Carol Unger is in a quiet room at N Street Village, a shelter for homeless women, as she talks about her experiences. She's been living there for about a year, ever since she was released from jail.
As one of the thousands of D.C. residents living in poverty, Unger's budget has only two items these days: bus fare, which she gets free from the city, and cigarettes, which her boyfriend buys her, she says. [She also has a Blackberry, which she had used to arrange this interview. She says her boyfriend pays for that too.]
One out of every five District residents is living in poverty, according to recent data out of the U.S. Census Bureau. Unger is slowly getting her life back together after a downward spiral including drugs and homelessness, and she's become quite accustomed to making do with little in the leanest of times.
She rummages through her purse and starts laying out the items in her wallet. "I have my little change, I have my pharmacy, my CVS card, my food stamp," she say.
There are a few nickels and quarters, but other than that, no cash. "I don't carry a lot of cash. I don't need a lot of cash," she says. Her wallet is full of plastic cards, none of them credit or debit cards. For now, that’s how she wants to keep it. They’re part of what got her in trouble to begin with.
Illness leads to reliance on credit
Two decades ago, things were going well for her. Unger had two kids, a husband, and steady work as a secretary for the Navy. Then her husband got sick.
"We went from two paychecks to one paycheck overnight. So that's when I got behind on the credit cards," she says. 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 was a 'you' thing," she says. "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 jumped from job to job, and she was using drugs -- marijuana and crack -- nearly every day. She sent her kids to live with her parents and left her husband. She 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," she says. "The more I got involved with the drugs, I got more bolder. And I was willing to go in there and do it myself.
Finding 'success,' albeit illegally
The first year, she didn’t get caught at all. In no time, she became known around the city.
"I was doing it for so long, I would get orders from the drug dealers," she says. They'd tell her they needed something, or that their kids needed clothes. "I’d get it, then come and find them," she continues. "I’d do half cash, half drugs, all drugs … depending on what my needs were at the time."
The only thing that mattered, Unger says, was the rush she got from stealing. Until she got caught, that is. Which brings us back to her arrival at the N Street women’s shelter. Just this month, she started to receive paychecks from her new job. Even though it’s minimum wage, she says it feels good, after so long, to put some hard earned, legal dollars in her pocket.
Learning to prioritize the 'needs' and 'wants'
"With a smaller paycheck you start knocking things off the list of wants," she says. "Do I really want this? Do I really need this? The less I make the more I hold on to 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 would say, 'oh that's not a lot,' but when you're just starting out, that's a lot," says Unger.
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.
"When I leave this earth, i don't want no body to say 'she was no good,'" she says
[Music: "Fix You (Made Famous by Coldplay)" by Omnibus Media Karaoke Tracks from Coldplay Hits]