Crossing Human Borders

(Caption for photo: Much of the inadequate housing in Raleigh, such as this one, is deemed substandard due to problems arising from a lack of enforcement of regulations towards landlords who accept section 8 housing vouchers and other federal subsidies).

Below is a story on the importance of crossing human borders told through the heart and the eyes of my dear friend Emma, a social worker here in Raleigh.

I’m standing in a line of people on an unusually warm Wednesday morning.  The last of the straggling dark leaves reluctantly drop to the street at my feet to join the rest.  November in Raleigh.  The woman I’m standing with is quite different from me in almost every obvious way I can think of: age, race, social background, parental status.  We must look like quite an interesting pair together, and we are.   But there we stand at the emergency rental assistance line at the local ministry’s eviction prevention office along with the 20 or so others hoping and praying they don’t lose their homes when November fades to December tomorrow.  Malika’s section 8 vouchers and disability check didn’t cut it this month, so she had nowhere to turn to to keep a roof over her children’s heads but here…the end of the road.

“Every eviction makes it that much harder to survive,” I’ve heard her say in the past…she can’t afford to put her family through it again.  We live in a country which, unlike many other industrialized democracies, does not have a universal housing voucher program to ensure stable housing for extremely low income families, and we live in a state where a significant minority of those extremely low income families receive voucher assistance before facing evictions.  So there we stand, black and white, blind and seeing, mother and sister.  In defiance.

Our conversation trails off and I fall into trains of thought surrounding Malika’s boys, children I know well.  That fall had been a tumultuous and painfully divided time in North Carolina, a state that saw the Greensboro sit-ins, freedom riders, and remarkably reluctant desegregation in schools.  A state caught in the American intersection and stinging with history.  In the space of several weeks, Keith Scott had been shot dead by police officers 150 miles west of us, Frank Clark had been shot dead by police officers 25 miles north of us, and Malika’s 6 year old boy had been shot in the face with a bb gun by another neighborhood boy.  On the day Malika’s youngest son was in a hospital bed getting a tiny bullet taken out of his face and racking up an emergency room bill that exceeded Malika’s income for the past 3 months, national news outlets were broadcasting cell phone footage of a white teacher in Baltimore who flew into a rage at her class of entirely black teenagers and spit out her determination that they were “punk ass niggers who are gonna get shot.”

My consciousness snaps back into the present moment as the line ahead of us starts moving.  I squeeze Malika’s hand in mine and direct her forward, a gesture of solidarity but also utility…Malika can’t see the line ahead of us moving, as she has been blind for the past 22 years.  When I was learning a song to memorize the alphabet and how to hold a pencil to write, Malika was going blind forever.  I think of all the things that have happened to me in 22 years and all the things that have happened to her.  I think of all the things that will happen.

Malika sits down on the sidewalk and clamps her hands to her head, a sign that one of the headaches she gets from enduring the light of the sun has started.  I leave her and go knock on the glass door to ask if we can be permitted to wait inside.  We’re shuffled past the other 20 hopefuls into an office room with metal folding chairs.  I buy Malika a soda as caffeine usually helps her headaches.  She talks to me about all the normal things of a mother’s life that are so familiar to her and so unfamiliar to me…about how her middle child had just asked her if Santa Clause was actually real…about how she couldn’t get her oldest child to eat vegetables…in general about how life was small and commonplace and involved tiny boring details like everyone else’s does.  But in that moment of sitting there in those metal chairs waiting for hope that may or may not come, life didn’t feel small for me or Malika.  It felt big, and significant, and complex.  It felt connected.  She sipped on her soda, closed her eyes, and kept waiting.

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