JANUARY 13, 2016 — Gripping the steering wheel so tightly my hands hurt, I saw my mama so many years before, looking straight ahead to the road, trying to not let the mountain of tears crush her soft face. Now it was me and my son alone on the highway, 30 years later, trying to drive away from my torn and crumbled heart.
It was in this ride that the story of houseless mama Lakeisha Holloway floated through the corporate media dial. This in-struggle mama drove her car into Jesse Valenzuela, killing him and injuring several more people while her three-year-old was in the backseat.
Media reports claimed that Holloway, who lived in her car with her baby, was reportedly “stressed out” after being chased by security guards from the parking lots where she had been trying to sleep before the crash. The corporate media went to great pains to put the words “stressed” and “out” in quotations, implying a veneer of disgust for this mama in struggle, a consistent theme I have witnessed with reports of poor mothers who commit crimes of desperation like these.
Having a child in poverty anywhere in the world is unspeakably hard. In the global south the conditions might be much worse than in LA, Texas or Las Vegas. But like my mama always said, the experience of not having access to food or a safe place to take care of your child is universal.
From Salinas to Sao Paolo, more and more mothers and fathers are unable to secure safe lives for our families, and this experience causes a dangerous level of stress. Parents are already naturally stressed. Add on the insane stress of poverty and houselessness, as well as many other forms of trauma that many of us poor folks still carry in our hearts and souls after our lives of generational poverty, white supremacy and colonization, and you have a completely unbearable situation. Many of us parents hold on by a thread and raise our children in trauma. Many of us just crack.
In 2005 I wrote about LaShuan Ternice Harris, another 23-year-young mama who “cracked.” In her case she was dealing with houselessness and untreated mental health when she ended up committing the almost unthinkable act of throwing her three babies off Pier 7 in San Francisco. In 2011, I wrote about Rachelle Grimmer, mama of two children from Texas, who shot herself and her children in the Laredo county social services agency, after trying, unsuccessfully to get her meager food stamp allotment.
Food stamps usually run $180 to 340 a month. Try feeding your children on that.
Lekeisha, LaShuan, and Rachelle aren’t “bad” mothers as many people might be quick to say. They were overwhelmed, unhoused, unhelped, extremely depressed, and worst of all, completely alone. In the case of LaShuan and Lekeisha, their depression was untreated because there are no proper mental health services if you are poor, and in all three cases these mamas were isolated with their trauma, depression and impossible situations.
Their stories are like my poor single mama’s story, trying to raise me first through welfare crumbs, then as a working poor mama, then becoming disabled when I was 11 and finally becoming houseless because of what she described as “too many little murders of the soul.” We were without a roof, a network, or a solution.
This kind of aloneness, specific to US capitalism, which normalizes isolation as “independence” with no regard for how hard it is for single parents to raise our children without any support. This pathological isolation, which is supported by a US “bootstraps” ideology of making it on your own, leaves us single parents alone with our pain, our grief and our children.
And if you still think these mothers are “bad,” then I am “bad.” Twice in my life as single parent I have envisioned myself in violent, horrible scenarios because my trauma-filled mind was unable to handle my personal crises as well as the stress of raising a child. In 2005 when my son was just two years old and he and my very sick mama, who I was the sole caregiver for and I were in extreme poverty, again houseless and forced to steal food so my son could eat, my mind wandered into a hole of suicidal thoughts. Then just recently, after struggling with a very serious personal crisis, my mind fell into a horrific scenario of running my car into a pole, only being able to stop myself when I remembered my now 12-year-old son was in the back seat.
In the most recent situation, one of the only things that kept me okay was repeating to myself, it’s going to be okay when I get home. That I even had a home, albeit humble, to get warm in, cook food for my son and myself and most important of all, to hide in, kept us alive.
I can’t explain in mere words the simultaneous beauty, blessing and struggle of being the sole caregiver for a human who has only you to turn to. It is why our multi-nationed, pre-colonized, ancestors from all four corners of Mama Earth knew that the village was not only important but necessary to support the proper raising of a child. Isolated single parents who are often just barely out of childhood themselves, navigating the impossibility of the capitalist hamster wheel with no support system to turn to and the scarcity model of welfare — or “hell-fare” as us poor mamas at POOR Magazine call it, is insanely hard.
Once we complete the 55-page proof-of-income forms and endless applications required for any kind of medical, food stamps, or housing support, and then if we are lucky and we qualify for the tiny scarcity model crumbs we barely receive as poor parents for medical, food or housing support, our lives are criminalized for receiving them.
If we have $5 dollars to our name and don’t claim it, if we are living with anyone and don’t “claim it,” we face immediate disqualification from aid, and if we do it claim it, we are disqualified. If we are “found” out to be houseless in most states, we are at risk of losing custody of our children. And then if we do receive the tiny crumbs of aid we are constantly being threatened with the loss of those crumbs because of one of these “crimes of poverty.”
Finally, we live in a time when most major cities have serious housing shortages due to the over-building of luxury housing by mayors who pander to real estate developers and, most recently, the newest threat on the last form of poor people housing — privatization across the nation of our public housing, selling it off to private corporations and on the stock market so more houses can be available to higher income people and no housing is reserved for us poor folks.
I’m not saying US scarcity models, homelessness, isolation, and lack of services kill families, but they certainly add to the violence of poverty and the extreme stress of life as a poor parent. It is why we poor mamas created MamaHouse — a collective home for low-income single parents and children. It is why we poor mamas launched the welfareQUEENS poetry and activism project which teaches both service providers and educators how to properly advocate for mothers and fathers in desperation, as well as to provide an outlet to other poor parents to heal through poetry and story-telling It is also why we poor folks are working so hard to build and teach on Homefulness a landless people’s land-liberation movement that is built on interdependence, not furthers the lie of capitalist independence which isn’t good for anyone, much-less poor, single parents.
In the mean-time with the extreme rise in poverty and the growing number of houseless families across the nation I am asking all people to hold a little more compassion for all families, in all of our moments, good and bad.