Ruth Rangel shares a modest one-bedroom apartment with her five-year-old son. It’s tight quarters for two, but she has creatively split the bedroom into His: A carefully thought out Spiderman-themed play area and Hers: A simple, no-frills bed, and a dresser. She is grateful to have even that. Prior to the approval of their SSI claims, the rest of the apartment had been unfurnished—for two years. With the SSI income, Ruth was finally able to indulge in some second-hand furniture and a few picture frames for the combined eating and living area. She recalls her son’s shock and excitement the day he came home from school to see a couch and a television, as she expresses her hope to purchase some curtains down the road.
Ruth spent many years battling not only her own drug addiction and mental illness, but the countless other unspeakable dangers facing a homeless prostitute. “There are times that you try and lose hope … Sometimes you tell yourself that you are better off on the streets, and it is not so.” She can see that more clearly now, with five years of sobriety behind her, but her many physical and emotional scars serve as a daily reminder of her past life. Paranoia, PTSD, anxiety, hypertension—and sadness over the lost relationship with her first child.
Ruth lost custody of her first child to the girl’s father years ago, and was ordered to pay child support well beyond her means. In fact, it was the garnishing of her paycheck that first caused her to fall behind on her rent, lose her apartment, and experience her first brush with homelessness. She spent the better part of the next 14 years being dragged into court for her mounting child support debt, and trading life on the streets of Paterson and Passaic for a jail cell.
Ruth has her share of regrets, but hers is a story in which many people and systems also failed her along the way. She recalls the times she did ask the court for help with her addiction and got jail time instead.
“No one wanted to listen to me. The judge didn’t want to listen to me. … They knew that I was a prostitute and they still were telling me to come up with the money no matter how I had to get it.”
Had she been able to afford a lawyer, Ruth's child support payments might have been reduced, her debt might not have become such an insurmountable barrier, and she might not have had to give up the right to drive. As it stands now, she is not permitted to have a New Jersey driver’s license until her child support debt is completely paid off—and at $50,000 there is little chance of that ever happening. Not only does Ruth's inability to drive limit her ability to ever return to work (if she did, her pay would be garnished so severely anyway that she would again be at risk of homelessness), but it prevents her from ever living in a town without adequate public transportation. Luckly, Passaic does boast an impressive busing system. She can get to most places by bus or by walking less than a mile. The challenge isn't so much the distance of the walk as the neighborhoods she must sometimes walk through. According to 2013 U.S. Census data, the city of Passaic has the not-so-honorable distinction of being #7 in a list of New Jersey municipalities with the highest percentage (61.4%) of residents living under 200% of the Federal Poverty Level and suffers the various social consequences common to areas of concentrated poverty. What that means for Ruth is that, at times, she has no choice but to walk through unsafe neighborhoods that she would rather avoid, especially given the habits and traumatic memories she has tried to leave behind.
Still, Ruth makes the best of things. She relies heavily on her bi-weekly therapy sessions to help her stay focused on the needs of her son, who has been diagnosed with developmental delays. Now that he is receiving SSI, she feels better-equipped to advocate for him, and more confident that he will get the supportive services that he needs. They continue to receive food stamps, and have applied for subsidized housing, but were told that will probably take 10 to 12 years.
Things are actually better than they have ever been for Ruth and her son, and the future is hopeful, as long as the most important piece of the puzzle—stable housing—is not pulled out from under them. The previous owners foreclosed on the house, and it was sheer luck that the new owners allowed her to stay on as a tenant. The possibility of losing their apartment is daunting. Affordable one-bedroom apartments are nearly impossible to find, but Ruth tries not to dwell on that. With many challenges behind them, she knows there will be plenty more to come. She has learned the hard way that the only way to face them is one day at a time.