Amber and Josh
They look like the all-American family. Amber is beautiful, Josh is handsome, both are charming. Baby Hazel is now 14 months old and five-year-old Finn (not pictured) is in kindergarten.
Both parents have jobs. Amber, 32, was an art major in college and works as a professional cake decorator at a large grocery store. Josh, 33, went to welding school, but because of health conditions he works as a cook at an Italian restaurant instead.
Child care is so expensive—$33 to $43 a day for Hazel alone—they juggle their work schedules to take care of their children. Their problem is their low income. Each earns $11-$13 an hour with no benefits such as health care or maternity leave. Still, they earn too much (sometimes $10 too much) to qualify for food stamps or federal child care. They are paying off Josh’s welding school debt of $12,000.
“I am so stressed out financially—I’m sick of it and mad at myself,” Amber said. “I’m a terrible worrier. I worry about saving for the kids’ braces or college, or an emergency. We live paycheck to paycheck. And sometimes, the week before paycheck we’re so broke, the kids wouldn’t have anything to eat if Josh couldn’t bring us left-over food from the restaurant.”
We first met the family last winter, not long after the baby had been born. With no paid maternity leave and Josh between jobs, they were struggling.
They are still struggling. Iron Gate guests can get emergency groceries from our pantry once a month. Recently, Amber sold some of their CDs to get enough gas money to come to our grocery pantry. The financial pressure strains their marriage. They lost their apartment. Their car was repossessed. For several months, they separated. “Finn cried for his daddy every night. I don’t want to be a single mom. I want to hold my family together.”
Amber wants her children to have a stable environment. “I’m trying to be positive, but how are we going to make it?”
When Nancy’s 32-year-old husband Christopher died suddenly on Valentine’s Day, her world fell apart. That was nine years ago and at 47 she still cannot talk about his death without weeping.
“The holidays are the worst,” she said. “Now Christmas is coming.”
Their marriage had been hard for the young Native American couple (Seminole.) Christopher was an alcoholic and abusive husband who had been imprisoned. Once released and relocated in Tulsa he changed, Nancy said.
Then the entire family came down with the flu. The clinic gave Christopher a flu shot, sent the family home and told them to drink lots of fluids. Five days later, Christopher went into a coma and died. “They said it was a diabetic coma,” Nancy said, “but he didn’t have diabetes. He’d never been sick a day in his life.”
Nancy was left a widow with five children under the age of ten. The youngest was a sixth-month-old baby. She worked long hours to support them; one job was a 12-hour shift.
When their car was stolen, transportation became a major concern. The family had to rely on public transportation. “I got up at 5:00 a.m. to catch the earliest bus (6:00 a.m.) to get the kids to school and day care, then caught another bus to work, then a third bus to pick up the kids and a fourth bus to go home.”
Diabetes, and the resulting loss of vision, now prevents her from working. Medical care is a constant concern. So is money. Nancy, four of her children and two granddaughters live together in a house near downtown Tulsa. “I’m on a strict budget,” she said, “$2,200 a month. My rent is $700 a month.” The family has no food stamps.
They often come to Iron Gate—Nancy, daughter Akeeyah, 22, granddaughters Leann, 3, and Natalie, 2. The little girls love Iron Gate, Nancy said, especially the Kids’ Packs of snacks. Sometimes the four catch a city bus, other times, they walk to save money. “It takes us 35 minutes,” Nancy said, “unless the girls are pokey. Then it takes longer.”
She is frantically concerned about Christmas approaching. She has no money for gifts for the family. “Last year I didn’t even put up a tree. It’s just too sad.”
Steve walks 25 miles a day along a regular route “canning.” That means he pushes a grocery cart and collects scrap metal to sell.
He and his grocery cart are a familiar sight in midtown. Some people wave to him, some don’t. He doesn’t care. “They’re going where they’re going and I’m going where I’m going. I’m not much of a talker, unless I know you.”
His routine is the same every day: up about 6:30 a.m. and to Iron Gate when it opens at 8:30 where he has been a regular for ten years or more. From there, he follows a regular route to Borg Compressed Steel, a scrap metal yard, where he is allowed to sell nine pounds of anything. Copper currently sells for $3.50 a pound; aluminum cans are 40 cents a pound. Steve collects mostly aluminum cans.
Along the way, he feeds his feline friends: Whitey, Spot, Little Gray, Big Gray and others. Sometimes he stops by a friend’s house to share a Miller.
Steve, 56, lives on the street and is back at his camp between 5-7 p.m. A full day’s work earns him about $8, or 32 cents a mile.
He hasn’t always canned for a living, but he has worked all of his life. At age 12 he had a lawn service, was a dishwasher by 14, managed a restaurant when he was 15 and began roofing when he was 16. “I’m the best at 16 different skills and trades. I like every job I’ve ever had.”
Childhood wasn’t easy. His parents had five children in 5 ½ years. His mother whipped them with an extension cord and was institutionalized three times. He remembers she cooked three meals a day. “Always biscuits and gravy for breakfast,” he said, “cornbread, beans and potatoes for lunch and dinner, but every Sunday, she made sure we had meat on the table.”
For three years he canned on weekends while working other jobs during the week. Now canning is his full time occupation. Steve always names his grocery cart. The current one is Charlie. “I had a red-handled one named Lucy.”
Is he happy? “I don’t have any reason to be sad.”
Does he have a drinking problem? The usually jovial Steve is incensed. “Why would you ask me that? Do I ask you that?”
Steve’s message to the world: “I love you. God loves you. Love everyone!”