MS. REBECCA SHEIR
Speaking of bright and shiny, in terms of the economy, the past few years have been anything but. So the woman we'll hear from next is trying to create a brighter, shinier future for herself after teetering on the brink of personal and financial ruin. Carol Unger lives at a homeless shelter in Northwest D.C. and she's picking up the pieces after a downward spiral of drug use and theft.
MS. REBECCA SHEIR
She has no bank account, no savings and no real place to call her own. She recently sat down with Emily Friedman to share how she gets through the day and makes do in the leanest of times.
MS. EMILY FRIEDMAN
I meet Carol Unger in a quiet room at N Street Village, a shelter for homeless women. Unger's been living there for about a year, ever since she was released from jail. She says there are only two things in her budget these days, bus fair, which she gets free from the city, and cigarettes, which her boyfriend buys her. I point out that she also has a Blackberry. I called her on it to arrange the interview. She says her boyfriend pays for that, too.
MS. CAROL UNGER
This is the wallet that I carry with me and I have my little change. I have some pictures of me and my friend and my kids and my grandson...
There are a few nickels and quarters in her wallet, but other than that, no cash.
I don’t carry a lot of cash because I don't need a lot of cash.
Her wallet is full of plastic cards.
My CVS card, my food stamp, library card.
None of them are credit or debit cards and for now, that's how she wants to keep it. They're part of what got her into trouble to begin with. Twenty years ago, things were going really well for her. Unger had two kids, a husband and steady work as an administrative secretary for the Navy. Then her husband got sick.
So we went from two paychecks to one paycheck overnight, so that's when I got behind on the credit cards.
Unger's husband told her that even though she had bought things for the family, it was her job to pay that debt.
It wasn't a We thing, it became a You thing. This is what I was dealing with when I decided to start experimenting with drugs.
And at that point, she stopped paying any bills at all. She was using marijuana and crack nearly every day. She sent her kids to live with her parents. She left her husband and moved in with friends who, in a way, found her the most steady job she'd had in years, shoplifting.
A couple times I would go with them and I was scared to do anything myself because I never did that before. And then, the more I got involved with the drugs I did, I got more bolder and was willing to going and doing it myself.
It wasn't long before Unger had shoplifting down to a science. The first year, she didn't get caught at all.
Now, if I go, say, to Montgomery Mall and it's around lunchtime, then I'll dress like this and it's casual like I'm just coming -- running into the mall, you know, to get a quick bite. I didn't carry, like, bags, per se, I just carry a large pocket book.
She says she was good at what she did and became known around the city.
I was doing it for so long I would get orders from the drug dealers. My kids need school clothes so, you know, I need some jeans, or whatever. And then when I get them, I'll come and find them. If you have cash, have drugs, more drugs, depending on what it was, you know, that's what my need was at the time.
The rush she got from stealing was the only thing that mattered to her, she said, until she got caught, which brings us back to her arrival at N Street Village. She's been here a year, but just this month started a part-time job. It feels good, she says, to put some hard earned, legal dollars in her pocket, even if it's just minimum wage.
You know, with a smaller paycheck, you start knocking things off the list of wants, you know, do I really want this, do I really need this? And, you know, the less I make, the more I hold onto it.
This month, Carol will start working with her case manager to create a detailed financial plan. She still has debts to the IRS, the state of Maryland and a local bank, totaling somewhere between 7,000 and $10,000.
Some people may say, oh, that's no -- that's not a lot. But when you just starting back out again, you know, that's a lot.
Unger says she's not sure exactly how much she owes, but she is sure that in time, she will pay it all back. And after that, she'll start a savings account.
I decided that I want to be a productive person. When I leave this Earth, I don't want nobody to say she was no good.
Not her family and especially not the IRS. I'm Emily Friedman.
Time now for a quick break, but when we get back...
MR. BILL RICE
I have some real good young watermen in my area that have to have on land jobs that are still crabbing because they can't make a living six or seven months out of the year.
The future of Maryland's iconic crabbing industry. And...
You can throw as much money as you want at a problem and if there aren't levels of accountability built into the structure of the service, then it's not going to do any good.
The costs and challenges of paratransit. That and more, coming up on "Metro Connection," here on WAMU 88.5.
Transcripts of WAMU programs are available for personal use. Transcripts are provided "As Is" without warranties of any kind, either express or implied. WAMU does not warrant that the transcript is error-free. For all WAMU programs, the broadcast audio should be considered the authoritative version. Transcripts are owned by WAMU 88.5 FM American University Radio and are protected by laws in both the United States and international law. You may not sell or modify transcripts or reproduce, display, distribute, or otherwise use the transcript, in whole or in part, in any way for any public or commercial purpose without the express written permission of WAMU. All requests for uses beyond personal and noncommercial use should be referred to (202) 885-1200.