If you’re living in poverty, chances are most of the people you know are pretty poor too. This means that, while you still have friends and family and relationships that are valuable and give your life meaning, you don’t necessarily have a strong support network to fall back on in the event things move from bad to worse.

If my house were damaged in a fire — like my neighbor’s home was last week — my family and I may go stay at my mom’s place for a while. It’d be uncomfortable on the air mattress, but we would make it until things got squared away. If Kristen finally reached a breaking point with my vintage-motorcycle-forum addiction and she changed the locks on the door, I know I could go stay with my friend Jonathan or Craig for a few days until things cooled off — not a likely scenario, but it’s nice to have options.

I was reminded through several conversations today just how fortunate I am to have those options. It’s true that many of the guests at our church who lack stable housing also lack stable relationships. They don’t have anyone to call for a place to stay in a bind because they’ve burned out those connections. For those who do have friends and family who want to help and are willing to share of their own limited resources, they often find their hands are bound by the rules of poverty our society uses to prevent social mobility between economic classes.

We hold those without money to a higher standard than those with money.

Today I shared a cup of coffee with Deanna. Deanna has lived in Raleigh for many years, and has been employed for most of them, though the gaps in between jobs are just big enough to guarantee she is often in a state of crisis. If she isn’t low on food for the week, then she probably doesn’t have money to buy gas to get to work the next. Come what may, though, Deanna is never late on her rent. Having a roof over her head and a door that locks are her top priorities. A few months ago, when Deanna’s mother mustered the courage to walk away from an abusive husband who threatened her life as much as he crippled her spirit, Deanna was eager to offer what hospitality she could to her mother as she worked to regain her center. The move from New England to North Carolina had left her penniless, and the separation from her husband had left Deanna’s mother with only the clothes on her back and no connections to speak of, save her daughter. She has a long road ahead of her to make a new start in North Carolina.

Deanna doesn’t have much to share; mainly just the security of a one-bedroom apartment and the small comforts of home, which she gladly opens up to her mother — for two nights. Two nights is all Deanna’s landlord allows guests to stay, no exceptions. The older woman can’t be added to the lease because a portion of Deanna’s rent is paid for with a housing voucher, and the voucher is only for adults and their dependent children. So while Deanna wants to help her mother with this most basic need — shelter — she knows that opening up her home puts her at risk of losing her home.

How disempowering is it to say to someone, “You can’t open your home to another – even your own kin. You aren’t allowed to be generous with what you have, because we don’t think you have enough.” How dehumanizing it must be to be told who you can and can’t welcome into your own home. I’m sure these guidelines make good sense on paper, but they don’t live well.

Being poor in the United States means you have to follow extra rules that don’t apply to people with more money. It means you don’t have a support network to fall back on, and if you try to find solutions to your problems outside of the established system, you are cut off.

They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.

–Matt. 23:4

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