I grew up safe and sound in a middle class bubble. I wouldn’t say I was privileged — my parents worked very hard and sacrificed a lot to give our family what we had. Still, I didn’t have a job until late in high school, and my upbringing didn’t prepare me for the culture shock that would ensue from the working experience.
In high school, I worked for a Michigan State Housing and Development agency that provides rental assistance for low-income families. Families from all over Michigan would send their applications to our office where we processed them and determined how much of the state’s rental subsidy would be sent their way. On paper, the job looked really good. There were no public bathrooms to be mopped or vats of french fries to be cooked; it was just a less than tumultuous desk job. I filed paperwork, sorted the mail and fixed the copy machine in a quiet, air-conditioned building. What made it miserable though, was the constant ringing of phones. This is were I got a harsh dose of the low-income reality.
I talked to homeless men and women, who had to collect change just to make the call on pay phones; single moms, who were only a few years older than me with four or five kids; elderly men and women, who were days away from eviction; and crack and meth addicts. Some callers had lost all hope and would unabashedly sob into the phone while I sat frozen on the other end. Some were angry and didn’t know what else to do but yell. I wasn’t ready for any of this. I was just a teenage girl with absolutely no power, but they thought I could change their living conditions.
Before this job, I thought I cared a lot about the world. I volunteered and wrote letters to local politicians and newspapers. I was living blindly in my own unexposed and sheltered middle-class world. My volunteer experiences never really delved beyond the superficial surface of community service. I worked at blood drives, cleaned up local parks and donated school supplies to underprivileged children, but I never had the chance to interact with the people I was trying to help. Working at this rental assistance agency was the first time I was ever immersed in the cold reality of life, and the reality was that my illusion of a perfect world was shattered.
The only thing I could do was work as efficiently as possible. After a few weeks of retrieving and sorting mail, I was given more responsibilities. When clients wanted to move, I crunched the numbers on their income and welfare and told them what the state would pay for. I argued with landlords, looked for deductions in clients’ paperwork and worked against their monthly rent due date. But the calls kept coming. I couldn’t stop the sobbing desperation. I couldn’t appease the furious rants.
The work was long and monotonous. Worst of all, it was completely devastating — it wasn’t worth my minimum wage check. I dreaded going to work each day. I fantasized about getting fired and kept a mental countdown of how many weeks were left until fall when I could return to school. In the beginning, I tried my hardest each day, but as the summer months passed, my capacity for sympathy dwindled, and I became numb to the tragic stories.
I imagine that’s how life is for the people striving for rental assistance. Shock is followed by a desire to work hard to overcome the situation and eventually, when nothing changes, the numbness sets in. The low-income families go through motions seeking a better life, but the optimism is gone. Similarly, I continued in the same fashion as before, but with no hope of actually making a difference. It was during this time that a simple “thank you” or “God bless you” would catch me off guard as a powerful reminder that many people hadn’t given up yet.
As much as I hated my job, I hated myself more for building a numb, pessimistic wall between myself and the people I was trying to help. Since that job, I have gained so much respect for the altruistic people who join the Peace Corps, volunteer with disaster relief efforts and dive headfirst into the dark gritty world that I know I wouldn’t be able to handle. After that summer ended, I retreated back into routine during the school year, trying to forget my trying summer.
And yet for some reason, when winter break neared, I picked up the phone, called my boss and asked if she needed any help during the holidays. I returned to that office, sat behind the desk, took a deep breath and answered the phone.