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Children of Hard Times

New Poor: The Harris Family

By Marian Wright Edelman with Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Julia Cass reporting from Columbus, Ohio

The Harris Boys

Five-year-old Kamari and his three-year-old brother Shamarr in the dining room of the YWCA Family Center in Columbus, Ohio.

Five-year-old Kamari and his three-year-old brother Shamarr clown around in the dining room of the YWCA Family Center in Columbus, Ohio. They and their mother, Stekeshia Harris, slept on cots in the shelter’s library for their first three nights there because there were so many homeless families needing shelter—a 330 percent increase from two years ago.

“We’ve been in overflow for more than a year,” said Ginger Young, the Center’s Director of Housing Programs. She said homelessness is known to trail recession by two years. “The economy tanks. People are laid off. They go through their savings if they have savings. They lose their house—eviction, foreclosure. They sell their stuff. They live with so and so and so until their welcome runs out. Then it’s either the car or us.”

The YWCA Family Center is an emergency shelter, and for months mothers, fathers, and children have appeared at the door in record numbers and at all hours carrying bags of clothing and a few favorite toys. The Center’s policy is not to turn people away, so employees add cots everywhere they can find space. That’s where Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Julia Cass met the Harris family while on assignment for the Children’s Defense Fund.

As in Young’s scenario, Stekeshia Harris’ hard times began with a layoff. She was working at a group home for adults with intellectual disabilities, cooking, cleaning, and bathing the residents and earning $8 an hour when she became pregnant with her second child Shamarr. The group home shocked her by letting her go. “They were afraid I would fall and I couldn’t pick up the clients anymore. I was really upset because I thought I could handle it,” she said. That was more than three years ago.

After Shamarr was born, Stekeshia didn’t get the job back as she’d hoped. The boys’ father helped out for a while but then left. She babysat for other children and made a little money that way. She began receiving food stamps. She signed up with a temporary agency and worked some days here, some days there, nothing steady. “I put in a lot of applications but it’s hard,” she said. Eventually she fell behind in paying rent and faced eviction. Her sister helped her with the rent as long as she could. When she couldn’t afford to keep helping, she allowed Stekeshia and the boys to move in with her and her children but “that didn’t work out. She really didn’t have room,” Stekeshia said. And so the family ended up at the shelter.

Stekeshia’s goal continued to be to find “a job. Any job to get my foot in the door.” She regularly sent out a number of applications. A hospice needed a cook and she thought she would be qualified because she cooked in the group home. She went downtown to put in an application at a former Hyatt hotel with new owners. “Dietary, housekeeping, front desk. Whatever position I could get, I’d be happy with… Just keep trying. That’s my motto. I am so praying I get one of these jobs so I can move on and give some other family a chance to be here.”

A recent front page New York Times article by Jason DeParle reported that as many as one in every four low-income single mothers is jobless and without cash aid—roughly four million women and children with no money, no job. It said many of these families are blocked from receiving help by time limits and other restrictions put into place by the mid-1990s welfare reform: “[M]uch as overlooked critics of the restrictions once warned, a program that built its reputation when times were good offered little help when jobs disappeared.” And as a result, the article goes on to say, “The poor people who were dropped from cash assistance here, mostly single mothers, talk with surprising openness about the desperate, and sometimes illegal, ways they make ends meet. They have sold food stamps, sold blood, skipped meals, shoplifted, doubled up with friends, scavenged trash bins for bottles and cans and returned to relationships with violent partners—all with children in tow.”

But for many families even desperate measures to make ends meet aren’t working. The rising numbers of homeless families like those in the Harrises’ crowded shelter is a sign that for many Americans the safety net has collapsed while in Washington, the House Budget Committee’s latest draconian budget proposes even deeper cuts in the safety net while refusing to ask the rich and powerful to contribute their fair share. Indeed, it would give them more tax breaks at the expense of poor struggling families like the Harrises desperately trying to get back on their feet.

I hope enough citizens will lift their voices and votes against a federal budget which cuts the poor and coddles the rich.

Read more about the new faces of poverty through the “Children of Hard Times” series by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Julia Cass.

About the Author

Julia Cass, Author of "Held Captive"Julia Cass is a journalist with more than 30 years of experience writing for newspapers, magazines and non-profit organizations. She has written extensively about civil rights, poverty and the prison system. As a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer for almost 20 years, she shared the Pulitzer Prize with other staffers for the paper’s coverage of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident. She also received an award for her reporting on the Pennsylvania prison system.

She is the co-author of Black in Selma: The Uncommon Life of J.L. Chestnut Jr, published in 1990 by Farrar Straus and Giroux. It won the America Bar Association Award for best writing about the legal system that year and the Lillian Smith Award for writing about the South.

She has also worked as managing editor of the Sunday magazine of the San Jose Mercury News and as executive editor of the Buenos Aires Herald, an English language daily newspaper in Argentina. In addition, she has trained journalists and journalism students in enterprise reporting in Panama and Botswana. Several years ago, she contributed to writing CDF’s Cradle to Prison Pipeline® report. More recently she wrote Held Captive: Child Poverty in America for CDF.

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