Living On The Edge: 15 Days From Homeless

Portrait of Sylvia Martinez i i

Sylvia Martinez has been unemployed for more than six months. And, by the end of April, she might not have a place to live. Jessica Goldstein, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jessica Goldstein, NPR
Portrait of Sylvia Martinez

Sylvia Martinez has been unemployed for more than six months. And, by the end of April, she might not have a place to live.

Jessica Goldstein, NPR

The Original Story

Listen to NPR's first story about Sylvia Martinez.

Sylvia Martinez in her apartment i i

Martinez, who is recovering from foot surgery, stands in her water-damaged apartment. Jessica Goldstein, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jessica Goldstein, NPR
Sylvia Martinez in her apartment

Martinez, who is recovering from foot surgery, stands in her water-damaged apartment.

Jessica Goldstein, NPR

Last Friday morning at 11:15, Sylvia Martinez found herself bowed over the wheel of her 2003 Saturn Vue, fervently praying to God in the middle of a suburban Virginia parking lot.

The subject of her prayers was a job. Martinez, 38, had just finished a second interview at a small company, and because it was the first real opportunity of employment after six months of applying for 20-plus jobs a week, Martinez felt compelled to pull every string she could think of. That's why she also called a series of friends asking for their prayers; she wanted everyone she knew to put in a good word.

Martinez was absolutely desperate. The months of unemployment after being laid-off from her job as a human resources manager had left her in the blackest depression of her life. It became so bad that two months earlier she had attempted suicide, swallowing four muscle relaxants, six painkillers and three Tylenol PMs.

But now, she finally had a reason for optimism. The hiring manager seemed to like her, and Martinez says that during the interview the company bookkeeper pulled her aside and told her she was the only person they asked in for a second look. This made Martinez feel fantastic.

"I felt confident all weekend long. I kept saying, ' When I go to work on Tuesday... when I go to work on Tuesday,'" she recalls.

Tuesday

But work was not the thing that happened on Tuesday. By then, it was clear that the woman who had interviewed her was not going to call with good news. The thing that happened on Tuesday was fire.

Martinez was on the couch with two of her children when the alarm went off, a blaring scream of sound from the hallway outside her apartment. She and her kids raced outside.

The fire was actually two floors up. It was small and didn't do much damage, but in Martinez's apartment, it set off a broken sprinkler which left her home covered in water. Martinez had moved into the apartment with her two daughters, son and 4-year-old grandson after losing her job. They were all trying to pool resources. But the tension that comes from having to make do on very little eventually drove her younger daughter to move away. She went to live with relatives and took Martinez's beloved grandson with her.

That was a blow, and now Martinez's couch was drying in the kitchen next to the refrigerator, and most of the living room ceiling was lying on the floor.

Still, Martinez knew she didn't have much time to mourn. After all, Wednesday was coming — the day of her last unemployment check. She knew she had to work fast. By 3 a.m. Wednesday, five hours after she checked into a room at the Comfort Inn that the property managers had said they would pay for, Martinez was down in the hotel business center applying for jobs.

Wednesday

By 8 in the morning, she had applied for two jobs and forwarded her resume to a friend so that she could apply to others while Martinez dealt with the fallout from the fire.

It was, after all, a fight against the clock. Martinez honestly believed that unless she could find a new job immediately, she and her family would be homeless. By her estimate, homelessness would begin in 15 to 20 days. Still, she found it difficult to focus on this reality in a productive way. Every time she tried to think about the problem, she says, she was physically overcome.

"I just have an anxiety attack," she says. "My heart starts beating really fast; I just get overwhelmed, like I can literally feel the blood rushing to my brain."

Martinez knew the only hope for her family now was her 20-year-old daughter, who earned $700 every two weeks as a customer service rep at a Fortune 500 company. It wasn't much, but something, maybe enough for a studio where they could all stay.

Here too, though, Martinez was struggling to come to terms. She couldn't bring herself to tell her daughter that she wouldn't have enough money for next month's rent. She says she was simply too ashamed, and she thought her daughter would find it hard to believe.

That actually was part of the problem: Martinez could not believe it herself. Sometimes she found herself marveling at what had happened to her. Six months ago, Martinez was an office manager at a large company making $52,000 a year. Now, she had only the money left in her wallet, a wet couch and the terrible sinking sensation that her options were running out.

Correction April 23, 2009

In some versions of this story, we said Sylvia Martinez's daughter earns $700 a week as a customer service rep at a "Fortune" 500 company. She actually earns $700 every two weeks.

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