The real crime is homelessness

April 2, 2014

Shanesha Taylor's story seems like an unimaginable nightmare--but the terrible choices she had to navigate are faced by thousands of women, writes Jen Roesch.

SHANESHA TAYLOR faced an impossible situation.

A homeless single mother living out of her car with two young children, she was offered an interview for an office job that might have been her chance to get back on her feet. Without anyone available to watch her children, she made a desperate decision--to leave them napping in the car, with the doors locked and the windows cracked.

Her gamble failed. Instead of getting a job that day, Shanesha's situation spiraled into a nightmare that will be even harder to climb out of. When she returned to her car, she was arrested. She spent 11 days in jail, and her children were taken from her care and put into child protective services. She faces two felony counts of child abuse.

Shanesha's story--which circulated widely on the Internet, along with a heart-wrenching mug shot showing her with tears streaming down her face--struck a chord with thousands of people. In a country where 80 percent of adults face poverty or near-poverty conditions for at least part of their lives, people can recognize the anguish of a woman trying to do the best for her children in terrible conditions.

Shanesha Taylor
Shanesha Taylor

So far, more than 2,500 people have donated over $70,000 to support Shanesha. Most of these are donations of $5 to $30--a number of them come with notes about having been in the same position and knowing what it means to be a single mother, to be poor, to be homeless.

This empathy stands in stark contrast to the callous politicians who are cutting social programs like food stamps, child care funding and welfare assistance, while moralizing at poor people about the need to take personal responsibility for their situations. After several decades of relentless attacks on the social safety net and years of economic crisis, poverty is at the highest levels in half a century. And women and their children, particularly single-parent families, are the most vulnerable.

Thanks to her story spreading on the Internet and the outpouring of compassion, we now know Shanesha Taylor's story. But the reality is that there are thousands of women like her who face agonizing choices every day in this country.

In the same week that Shanesha was arrested, a mother in New Jersey was sentenced for living with her children in a storage unit she had rented. She also lost custody of her children to the child welfare system. At the end of January, when a single mother made the decision not to leave her special needs child home alone and called in sick to her job at a Whole Foods store in Chicago, she was fired.

WE DON'T know why Shanesha lost her previous job or how she became homeless, but we know the factors that push so many women and children into the same position.

The vast majority of single mothers who live in poverty work. But most of them work at low-wage jobs--in fact, women occupy more than two-thirds of minimum-wage jobs.

The income from these positions barely covers the essentials, let alone allows women to save funds to cover a job loss or other emergency. They are also the most likely to have inflexible schedules, no paid time off, irregular hours and no union protections. A child care or other crisis can easily lead to job loss--and the difference between just skating by and falling off a cliff.

At the same time, women--and especially single mothers--are finding it more and more difficult to make stable child care arrangements. For families living in poverty where the mother works, child care costs absorb almost one-third of the household budget. Subsidies that once eased the difficulties in affording child care fell to their lowest level since 2002 last year. Arizona, where Shanesha lives, cut its child care budget by 40 percent over the last four years.

As a consequence, many women rely on fragile, patchwork child care arrangements that can quickly fall through--like leaving slightly older children home alone with younger children, and hoping disaster doesn't strike.

All it takes is one mistake--or just a stroke of bad luck--for these precarious arrangements to fall apart and for women and their children to find themselves in a situation like Shanesha's. It is estimated that there are 1.6 million homeless children in the United States. Once homeless, it becomes even more difficult to obtain employment, benefits and assistance. The struggle for basic survival can make it nearly impossible to plan beyond the next day.

THESE ARE the conditions Shanesha faced when she decided to risk leaving her children alone in the hopes of getting a job. Given everything we know, it's hard to call this a "choice." Yet rather than being offered support and services, Shanesha has been swept into the criminal injustice and child welfare systems. In this way, her case also highlights the increasing criminalization of poverty--particularly the criminalization of poor, Black women.

Raquel Nelson is one such woman. In 2011, she was crossing a highway with her three children, from a bus stop to her apartment complex. There was no crosswalk or stop light in the isolated area. When her 4 year old was hit by a drunk driver, she was charged with and convicted of vehicular manslaughter--and faced three years in prison. Raquel was later able to win a reduction of the charges to jaywalking, but it doesn't change the fact that the drunk driver who killed her son was released in six months--and she spent more than two years in the court system, all the while grieving for a lost child.

Kim Brathwaite was another single mother facing the choice between job loss and leaving her children alone. When her babysitter didn't show up one night, she left her 9 year old and 1 year old home and left for the night shift at McDonald's, hoping to stay in touch via telephone. Someone set fire to the apartment, and the children died--and Kim was arrested.

These are the most high-profile and tragic cases, but they highlight the way in which poor women are punished when they are forced to make impossible choices, and something goes wrong.

More commonly than going to jail, women face the prospect of losing their children to a child welfare system that defines poverty as neglect. The vast majority of child welfare cases in which children are taken from the home aren't the result of abuse--but because there wasn't enough food in the refrigerator or a child didn't get medical care or the parent couldn't provide a home.

When our society treats poor mothers as criminals or negligent, it punishes both mothers and their children. Shanesha Taylor left her children in a dangerous situation for an hour. But the state's response has increased the dangers these children will face over their entire lifetimes. Children in the child welfare system are more likely to become homeless or incarcerated, or drop out of school. And with an arrest on her record, Shanesha will have a harder time finding the employment that could provide a stable home for her children.

Millions of children are put in danger every day in this country--not by parents who do their best to protect them from the harshest consequences, but from politicians who cut social programs that could put food on the table, provide shelter and make quality child care affordable for working parents.

And when families fall through the cracks, these politicians and the media turn to racist scapegoating to displace the blame onto the victims of their policies.

But Shanesha Taylor's tears tell a different story--one that can be understood by millions of people in this country who are also doing their best to get by, and still find themselves struggling. These are the stories--not fairy tales of hard work and personal responsibility rewarded, but the real attempts to navigate terrible choices--that need to be told.

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