This post is a personal reflection from Linda Couch, NLIHC’s Senior Vice President for Public Policy. 

There is a special family in my life that needs a lot of things. They have certain things, for which they are extremely grateful every day: they love each other deeply, they are usually healthy, they are optimistic. But, they are very poor and the strains of their poverty reach into every facet of their lives. If they had a safe, decent and affordable place to live, their lives would really be wonderful because so much else would have a place to, well, fall into place.

Last week, the basement apartment they were renting flooded and the city inspector plastered a bright orange, 6″ x 8″ sticker on their front door: no one can be in there or live there. On Saturday, I got a call from the mom, who is mother to my daughter’s best friend, asking if I had any boxes or plastic trash bags she could have. I went over, read the orange sticker and entered their home. The signs of flooding were obvious; the carpet in their one bedroom still wet. Some nasty vapor smell was coming from the furnace room, just a couple of feet from the bedroom. They were in the throes of moving, poor people style. Family photos, layered with tape from the walls of previous apartments dumped into the three suitcases they have, alongside the baby Tylenol and old perfume. Wet clothes from the flood mostly sorted from the dry clothes and jammed into large black garbage bags.

They are moving to another house owned by the same man. They moved into the attic room over the weekend but won’t know until later this week if they’ll have the $500 for rent. They moved anyway. They had no choice. Their room is in a different school district. The landlord will not give the mother any paperwork, no small slip of paper even, saying they live there and pay rent. Without this paperwork, the mom doesn’t know how she’ll get her older daughter into the new school. Since she’s not sure she can even afford the rent there, my husband and I are going to shuttle the daughter to and from her current school so she doesn’t have to change schools twice this year. What the mom could manage in rent is unclear. Rent money comes mostly from the baby’s father and his willingness to help out ebbs and flows. So, mom, baby and 10 year old live on the teetering edge of crisis.

The mom has no “papers.” She cannot prove she is here legally. She has worked in the past but is not working now. It’s very hard to find an under-the-table job that pays more than $5 or $6 an hour, the amount she has to make in order to pay a babysitter and still have a little left over for her family. She had been getting food assistance but that assistance is now on hold and won’t start again for a month or so. Until then, the baby’s father buys the baby cereal and milk;  the 10 year old eats breakfast and lunch at school and gets headaches on the weekends. The mom lets us help– buy groceries, drive to the laundromat so she doesn’t have to lug her laundry onto the bus– but only so much. No, she says, you do too much and I must tell you no, please let me tell you no. She taught me the word in her native language for embarrassed. She said that is what she has inside her.

I said that this family is optimistic, and they are. So much of their lives is up in the air, is unknown, that being any way but optimistic could just be too much to bear. I dare not voice it to the mom, but I am the pessimistic one. What path do they really have to housing – not to mention safe, decent and affordable housing? What will change so the mom can work, the baby can be looked after? How is it that this straight-A-student 10-year-old will not have to move twice a year until she graduates from high school? How can they get out of a world where they fear speaking up about lack of heat, lack of water, or cockroaches because the crappy landlord holds so much control over them?

There has to be a better America out there somewhere, right?

Stories like this play out in millions of families across America every day. Socially just housing policy can help make the better America these families need. Visit our website to learn what we propose, and share your ideas about what can be done in the comments.