Last week, my friend The Lost Girl thought she had found a house.
As you may recall, she’d been told that she was second in line for the place if the people ahead of her didn’t want it. Last week, she found out that the people ahead had dropped out of the running. She thought that was a “yes.” She started asking around for totes and boxes to pack up her children’s toys. She called the water department and got a very high number she needed to pay to get the water transferred over. And then she texted the landlord to ask about getting the key, which is when she found out that she didn’t have the house.
“Don’t get ahead of yourself,” said the text back. “He isn’t sure he wants to rent to you.”
She had the worst panic attack so far.
There were very few rentals available in Steubenville, and she’d already looked at most of them. Her lease is getting terminated on the fourteenth and then eviction procedures start. The baby is coming in March. This, we thought, was her last chance. And we didn’t even know why the landlord was getting cold feet.
My social worker friend had mentioned that with new zoning laws, there aren’t many rentals available in Steubenville right now. I mentioned that controversy a long time ago. Certain blocks of the poor neighborhood were getting zoned in such a way that new rentals would be banned, pricing the poor out of them. This was an attempt by the well-to-do to have a safe and pretty neighborhood. And it is pretty: I like going for walks in that part of LaBelle. But I don’t like the reason it’s pretty.
In any case, because of zoning laws, there’s a shortage of rental houses and apartments. People are stampeding for a place to live. In this situation, landlords have all the power in the word. They’re guaranteed to make money even if they’re choosy, so they audition tenants like a beauty pageant. And the Lost Girl’s family was somehow not beautiful enough.
When we found out the reason, I couldn’t help but laugh.
It was so dystopian and silly, you wouldn’t believe it if you read it in a novel. It could only happen in real life.
The Lost Girl used to clean houses for a living. She cleaned nursing homes and a hospital for a living, with a mask on, two years ago when the COVID pandemic was much worse and it was a terrible risk to do so. Right now she works in fast food because it’s closer to her house, but she still cleans every day. She cleans her own apartment. The manager of her current house sent her a meticulous checklist of all the different ways the horrible little rowhouse had to be cleaned or else her lease would be terminated, and she obeys. Just in case of a surprise inspection or a visit from social services, she cleans for an hour after work. She keeps the toys put away. She keeps the dishes out of the sink. The clothes are carefully folded in drawers. She dusts daily. She sweeps the gray linoleum daily. And after sweeping, she always mops. Toward the end of the month when she runs out of cleaning liquid, she mops with plain water, but she never doesn’t mop. You could perform surgery in her house.
But the new landlord didn’t want to rent to her because in his mind she has too many children, and he was concerned that those children might make a mess.
Yes, I’m nearly certain that that’s illegal housing discrimination. But the problem with illegal things, is that they tend to happen anyway. And they happen with much more frequency when you’re poor, and the person you’re depending on is not. If the Lost Girl broke into somebody’s house and stole their television, she would surely go to jail. If, by breaking the law, a landlord steals a house she desperately needs out from under her, the landlord will usually get away with it.
She had another panic attack.
She looked around for a new place. She texted the landlord who didn’t like children again and again, begging for a chance. She even texted and called her current manager several times to beg for mercy once more. She tried offering her the $300 pet deposit for the dog that wasn’t hers in the first place, if it would make the manager give her a few more days. But the manager refused to answer at all.
Meanwhile, she kept looking around for new places to rent.
I didn’t have anything left to provide but moral support. I’m not even sure I was good at that, but I tried to be.
Finally, yesterday, five days before her current lease was terminated, she found a house. The landlord said he’d need her to fill out a form and pay through the nose for deposit and first month’s rent, but it’s hers. Barring another disaster, she is going to be signing the lease today. She has the deposit and is only a couple hundred shy of the first month’s rent; once she pays those, she can have the keys. Once she has the keys, we’ll figure out how to transfer those utilities and move. Please don’t anybody send money meant for her to my tip jar without talking to me first; it will get mixed up. Contact me in the comments or on social media and I’ll figure out a different way to get it to her.
This isn’t a feel good story. Yes, it has a happy ending. But we don’t know what’s going to happen next.
And I promise you that for every Lost Girl looking for a home who finds a happy ending, there are a dozen who don’t. They fall through the cracks and become homeless. These people are here in Steubenville. They are in your community as well. They are every bit as hardworking and worthy as the Lost Girl. She just got lucky.
Besides looking at houses, the Lost Girl went to see her obstetrician yesterday. She’s already high risk and she’s had some complications. Last time she was diagnosed as at risk of premature labor and was ordered to bedrest, but she couldn’t rest. She had to work and run around town finding housing. Now she’s already two centimeters dilated with six weeks to go, and she still can’t rest– she has to move four children across town with no resources. She woke up this morning very ill and vomiting from the stress.
I wonder how this pregnancy would have gone if she’d lived in a better world.
We don’t live in a better world, we live in this one. This one is the world where we get to help one another.
This is the world where we need to fight to change.
So, what are you going to do?
Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross, The Sorrows and Joys of Mary, and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.