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A broken system

Supporting those struggling to escape poverty can be a blessing for Christians


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A broken system
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Since I started reporting on homelessness three years ago, I’ve been learning a lot about poverty—who it affects, why it happens, and how it keeps someone there for a long, long time. One common thread I’ve seen among people experiencing homelessness is a lack of social support. Without consistent, empowering, dignity-giving help, it’s almost impossible for someone to lift themselves out of poverty, because the entire system works against them.

I witnessed this broken system again through a church friend named Olivia (who gave me permission to write about her). Olivia and I became friends two years ago when we both joined a new church at the same time. She had just moved back to her hometown, Los Angeles, after a stint in Arizona and was working as a regional manager over a restaurant chain. Because she had just moved to LA and had really bad credit after a terrible marriage with her ex-husband, Olivia was staying at Airbnbs, hoping to save enough to eventually rent an apartment in LA. Then one storm hit—and then another, and then a full-blown hurricane and hail and earthquakes, until it seemed like her life was shattering.

It all started with the repossession of her car. I was with Olivia when repo men took away her red Kia. We had just finished eating dinner at a Korean restaurant and were walking into the parking lot when we saw a man fiddling with her car door. “Hey, hey, hey! What’s going on?” Olivia exclaimed.

The man showed her documents from a car repossession company. He was towing her car away because she apparently hadn’t been making her car payments for the last two months. Olivia was flabbergasted. Her ex-husband had verbally agreed that he would make her car payments in lieu of paying child support. But now that her oldest daughter had graduated high school and joined the Navy, her ex-husband had stopped paying without bothering to tell her. So we sat on the sidewalk, watching the man hitch her car onto another car and drive away, while Olivia muttered over and over again, “I don’t understand. I just don’t understand!”

That was the first storm. Olivia bought a dinky used car for $6,000. It was a dud. Within two weeks, the car gave out in the middle of the highway. She exchanged the useless vehicle for an extra week of free lodging at her Airbnb. Her cash reserves were almost dry, but at least she had a job—and then the next storm hit: The company that hired Olivia faced a lawsuit that forced it to shut down its operations. The company laid off Olivia and all her staff. Now she was jobless, carless, and soon-to-be homeless.

A note on Olivia’s history: When she was a baby, her mother left the family because Olivia’s father was abusive. Olivia said he became physically abusive toward her instead. A teacher noticed Olivia kept coming to school with bruises and told authorities. Olivia testified in court against her father and entered the foster care system. She lost a lot of family that day—her relatives blamed her for airing the family’s dirty laundry in public. She had no helping hand in her life except a church she had been attending for a few months.

We reached out to our church, and people poured out love offerings. The church raised enough funds to pay for Olivia’s Airbnb for a month while she applied to as many jobs as possible. One place reached out for an interview but required her to work on Sunday. So she turned it down, telling them she could not miss church on Sundays. Then a start-up company reached out, willing to let her take Sunday mornings off to attend church.

Meanwhile, because of her horrible credit report, nobody was willing to sell her a car. So she rented one for about $1,300 a month (she had to pay extra because she had no credit cards—due to bad credit). Her $50,000-per-year salary was barely a middle-class income in LA. She still couldn’t afford to rent an apartment: Most apartments in LA require tenants to pay at least a security deposit and one month’s rent up front. But continuing to stay at an Airbnb would be unstable and more expensive than a monthly rent. So I helped pay the $3,600 for her to move into a modest apartment.

Things seemed to be looking up: Olivia had a new job, and she was saving to buy a car. Then three months later, her company’s investors suddenly pulled out, and the company shut down their operations overnight. Once again, without warning, she was out of a job. She received no severance.

That was November. Today, Olivia still hasn’t found a new job even though she’s been applying to anything she can find. Most good-paying jobs she applied to require a weeks-long application process. My fiancé and I helped her rent a car for a month to get to interviews, and although she reached the final interview process for several positions, she never got a job. She even dumbed down her resumé and applied for positions at Subway, McDonald’s, Starbucks.

Her savings dwindled to nothing. She advertised for a roommate. One woman responded, but then she too abruptly lost her job and couldn’t pay rent. Olivia canceled her internet service. She couldn’t pay her cell phone bills. She couldn’t sign up for quick gig jobs such as Uber or Postmates because she had no vehicle. She tried to apply for benefits such as unemployment and food stamps, but the government said she had previously made too much money to qualify. Come back in six months, they told her. But she had $0 in her bank account and was subsisting on runny rice porridge and cheap tacos that gave her diarrhea.

One Sunday, she came over for lunch after church and sat at the counter crying: “I’m just so exhausted, Sophia. I feel like I can’t breathe. I just don’t know what to do anymore.”

I share Olivia’s story to show how expensive it is to be poor, and how self-reliance and self-determination only go so far.

I share Olivia’s story to show how expensive it is to be poor, and how self-reliance and self-determination only go so far. No matter how hard Olivia works, all it takes is one crisis for someone who’s already teetering on the edge of poverty to tumble onto the streets. She may be an able-bodied, smart, hard-working individual with an impressive resumé. But she can still be stuck in poverty when the only jobs available are entry-level, minimum-wage positions with companies that won’t hire her because she’s overqualified. Liberals understand this broken system, which is why they advocate for more government assistance, more social programs, more progressive policies.

But there’s something different about Olivia that sets her apart from other people trapped in the cycle of poverty: She’s been free-falling for the last year, but before she smashed rock bottom, she always had a church community that stepped in to catch her when even social welfare programs couldn’t. At some point, she had to give up her pride and not be ashamed to ask for help from her church family (nobody knew she had been behind on her cell phone bills until she lost her phone service).

When I first met Olivia, she told me her favorite Bible verse is Romans 8:28: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” That’s still her life verse, even when she feels like some stranger has punched her in the face and she’s lying flat on her back, wondering what just happened. That faith gives her hope and purpose. It gives her awe and insight as she reads the Scriptures, breathing in the fresh power and sweet grace of God’s Word, divinely tailored to strengthen and encourage her weary soul.

Olivia worries that she’s a burden to the church. But I wish she’ll see what a blessing she is to us, for pushing us to reflect what the Church is called to be as the body of Christ (Hebrews 10:24-25), to witness a faith standing strong while tested, and share the love and grace that we ourselves first received.


Sophia Lee

Sophia is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute and University of Southern California graduate. Sophia resides in Los Angeles, Calif., with her husband.

@SophiaLeeHyun

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