"Everybody's trying to survive"

Why we shouldn't have to wait for Christmas miracles.

Happy holidays, readers. If you celebrate Christmas, I hope you’re able either to do so safely with family, or to find a way to enjoy the day without them. (A good shortcut would be popping on ‘The Muppet Christmas Carol’ and eating a lot of cheese.) In a couple weeks I’ll start writing Sick Note full-time, and I’m so excited to share what I’ve been working on. Today, I’ll show you the kind of story I’ll be bringing you in the new year.

Stephanie Williams is a Georgia resident who told me about how she fell into some of the traps this country likes to spring on people. She told me that a couple of her short-term disability checks, which she had been getting after surgery to remove a tumor on her vocal cords, went missing; that meant she missed rent, and was evicted in March. The place she had been living, the Efficiency Lodge in Decatur, GA, was in poor condition in the first place. Later in the year, she got Covid-19, became too sick to work, and was hospitalized. She said she had no paid sick leave during this time. Her experience is a good example of how giving everyone health insurance wouldn’t be enough—she has Medicaid coverage, she told me, but Medicaid doesn’t cover your rent, or food, or car.

This time, the story has a happy ending, thanks to her successful GoFundMe.* (I spoke to Williams in November, but there’s an update from her at the end.) But fundraisers like hers, even when they work out, are too often fixing problems we’ve chosen to create by not providing things like paid sick leave.

This interview has been lightly condensed & edited for clarity. Thanks to Brian Goldstone for his help.

Stephanie Williams: I was a resident at the Efficiency Lodge for about three years, and I was wrongfully evicted during the pandemic. I was paying my rent during this time, I had just gotten out of the hospital, I had major surgery. However, I was paying my rent because I was receiving funds from my employer for my short-term disability. So two of my checks went missing, they said that I never paid my rent—that was because I never received the payments, I never received the checks from them.

Once I got evicted, I had nowhere to go, my children and I, we ended up sleeping in our cars for about three and a half weeks. After that, a friend of mine generously opened up her house, she had two extra bedrooms, so I’m currently still here, renting from the friend who allowed us to stay here.

However, I was evicted wrongfully, because once again, I was very consistent on paying my rent. There were conditions of the property, mold, mildew, roach infestation, rats—the property wasn’t up-kept. We complained, it was basically like a strike against us, they were building up something so that they can have something to try and throw you off of the property with.

Meanwhile, not just myself, several other families suffered from just living out there, but a lot of us, we had nowhere to go, that was home to a lot of us. We didn’t think of it as just a hotel, a hotel is basically, you know, overnight, maybe a week or two. However this was like home, this was like permanent home for us. And for them to come in and evict people at gunpoint, it was just beyond us. It wasn’t just adults, this was children too. And it was just really really… it was heartbreaking, because they’ve thrown so many people out, you know what I’m saying?

I ultimately ended up catching Covid-19, I was hospitalized for that, I was in Grady hospital for about four days. I was having some breathing issues, and I am a previous pulmonary embolism patient, I’ve had blood clots in my lung. And that was just a rollercoaster ride. I had actually just started my new job with Premier Primary Care, which is located in College Park, and I just started that job on the ninth of November, and I tested positive for Covid-19 on the 18th of November. So I had to immediately stop working and go into self-isolation for 15 days, I wasn’t able to work during that time so what happened was, that was my only source of income to take care of myself and my sons. I had just started but they had to turn around and immediately stop because of the virus, and it really really put me in a financial hole.

It’s been a struggle, however, I am trying my best to always remain positive and always remain faithful, because I know that I can overcome this, just like I’ve overcome so many things that have occurred in my life. I just want justice for myself, I want justice for the other families who have suffered because of the decisions of the owners of the property, which is the former governor of Georgia, Roy Barnes and his brother Ray Barnes, the fact that they have not respected the moratorium that’s in place in regards to evictions, because they’re even still evicting people. [Note: Roy Barnes told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in October that he had sold his interest in the chain “many years ago.”] So it’s not just myself that has suffered, I feel, at their hands, it’s been so many other families, I know it was myself and then the next set of people, the 11 other families, it’s just been constant, almost weekly somebody’s been evicted from over there. And it’s already hard, because a lot of people have lost their jobs, even those that have filed unemployment that have been waiting and waiting and waiting, in between everybody’s trying to survive, and you’re putting people out on the streets during this treacherous time. Like, where’s your heart?

Sick Note: You said you started your new job, but then had to stop because you got Covid. I assume that means you didn’t have any paid sick leave, or anything like that.

Stephanie Williams: No, because my job was actually, I got my job through a temp agency, and it was one of the temp-to-full time positions. I had just started that job, and then I ended up feeling sick. Thankfully I will still be able to go back to work for this doctor, so I’m just waiting now to be released. I went to be re-tested yesterday, so I’m currently waiting on my results, I have to do two negative tests before I’m able to return to work. So I’m still, even if I tested negative and my results come back negative today, I have to wait another week, additional week to be re-tested, and then I have to wait up to 48 hours for those results. So it’s basically, still pushing me back from me being able to get to work. 

SN: You must have felt pretty awful.

Stephanie Williams: I did, I did. I honestly have never ever felt that sick in my life. I was terrified, number one because you hear so much in the media, and then I’ve had personal experience because I lost my brother to Covid. My brother passed away in October from Covid. So naturally with me getting it, I was already afraid because I’ve lost someone personally to it. You hear so much in the media, you hear more of the bad in the media than the good. 

My experience, when I initially went to the hospital, I went to the ER, and I was thinking that, ok, I’m gonna get some oxygen or whatever, fluids or anything like that, and then I’ll be going home. However, even though I didn’t have any blood clots in my lungs, because of my history they made a conscious decision to keep me because Covid can cause blood clots. So it was a blessing that I was able to get the treatment that I needed. I’m feeling better but it was just really a scary, scary experience, and I want people to really take this Covid-19 virus very seriously, because it is real. You need to wear your mask, you need to make sure you wash your hands, and please social distance. That is so important, because there are people who have the virus now but don’t have any symptoms. So while they’re thinking they’re fine, they could have this virus and they’re spreading it, so social distancing is very important.

SN: You said that you were going to class, are you going to school?

Stephanie Williams: I’m currently a student with Ultimate Medical Academy, I’m studying to become a clinical medical assistant, and I’m excited because even through my illness, prior to my getting sick I had a 4.0 GPA average, and of course with me getting sick I was very very worried that my grades were gonna drop, however I reached out to my instructors and my adviser and I was granted an extension. I really had to push myself, even though I wasn’t feeling good, when I came out of the hospital I was still wasn’t well, but I was breathing good, so that’s what allowed me to be able to come home, but even though I was still experiencing the other symptoms of the body aches, the fevers, the chills, I still had to push myself because I had set a goal when I went back to school, I was gonna stay in until I graduate, and I was gonna commit myself to making good grades. And I was so proud of myself for maintaining that 4.0 up until I got sick, and then I had to request the extension, but I got everything done by the deadline, and my adviser called me yesterday to let me know that I did make the Dean’s List.

SN: That’s great!

Stephanie Williams: She was just so excited, she was just congratulating me because she didn’t know how I was going to pull it off, because she knew I was sick. I’m just very proud of myself.

Since we spoke in November, Williams says she’s moved into her own place. On Monday, she told me:

“I’m doing great and yes mam I signed a lease to our new place last week on Wednesday. I’m so grateful to everyone who made this possible for my sons and I. We finally have a home just in time for Christmas. Every day that I wake up and look around my apartment, my heart gets so full because of the love that so many have shown. Taking it one day at a time to get it all pulled together, but just to be able to turn our key to our new home means so much to us.”

It’s hard to know what to say about a story like this, even (or perhaps especially) one with a happier ending. It just shouldn’t be this way. It shouldn’t take a fundraiser to fix problems like this that should never have existed in the first place. The role of GoFundMe as a substitute for a functioning society is like those meme videos where someone patches a cracked wall with ramen noodles; it looks normal on the surface, but it’s a horrible mess on the inside, and soon, it’s all going to break.

Happy holidays, and I’ll see you next year.

*A note on Stephanie’s GoFundMe—the fundraiser page incorrectly says she was evicted in September, not March. This is because someone else posted the page on her behalf, and got her story mixed up with the 11 families who were evicted in September.