by Carla Occaso
MONTPELIER — Poverty is the wind that knocks the cradle off its fragile bough. Some people find themselves only a payment away from being unable to afford food and shelter. Nevermind clothes, heat, electricity and telephone or the internet, which many of us take for granted. Never mind taking care of young children.
My friend Valerie Coolidge sat down to talk with me at her home on Sibley Avenue. Just a couple of weeks prior I had gone to her house in mid-morning and found a pink shut-off notice stuck to the door. Her electricity had been turned off by Green Mountain Power. She had less than five hours to fix the problem by nightfall. No lights. No stove. And she has four children, with two under the age of 10. At that moment she was physically up at Lyndon State College trying to tie up loose ends with her three-year-old daughter in tow. She is trying as hard as she can to finish the degree she was unable to complete because her life had come unraveled as a younger single mother. I contacted her about her immediate electricity problem and offered to help make calls for her so she could deal with the college and her three-year-old.
The bill had run up higher than she could afford, and she needed to come up with a boatload of money by 5 p.m. to get the electricity turned back on. She didn’t have it. She was overwhelmed. I stepped in to help and so did another friend, and we pooled what we had. The children waited in the darkening house with their teenage brother while Valerie rushed to the bank to make the payment. Meanwhile, I called around to agencies and churches on her behalf and found some that were willing to come through, while others wanted the paperwork that she found so daunting to organize with all the crises closing in on her.
Motherhood comes first. Paperwork, though, is necessary to get ahead. And getting ahead is not so easy. “I feel like, in so many situations, the only reason I am not taken seriously is because I am poor. My children have different fathers. I am stereotyped,” Valerie said.
If you spend time talking to Valerie, you note that she is poised. Stylish. Intelligent. She could also be described as unconventional. Her steady brown eyes peer out of what my grandmother used to call “communist” glasses — those thick black-rimmed kind that lack pretension. She has red hair and a spray of freckles across her aquiline nose. And she is from what everyone may consider to be a “good” family — a direct descendent of Calvin Coolidge’s ancestors — who share her last name, which all of her four children also possess.
So in a modern story that vaguely unfolds like Thomas Hardy’s tale “Tess of the D’Urbervilles,” in which Tess’s ancient aristocratic family lines fade into history and the descendent, Tess Durbyfield, contends with pregnancy, homelessness and social expulsion, so too does Valerie Coolidge. She is not afraid to talk about it.
“It (homelessness) has happened twice. I was living in an old farmhouse in Barnet with housemates. There was a series of events that came together … a series of unfortunate events,” she told me as I sat in a comfortable, cushiony red chair next to her as she perched on the couch. Her youngest children were running around the house wearing costumes and role playing various situations. Intermittently, they would call to her to ask a question or to get them something. She asked them to wait just a minute more or explained how they could get or do it themselves.
On Being Homeless
About 10 years ago, when Valerie’s oldest son was seven and her oldest daughter was three, she lost her home and her car. And then, as a consequence, she lost her job and her kids.
While living with housemates in Barnet, the landlord died, and suddenly everyone was forced to move out. She had no family or friends with a spare room who were willing to take her in. “One of my housemates took my car when I was out of town,” Valerie said, peeling an orange thrust into her hand by her youngest daughter. Keeping her job had depended on having a car. “That was the beginning of the downward spiral. Since I had no vehicle, it was a struggle to get to school and finish school. I had two kids. It pretty quickly devolved into a situation where I was staying in tents. My children were staying with other family members. All of my belongings were in a storage locker . . . many of our belongings got lost in that move. I don’t know exactly how or where. I found myself in a situation where I couldn’t come up with first and last month’s rent,” she recounted. “Trying to come up with a loan for a car was next to impossible. I ended up having to split custody with my children’s fathers, and basically began a long multi-year court battle with their lawyers. That was the beginning of it. I ended up being homeless for eight months. My kids were separated from each other.”
Getting Up Again
To begin pulling herself out of this situation, Valerie applied for subsidized housing. She then asked her father for a loan to get a car, which he gave her — with interest and lawyers involved. He had been, for the most part, out of her life since she was a baby. She got a job doing respite for a woman who had autism and earned some money. “Once I earned a little bit of money, I could prove I could pay an electricity bill, then I could get an apartment. Then I began the court process of fighting to get my kids back,” she said. But then came another battle: Depression. “I was prescribed medication that had adverse effects,” she said. This led to her being fired and then losing her apartment. “I was homeless again. I don’t remember why I ended up without a place to live. I also didn’t have a car then. I was sort of couch surfing,” she said.
However, she got a job at the clothing manufacturer Garnet Hill in Franconia, New Hampshire, and commuted from St. Johnsbury to Franconia. Finally she met a woman who owned a three-story apartment building in Lyndonville. The woman waived the security deposit and allowed Val to move in with her two young children. “It really helped us get on our feet,” she said, adding that at this time she was also pregnant with a third child. She lived in Lyndonville for several years before moving to Montpelier, to Sibley Avenue. Then her fourth child arrived. Now 38, she still struggles to pay the bills, finish school and keep enough fuel in the tank to keep the furnace going — one five-gallon jug at a time.
Along the way there have been organizations she has turned to who helped her, she said. “My Mom has always tried to help, but she couldn’t give me a place to live and she didn’t have any money.”
Poverty and Basic Needs
“I think the message is … the struggle of being poor. Losing one piece of the puzzle takes all of your stability away. Poverty is so precarious. It is constant juggling. Your basic needs are always going to be there with you. If something disappears then everything goes. It is like dominoes,” she said. “When you don’t have friends or relatives who have credit, or who have an extra bedroom you can stay in.” And the kids. “Child support is an endless fight. It is not one I am going to win.”
Valerie is determined to try to finish her college degree in liberal arts from Lyndon State College. Then she wants to study law. “I want to help people who are poor. I want to help people who are stuck in the system. Who don’t have a voice and give them a voice. I want to make the laws accessible to people who can’t afford lawyers. I want to interpret law for people who can’t afford it,” she said. “It encourages me that in Vermont, you can at least read law and if you can pass the bar you could be a lawyer.” But for now, as the bleak days of winter descend around children who grow larger each year needing mittens, coats, boots and Christmas presents, Valerie is determined to meet their needs.