“I had to choose between medicine and food”

Cindy is 43. She lives alone with her dog Vido at Redwood Park Apartments in Eugene. When we spoke in November she had just gotten into Cornerstone Community Housing, which provides quality affordable housing and partners with FFLC to distribute food. She was just beginning to start her life again.

Eight years ago she learned that she had a rare form of kidney disease that was slowly attacking and killing her kidneys. At the time she was working full-time and putting her son through private school on her own. They were stable financially. She felt like she was doing really well.

One day she was suddenly rushed to surgery and taken into dialysis and chemo. In a matter of 24 hours her life changed. She was 35 years old. Her son was 12.

Cindy’s illness is chronic so she gets chemo and dialysis every six months. She had to quit her job to devote 100% of her time and resources to treatment, getting well and staying alive with no income. She was especially concerned about providing for her son, so the two of them moved back in with her parents. She wanted her son to have a stable home, someone to count on for meals and someone to drive him wherever he needed to go. She’s grateful for her parents’ help, but the loss of independence was difficult. She applied for SNAP (formerly food stamps) to ensure her son had access to enough nutritious food and to not overburden her parents.

SNAP is a critical lifeline for many Americans. It is also the country’s and Oregon’s most effective anti-hunger program, helping one in six Oregonians and one in five Lane County residents afford a basic SNAP combats food insecurity, helps alleviate poverty and has long-term positive impacts on health as well as on children’s educational attainment. SNAP benefits are modest, averaging about $1.40 per meal per person.

“In my situation it was a health crisis,” said Cindy. “I thought I was doing everything right. I was working, raising my son, helping people. I couldn’t have done anything to prepare for kidney failure. I had insurance but I still ended up $25,000 in debt. There are things in life that people can’t prepare for.”

“I literally have had to choose between medicine and food,” said Cindy. “I’ve had to choose between being on treatment and being housed for years. It literally is for some of us a life or death decision.”

Before getting sick, Cindy worked for ShelterCare, another FFLC partner. She was familiar with the population experiencing homelessness and the struggles that people in poverty face. Now on the other side she said, “My biggest issue is people treating those of us in poverty as if we did something to deserve it, like we did something to end up here. That’s really frustrating. There is a misconception that people in poverty are lazy or they’re not intelligent or they’re uneducated.”

“There are a lot of dynamics to poverty. People in poverty will skip meals to help their neighbor with a meal or medicine. People in poverty will let go of their pride to make sure their children are fed. People in poverty aren’t the problem. Poverty is the problem. And if we start looking at it from that point of view we’ll effect change.”

Cindy receives $1,052 from disability to live on per month. Rent takes up over 60% of that. She gets a few free groceries from FFLC’s Extra Helping Program at her housing site and she visits the food pantry to access other staples like rice, beans, protein and dairy to fill the gap after her SNAP benefits run out. She documents every dime she spends to manage her limited food budget. SNAP helps, but it still comes up short without a trip to the pantry.

The average SSDI benefit equates to just over $14,000 annually, which is barely above the poverty guideline for a one-person household. And it’s below the guideline for a two-person household. It’s no surprise that persons with disabilities are at higher risk of food insecurity, making SNAP benefits a particularly important intervention for them.

Fast forward to today. She’s gotten her dialysis and chemo appointments under control and regular. She has her own apartment and is living independently for the first time in nearly a decade. Her son is attending the University of Oregon on a full scholarship. And her parents still live nearby so she sees them regularly. Despite all the curve balls that life has thrown her way, Cindy remains positive and hopeful, even while beginning life all over again at 43.

by Kara Smith