Unemployed and on the Verge of Losing Everything: "I Don't Know How I'll Make It"
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Luz has also tried turning to her credit union, where she's been a member for 24 years, for help. "My credit union's web page announced: ‘Having trouble making loan payments? Call us, we'll come up with a solution to meet your needs.'” She called, and they said they had nothing to help her. She is still in negotiations with them over car payments, hoping they won't take her car. She also tried seeing if there was any stimulus money available for people like her, who were having trouble making their mortgage payments. The bank told her that they couldn't modify the terms of the loan.
Luz runs her hands through her wavy hair. "I grew up poor,” she says. "I know how to live on rice and beans and pasta. When i was a kid, and we had a "cuenta" at the local bodega which we could pay off when the welfare check came, I vowed I would never live in debt. I hated crossing the street to buy a quart of milk on credit. I hated wearing only second hand clothing and not having a winter coat, having our electricity cut off and doing homework in the hallway, and moving to a new apartment in the middle of the night as we still owed money on the old one. I think about this now as I have sunk into debt a hundred times over.”
Perhaps the hardest part is that, on top of all this, Luz's back has started to hurt so much that she has to get injections to cauterize the nerves in her lower back just so that she can be mobile. For the last two months, friends and family stepped in and paid her health insurance premiums. But it looks like this next month she will lose her health insurance, which means she will no longer be able to afford her back treatments and medication. She also recently had two teeth break and a bridge come off. She put the $4,000 for an implant for one of the teeth on her almost maxed out credit card. Because the other tooth already has a root canal she can wait for that implant. "I just have to give up my vanity about having teeth missing when I smile.” Luz says, "I live in fear of losing my insurance and then having any future insurance refuse to cover my "pre-existing conditions.”
For now, Luz is surviving on help from friends, the housecleaning work, and credit cards, which she calls "middle class welfare.” But her credit card payments are spiralling, and while she follows the news about possible credit card reform, so far there is nothing that helps her and the interest rate on her balance has risen to 22 percent because of a few late payments. She has stopped being able to make her payments.
Luz has seen enough other people struggling to have some perspective. She says she spends part of each day reflecting "how lucky I am that my house hasn't been foreclosed on yet, that I have electricity and a little piece of land that belongs to the bank but that, so far, I still get to live on. I still have a car I can drive to job interviews. " In Austin alone, there are waiting lists of over 100 for women and children to get into shelters.
The day before we talked, Luz had started the morning with fifty dollars to last her for the next few weeks until payday. Then her son, in college in Oregon, called with an urgent need for her to wire transfer $30 so he could get his books for school and not to overdraw his account. She gave him $30.00. Then a family knocked on her door and the guy asked if he could mow her lawn for $20. They'd lost their house and were now living in their car. Luz explained that she now had $20 to live on till pay day. The family offered to do it for $10. So Luz split her lunch of fruit and cheese with them and gave them half her last twenty. Now she has ten. "I don't have regrets,” she says. "I don't have enough to live on, I'm not where that family is. That could so easily be me.”