We Can't Stop at Band-Aids

{Today I am grateful for my neighbor and her willingness to let me share her story and shed light on the complexities of poverty and housing. She has been through so much. She is resilient. And she is inspiring me to move beyond Band-Aid Charity to more deeply rooted Justice.  This week's series: #GoodGiving}

{Today I am grateful for my neighbor and her willingness to let me share her story and shed light on the complexities of poverty and housing. She has been through so much. She is resilient. And she is inspiring me to move beyond Band-Aid Charity to more deeply rooted Justice. 

This week's series: #GoodGiving}

I woke up from a nap to four missed calls from my neighbor.

I called back right away, never expecting to hear her voice come through the speaker saying, “I just got evicted.”

My mind raced for solutions to a problem much larger than I am, and then came back to the starting line when she asked, “Do you have any trash bags to put our stuff in?”

***

As I wrapped glass dishes and tucked them away in boxes, details rose to the surface about what had been going on over the last six months.

There was a long list of repairs the landlord claimed he would fix after my neighbor moved in. Six months later, they were still left undone: The toilet didn’t have a cover on the tank. The shower had no water pressure. The kitchen sink’s faucet handle was broken and didn’t have hot water. There was a leak in the bedroom that dripped on her son during the night. There were mice and bed bugs – both of which the landlord blamed on her and shrugged off, saying, “Unless you want to pay $900 for extermination fees, you’re going to have to live with them.”

My neighbor works for a cleaning contract company where it’s not uncommon to have months of a lot of work followed by multiple weeks of no work at all. After that happened this summer, she wasn’t able to pay the rent and got one month behind. Her landlord took her to court for the money, and she received assistance to pay the debt.

She continued to plea with the landlord to fix the problems with her apartment, offering to fix it up herself if the landlord would take the cost out of her monthly bill. He refused, so she refused to pay the rent.

He served her an eviction notice.

And we invited them to stay with us.

***

Clean, affordable housing is a huge piece of the poverty puzzle.

My neighbor estimates she can afford at most $600 per month for rent, and the average rent in Milwaukee for a two-bedroom apartment is $1,000. When I asked my neighbor if she looked into Section 8 housing, she told me that her name was already on the waiting list.

“They told me my grandbabies will be grown by the time it’s my turn,” she said.

For those who don’t have the wealth of choosing which neighborhood they get to live in, finding affordable housing usually means renting something decrepit.

***

My neighbor’s sixteen-year-old son and I walked a few streets away from our house to look at an apartment for rent while his mom was across town looking at a different one.

What he said an hour earlier kept ringing through my head:

“It’s my fault we can’t get an apartment. Mama didn’t put my name on the lease for the last apartment because the landlord said he didn’t want any teenagers living there. I’m not sure what I did wrong. I stay in the house and I don’t bother nobody.”

When we arrived, the landlord asked multiple times who I was. “So, you’re not some sort of government volunteer?” he asked.

“No, we are friends,” I insisted.

The t-shirt I had thoughtlessly grabbed and put on said “GE Volunteer” in loud letters – a label I’d never actually earned. I understood this landlord’s confusion, but it felt like I was the white woman vouching for my black neighbor’s character.

I didn’t like that feeling.

“The place comes ‘as is,’” said the landlord as we walked through the potential apartment. His belly peeked out the bottom of his t-shirt as he lit a cigarette.

In this case, “as is” meant a panel and knob missing from the front door, a bathtub without a shower hook-up, a broken window in the back room, spray paint on the walls, and zero appliances.

“There used to be a beautiful built-in buffet in the dining room, but one of my previous tenants ripped it out when she moved,” said the landlord.

Landlords aren’t always the winners in the housing equation either.

We thanked him for showing us the place, and he thanked us for coming to see it before the Packer’s game started.

***

The following week, I called the potential landlord we had visited about making functional updates.

“It’s not the nicest place, but it’s probably better than the other rat holes you’ve been in,” was how he answered my question.

The manager at a different complex let us into the building for a showing, but he wouldn’t show us the actual apartment that was for rent, only the apartment used as his office.

“They are all built like this one,” he said, dismissing my neighbor's request to see the actual space she would possibly live in.

***

I’ve thought a lot about the conveniences we can offer our neighbor when looking for a new apartment:

Wi-Fi and a laptop. A car to quickly drive us around from Apartment A to B to C in a city where public transportation is either infrequent or unreliable. A stay-at-home mom who can make phone calls and online searches during her kid’s naps.

We looked up available places on Craigslist. Our list of options shrunk quickly as many descriptions read: “No evictions in the past two years.”

It’s a mixed bag each time we learn a landlord doesn’t inquire of the tenant’s rental history, or when he says, “filling out this application is just a technicality,” or when he requires little of the stated deposit.

On the upside, there is a chance my neighbor will qualify to live there.

On the downside, the landlord won’t be held accountable for the apartment’s maintenance. If the tenant complains or withholds the rent money in protest, he can just evict her.

***

My neighbor goes to the entrance of the building she was evicted from every couple of days to get her mail.

Last week, someone had opened one of the envelopes in her mailbox and then resealed it.

Later, she received a text message from her previous landlord. He said he has eyes on his building, and if he finds out that she or her kids have been in there, he’s going to call the police and have them arrested.

***

We have been sharing our home with our neighbors for a couple of weeks now.

On their second day here, my neighbor’s eleven-year-old son looked at me and said, “You know, it’s really nice that you let us stay with you. I know some people who wouldn’t let us do that.”

I told him that’s what neighbors do.

But no matter how nice it is to open our home, I’m having a hard time stomaching the fact that this nice act is really just a Band-Aid.

Band-Aids stop the bleeding on the surface, but they don’t fix the broken bones beneath the flesh wound. They offer short-term relief where long-term solutions are needed. They might be the beginning of cyclical giving, but they are never the end of the actual problem. They won’t change entire systems that are stacked against entire groups of people.

Don’t get me wrong, there are times that our giving requires quick Band-Aids. Like when hurricanes and earthquakes and fires devastate our country. Like when your neighbors need a place to stay right now and God gave you a spare room for such a time as this.

But as Christians, we can’t stop at Band-Aids. We can’t offer charity without justice:

Charity is “liking” a post about justice on social media, while justice is advocating for change in our own neighborhoods.

Charity is handing out free food, while justice is paying people a livable wage so they can buy their own food.

Charity is inviting someone without a home to stay, while justice is addressing a market that continues to exploit those who don’t get to choose clean and affordable.

As someone whose strengths lie in personal relationships more than structural politics, this is scary new territory for me. But as our relationships with our neighbors get personal, there are times we will be moved to action on their behalf that is political.

This week, my neighbor and I learned more about tenant’s rights in the state of Wisconsin. We gathered information and evidence needed so that she could file an official complaint against her previous landlord. Husband and I are doing our best to offer our resources to find a clean, affordable place to live for just one family in our city.

And we are praying for wisdom and strength to take our neighboring beyond Band-Aids to true justice.

Let not our call to act justly and love mercy {Micah 6:8} stop at throwing coins in the panhandler’s cup.

Let not our prayers to the One who “holds all things together” {Colossians 1:17} stop at the surface of deeper-rooted problems.

Let not our love stop at Band-Aids.

And Lord, may Your kingdom come.

 

Grace and Peace,

Kendra

 

{P.S. For a more in depth look at the issue of housing, I highly recommend the book, Evicted, by Matthew Desmond.}