By HALEY YAMADA, AUDE SOICHET and MATT MCGARRY, ABC News
(NEW YORK) – Liceny Espaillat has worked her whole life to reach the middle class and as an immigration lawyer she always thought she was out of the reach of poverty.
But in an unexpected turn when the coronavirus spread to the United States last year, Espaillat found itself in the middle of a divorce and suddenly out of work after the courts closed.
“I almost went up the ladder – I’m getting there, I’m almost there – and suddenly it happens, and that’s it, no more money,” Espaillat said five months later to “Nightline” who lost her job. “I had to file for bankruptcy because I had no other choice.”
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Since then, Espaillat has had a harrowing journey through the COVID-19 relief system. She struggled to stay afloat when the first round of the federal surcharge of $ 600 a week in unemployment benefits dried up in July and her unemployment benefits were canceled altogether due to a systemic flaw.
“If this is my life and I’m a lawyer – I have an education, you know, I’m smart, I know where to look for resources – and I fight, what about the other people who didn’t have the luxury to go to college? “Said Espaillat. “Those who didn’t have good parents or who had mental health problems, drug problems and homeless people – where are they going?”
The story of Espaillat is all too familiar to the more than 22 million people in the United States who have lost their jobs due to COVID-19. Many of them, like Espaillat, were middle earners.
“I don’t know if I’ll get any money before I’m evicted,” Espaillat told Nightline in September. “Will I find a job in time before everything else becomes a mess? It was emotionally devastating and physically overwhelming from being stressed out. “
President Joe Biden unveiled a $ 1.9 trillion plan earlier this month that includes a one-time stimulus check of $ 1,400 for eligible beneficiaries as well as rewards for families with children. If approved by Congress, the COVID-19 aid would be the third round of stimulus payments distributed across the country since the pandemic began.
Espaillat lives in a two-bedroom apartment in New Jersey with her 4-year-old son, Ethan. She said she juggled school, parenting, and a few hours of independent legal work from her bedroom while looking for a full-time job.
Meanwhile, the food that was once so plentiful in her refrigerator has become scarce.
“Most of the stuff in my fridge was given to us by either my mom or my best friend. … I was approved [for SNAP]but I have to wait for the card and it can take weeks, ”she said in September. “That’s why I want to go to the pantry today.”
Today, four months later, Espaillat is still waiting for her SNAP card, which will give her access to the federal nutritional assistance program formerly known as food stamps. Meanwhile, Espaillat received help from St. James Social Services in downtown Newark, New Jersey.
The private charity relies on donations and grants to help those in need by providing everything from a pantry and hot meals to free clothing and rental assistance. With just 11 employees, the charity is trying to meet the growing need in the community.
“I’ve never been to a pantry to get food just to donate,” she said.
According to an October 2020 study by Feeding America, the country’s largest food aid organization, forty percent of people who currently turn to food banks have never relied on them. The nonprofit estimated that with rising unemployment and poverty last year, more than 50 million Americans were at risk of food insecurity.
“You look at people in line and it’s like color, career, class – none of that matters. I’m hungry. My child is hungry. It doesn’t matter, ”Espaillat said in the pantry. “It’s really humbling to know that it could be me, and today I am, and it wasn’t yesterday and hopefully not again tomorrow. But today I am. “
“[In] We cared for over 30,000 people in the first three months of the pandemic, ”said Vesta Godwin Clark, who heads St. James Social Services. “Our numbers have quadrupled since the pandemic.”
Clark said when the pandemic brought to a standstill in March last year, her employees weren’t paid.
“We got behind two payrolls because we didn’t have funding, and I think that’s why I love them so much, because they know it’s going to work out somehow. But in the meantime, they understand why we do what we do, and it’s not about the money. I always tell [our staff] that the people we serve are in a far worse position than we are. Much worse.”
For Kendall Clark, a St. James employee, it is a way to help others repay their personal debts.
“I was a mess. I had drugs, I was homeless, I came here and they helped me … It was 1992 and I’ve been here ever since, “he said.
Prior to the pandemic, St. James mostly cared for older and low-income families. The charity said it had seen a marked shift from caring for the majority of working poor and homeless families to helping unemployed middle and upper class families.
“They had some that got unemployment, they got stimulus checks, but without the stimulus checks they can’t outlast unemployment,” said Vesta Godwin Clark. “Those who are here know that they really have a need and no one is turned away.”
Kevin Woodley, who had worked in finance for 30 years, is one of those pantry newcomers. He comes to St. James every four weeks to gather enough food to keep his family of four going.
“I work on Wall Street so you can imagine that when businesses shut down, all of our earnings have fallen,” said Woodley. “I’ve never needed any help. But I need it now and this pantry has been a blessing to me and my family. “
Similarly, Espaillat said that St. James helped her get out of a deep financial hole.
“St. James was able to help me with my return rent and now I’m completely at zero – a big change after six months of rent behind me, ”she said.
After a devastating year of financial and emotional difficulties, Espaillat shared some good news: She recently started a full-time job for people at risk of eviction, a focus that she knows from personal experience.
“All of this has taught me that I have to have confidence, I have to keep working and ask for help,” said Espaillat. “Everyone out there who is still having problems hopes that they take comfort in my story and know that things will get better.”
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