READING, Pa. (AP) — Betty Carr had to move herself and her children out of their home after suffering physical abuse from her boyfriend.
Then her 8-month-old son got sick, and Carr had to stay home with him.
So Carr lost her job in food service because her employer believed she took too much time off to care for her son.
That put the 28-year-old and her two children in a Berks Women in Crisis shelter temporarily.
"My back was against the wall to find a place, since they have a 30-day limit," Carr said of the nonprofit agency's emergency shelter.
Fortunately for her, Carr was accepted into a 90-day housing program run by Family Promise of Berks County Inc., a nonprofit that works with three dozen area houses of worship to have the churches take in families.
The families spend a week in one church before moving on to live temporarily in another one.
Though the program bought her time while she searched for an apartment, the experience was an ordeal at times, and she and her children remain in poverty.
With 41.3 percent of its residents living in poverty, Reading has a larger percentage of residents in poverty than any other U.S. city with 65,000 or more people.
Single parenting clearly contributes to the poverty rate, local social workers and single moms said.
In Reading, the poverty rate is 66.3 percent for families with a female head of household, no husband present and children under 18, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Many single mothers in Reading discourage others, especially their own children, from following in their footsteps if they can help it.
Carr has heard all the criticism of single parents that can be easily found on the Internet, in letters to the editor and on radio talk shows.
She said many people have told her: "You shouldn't have had those kids if you couldn't do it."
But she said she was in committed relationships when she had the children.
"I don't think any single mother went into this thinking, 'Hey, I'm going to be a single mother,'" said Wayne Weikel.
He and his wife, Linda, co-coordinate the Family Promise effort at West Lawn United Methodist Church, which is where Carr spent her last week in the Family Promise program.
Carr said her plan was not to be on her own with her children.
She has two of her four children living with her.
A 5-year-old son is living with relatives in Carr's native Vermont, and a 3-year-old daughter is being raised by another family as part of an open adoption.
Carr's goal is to become independent and be a role model for her children.
"But I always hear people say, 'So you're collecting welfare, just sitting around and you're not going to do anything else,'" Carr said. "If you've never experienced it, you don't know how hard it is."
Over the past several months, Carr has been doing every day what many single moms have to do: Get her kids to day care, hit the pavement and the Internet to find a job, look for an apartment and do the rest of her day-to-day activities, which included chores for Family Promise while she was in the program.
"Once the cycle has started, it's really hard to get out of it," said Weikel, who has witnessed many moms go through the program. "Everything that's involved is really hard."
And living on welfare is not a long-term solution, Carr said.
There's a five-year lifetime limit on how long a person can collect welfare, and collecting it involves a lot of paperwork and scrutiny from caseworkers, Carr said.
Though she wishes her situation were different, she does not have regrets.
"That would mean not having my children," she said. "I just see it as a learning experience as not to repeat myself."
She doesn't have a car and scoffs at those who accuse welfare recipients of driving fancy cars and wearing expensive clothes.
"These women," Weikel added, "they're at best just eking by."
Carr now receives $526 per month in food stamps and $403 per month in welfare cash assistance.
"I try not to be on that stuff," she said of the government social programs. "It's very difficult to live on that."
She is looking for work and hopes to be enrolled by the end of 2012 to get a degree in social work from Reading Area Community College.
WHY OFFER HELP?
With criticism of single parents seemingly rampant, where does all the help for them come from in Berks County?
Much of the help is not from the government but from churches and private donations.
"I guess it just goes back to that one passage in the Bible where Jesus said, 'Whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me' and 'Whatever you don't do for the least of these, you didn't do for me,'" Weikel said.
The moms and the children deserve some help, Weikel said.
Of Carr's 6-year-old daughter Kenya, Weikel said: "Such a bright, sweet young girl."
Of her 8-month-old son Castle, he said: "He's a happy little guy and it's obvious she loves them."
The one-bedroom apartment Carr rented March 16 in Reading has a monthly rent of $495.
It took Carr a lot of searching to find it.
Many landlords are wary of single mothers, viewing them as a risk for job loss, children's illnesses and other problems that could affect their ability to pay rent, Carr said.
"I think the main reason for single mothers becoming homeless is people are not willing to give them a chance," Carr said.
Even when they are given a chance, a new report has shown that a decent, safe apartment is out of reach for many low-income earners in Berks County.
Fair-market rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Berks is $814, and it would take an annual household income of $32,560 to afford that, according to a recent study released by the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
To afford such an apartment, 2.2 minimum-wage jobs per household would be needed, the study said.
An income of $20,400, or 30 percent of the median Berks household income of $68,000, would make a rent of $510 affordable, the study said.
Carr's current monthly income, including food stamps, is $929, for an annual income of just over $11,000.
That's why she desperately wants to find a job and get off welfare, as many single women say they want to do but have not been able to because of difficulties finding employment and adequate housing.
"But I know things will get better," Carr said. "I was in a controlling relationship and I had no control of my life or my money. I left that behind and I've learned how to budget now. I don't feel as though I will fall backwards."
Information from: Reading Eagle, http://www.readingeagle.com/Tags: