Helen Ubinas: FALL INTO POVERTY LEAVES MOTHER SHELTER-SHOCKED

ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER After a string of bad luck, Asia Elliott and her young son found themselves in a homeless shelter.
ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER After a string of bad luck, Asia Elliott and her young son found themselves in a homeless shelter.
Posted: February 05, 2013

YOU GET REALLY good at math when you're poor. Not the 1+1=2 kind. The kind that has forced 26-year-old Asia Elliott to stumble from middle class . . . to working class . . . to a homeless shelter.

Elliott's math is the kind she has to compute as she makes one hard choice after another:

A $22 TransPass to get to job interviews and appointments with social-service agencies, or diapers for her 22-month-old?

Basic toiletries, or new pants for her growing toddler?

A cellphone, or a little extra cash in her pocket for emergencies - because when you can't afford it, there's always an emergency, right?

Elliott came from a stable home. She went to college for culinary arts. Her dream was to have her own food truck. She worked two jobs. She had a car, an apartment. Now she's in a homeless shelter with a toddler and a handful of belongings.

She's looking for a job. Until then, she mostly lives on $100 a month in public assistance.

Her story is the American dream in reverse. She's joined a growing number of Philadelphians coming face-to-face with the new reality of being poor.

Here's a snapshot of that reality: The city estimates that one- third of the demand for shelter has not been met. Each month, the People's Emergency Center, which houses between 30 and 40 women and their children a night in emergency housing, gets more than 150 calls from families they can't accommodate. Many keep calling.

"It's like calling the Holiday Inn over and over again looking for a room to open up when the Olympics are being hosted in your city," said Farah Jimenez, chief executive and president of the People's Emergency Center.

I thought of Elliott during the inauguration, when President Obama said, "We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us, at any time, may face a job loss."

The first time Elliott and I spoke was at the offices of the Philadelphia Nurse-Family Partnership, which miraculously helped her find shelter in a city where need far outweighs supply.

It wasn't as if she had been living large. "But I was making a living." Having a child out of wedlock wasn't part of the plan, she said. But she and the baby's father were living together, and planning a future, when she got pregnant. She could support her son, Chace.

She paid her rent on time. Her tax refund went to bills. She saved as much as she could, never once realizing she was teetering on the edge.

Then Chace got sick; he ended up in the hospital with a staph infection she's convinced came from broken plumbing and walls and mold in an apartment she was renting.

In the meantime, her car was totalled. The seasonal job she'd taken to buy Christmas presents ended. She lost her second job.

For a while, family members put her up. Some, including Chace's father, still help financially when they can. But then there was another hard choice to make. Family-hopping wasn't good for her or Chace, who wasn't used to the unpredictability of poverty.

"He was used to his own space, sleeping in his own crib," she said. "He needed some stability." Even if it meant a homeless shelter.

On most days, Elliott said, she tries to be optimistic. "I have to be. I'm someone's mother." But she's also in shock, stunned by the position she's suddenly in.

She worried about going into a Philadelphia shelter, picturing a large room with hundreds of people. She was relieved to find the North Philly shelter clean and safe.

When she told her girlfriends she was going to a shelter, they couldn't believe it. Some cried. In their faces Elliott saw the fear and questions she once had when people told her they were struggling.

"I was never a person who looked down on people who were down, but I didn't really understand when people said they were on welfare or didn't have a job," she said. "I always figured there was a reason, something they didn't do."

A difference between "us" and "them."

Now she knows there is: a missed paycheck, an illness. Bad luck, worse timing.

"I'm learning to be humble. Learning," she stressed. "I'm not there yet."


Email: ubinas@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-5943

On Twitter: @NotesFromHel

On Facebook: Helen.Ubinas

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