss at the teacher.
“Is that what I look like to other people?” I asked myself. It was a turning point. I began focusing on school and even won awards for my vocal talents. I graduated from high school and earned two associate degrees. I now work fulltime and am buying my own home. My goal is to be a teacher.
I’m back at church, singing and worshiping with the people who gave me unconditional love. I greet those who come from under the bridge or a shelter and pray with those who are one paycheck from homelessness. I give them clean clothes from the church’s clothing bank or serve them breakfast. We are the same in God’s eyes.
Today, I know my place is not to judge. My role is to empower and encourage people. I have learned joy is not an emotion based on circumstances. You can teach yourself to be joyful – but you have to know what it looks like. I grew up poor. I know what that’s like. I also know what joy is.
This story originally appeared in Facing Homelessness in Fort Wayne, a publication of The Facing Project that was organized by Lutheran Social Services and the Office of the Mayor in Fort Wayne, Indiana.