Friday, April 1, 2011

One Family's Crisis

When I started my Etsy shop, I knew I wanted to use it as a vehicle to raise awareness and funding for charitable organizations. I considered a few ways I could do this, but decided upon donating 10% of every sale. I look for organizations that mean something to me, personally, and hopefully that most people won’t have strong objections to. Not that there’s anything wrong with supporting an organization that someone doesn’t like, but I want to draw people in to learning about what I’m supporting, not make them mad.

I’ve selected a new organization to donate to as of today, through the end of 2011. That organization is the Emergency Fund, located in Chicago, IL. The Emergency Fund provides immediate financial assistance to help low income Chicago area individuals and families through a crisis or transition. (from their website).

Why do I care about the Emergency Fund?

A few years ago I found myself in a crisis situation. It was January – a very cold time of year in Chicago – and we noticed that our heat wasn’t working very well. This wasn’t new to us. Our building’s heat was always going in and out so we supplemented with space heaters. At the same time, we received an email from our landlord (we rented an apartment in a 6-unit building) telling us that the building was in foreclosure and that the next month’s rent should be paid to a bank. He gave us a contact for submitting any request for repairs. This wasn’t the most welcome news, but we thought the bank might be more responsive to our complaints about the heat not working properly.

A couple days later, my husband came home in the late afternoon to find our apartment completely flooded.

The low temperatures outside and *NO* heat in the building had frozen the water in our pipes, the pipes had burst and had actually burst THROUGH the wall in our shower, pumping water into our tub, out onto the floor and throughout the whole apartment.

The water was only a few inches high, but the walls, carpet, bookshelves, tables and chairs, bedding and anything left on the floor had soaked up water, all day long. My husband couldn’t get a hold of the landlord, so he had to break into the utility closet in the common area of the building, to turn off the water to the entire building. He had to go upstairs & tell the other tenants that the water was off and what had happened. When he finally got a hold of the landlord, the landlord said that he didn’t intend to do ANYTHING about repairing the building or our belongings. He wouldn’t pay for us to spend the night in a hotel. He told us to call the bank.

I was home from work by this time, but the bank was closed. I called a friend to ask her to look up a cheap hotel close by for us, and she surprised me by booking a night for us and paying for it. What a difference that was – our landlord was minutes away but refused to help. My friend was states away and didn’t even ask, she just took care of us. I will never forget that and will always be grateful.

The kids and I went to the hotel and my husband rented a wetvac from the grocery store. He stayed up all night at our apartment, getting water removed and trying to air the place out. Of course, it was JANUARY IN CHICAGO so you might imagine how miserable that was.

In the morning, I got on the phone and began calling people. I called the bank, and they said that yes, the building was in foreclosure, but they wouldn’t take possession of it until the first of February, so they weren’t going to do anything about repairing the building or our belongings, or the fact that we had no place to stay. We were on our own.

I began calling local agencies, trying to find out who could force our landlord to fix the pipes, get the heat on, clean up our apartment. You see, it was January. In Chicago. My kids were in school. We lived paycheck to paycheck and weren’t prepared to move or pay a deposit on a new place. We thought if our place could just be made “liveable” again, we’d stick it out until the end of the lease and use those months to find a better place to live.

I spent hours on hold – getting transferred – leaving voicemails – and being told there was nothing that could be done. Finally, I spoke to someone who worked for the County and they told me they’d come out to the apartment to take a look. I was really happy about this – with the government involved, the landlord would be forced to fix things, right?

Wrong. The county took a look at the water damage and immediately condemned our entire building because of the certainty of mold damange. Oh, and while my husband had been at the hotel getting some sleep? Our upstairs neighbors came downstairs and turned the water back on. I mean, I can understand that it wasn’t their fault this all happened, and were they really supposed to live without water? But this simply flooded our apartment again. My husband’s night in the freezing air with the shopvac and water everywhere was in vain.

I remember being surprised that everything already smelled so horrible. It had only been a day, and it was freezing!

So now everyone in our building was . . . homeless. We were homeless.

We aren’t wealthy – we’re probably lower middle class in terms of what we earn as a family, our possessions, our education. But I never, ever imagined we’d be homeless.

Well, technically. You see, at that point, we called my husband’s parents and asked if we could stay with them for a while. They live in Chicago, we lived in the suburbs. They have a 2-flat home (it’s like a duplex except upstairs & downstairs instead of side-by-side) and the upstairs was furnished with no tenants. We packed up the few things we could take, got in the car, and drove to the city.

I began calling around to my suburban city council and non-profits in the area. I was hoping to find some sort of temporary housing or vouchers for motels or SOMETHING that would allow us to move back to the suburbs while we looked for a new apartment. Living in the city was fine for me – I work in the city and simply took a different route for commuting. Our kids and my husband were in school in the suburbs, though. Every day they had to get up insanely early (Chicago traffic is no joke) to drive to the suburbs. He’d drop them off at school, go to class or to our apartment and work on packing up things like our plates and clothes and other things that hadn’t been touched by water. Then he’d pick up the kids and drive back.

Guess what – none of the people I called could help. They wanted to, definitely. But they were tapped out. Even agencies that had programs just to help in these situations had already used up their monthly allocation of funds for these purposes, or the state was behind on the payments they were supposed to receive. The only offer I heard was that technically, we were homeless, so the school district was required to provide transportation from wherever we were staying, to the school. There was really no point in doing that because my husband had to make the trip anyway, and we didn’t like the idea of sticking our kids on a vehicle for 2 hours each day with someone we didn’t know.

Well, we were fortunate. We quickly found an apartment to move into with a landlord who knew our situation and didn’t charge us a deposit. The bank – due to the circumstances – let us out of our lease. My co-workers collected money and sent me home one day with a few hundred dollars and all kinds of food. Other friends and family sent us money and gift certificates and many, many, many prayers.

This entire fiasco occurred and ended over only about a week. It was dramatic and overwhelming and humbling. And we got through it, basically unscathed, because we had an AMAZING SUPPORT SYSTEM. We had family and friends and co-workers who stepped in and wouldn’t allow us to crash and burn.

But there are so, so many people who don’t have what we have. They don’t have friends. They don’t have family. They don’t have co-workers because they can’t find a job. They may not have any idea who to ask for help. They may be too overwhelmed with their situation to do the tremendous amount of work it requires to pull themselves out of this situation “on their own” (let’s be real, none of us do it on our own). They may be willing to do it but don’t have time because they work 2-3 jobs and if they take any time off, they’ll lose their job.

It’s these people that the Emergency Fund helps. They step in when someone is facing homelessness, when someone has to choose between groceries or electricity. They handle the red tape and phone calls and they know who can take care of what. The Emergency Fund isn’t just a group that raises money to hand out, they’re a group that connects and partners with agencies so that all the small pieces can fit together.

You know what? The Emergency Fund might have been able to help us. But at the time, I didn’t know about them. I actually learned about the Emergency Fund through a class project, at least a year after our crisis. This is why I’ve chosen the Emergency Fund as my new charity to donate to. My donation is honestly going to be pretty small. But it will be enough to buy some groceries, or pay part of a heating bill. It will pay for a night in a hotel. And my donation isn’t just money – I’m going to TELL PEOPLE, so they can tell others.

During the month of April, I will be participating in Handmade With Purpose, a blog that will be featuring shops and blogs that are raising money for good causes. I hope that my story has meant something to you and I encourage you to follow the Handmade With Purpose blog to read about why others are donating their time, money and skills to others in need.


Lindsay - Paint Me A Picture said...

Your story brings me to tears. It takes a strong person to share their weakness. Thank you for sharing your story and for giving back!

aPearantly sew said...

Thank you so much for sharing your story. How wonderful that your family had such a great support system during a time of such desperate need!
What a wonderful organization to donate to!

Ashley said...

Lindsay - Thank you for setting up the platform and drawing people's interest to good work!

Alison - we were really very fortunate. I'm so glad I stumbled upon the Emergency Fund, they do a lot of good for a lot of people.

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