It was the Thursday before Thanksgiving that Susan first found herself on line at Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen. It was raining and colder than she had been used to in Florida. A thirty-two year old single mother of five, Susan never thought she would find herself coming to a soup kitchen for help and as the line inched forward she reflected on how her life had come to this point.
Susan was nineteen when she met her husband and the two fell quickly in love and married. Over the course of ten years, five beautiful, healthy children followed. Six years ago the family moved to Florida, where her husband had found a new, better paying job. Although Susan missed her friends and family in New York, life was good. She was lucky.
Three years later, life changed for Susan in a shocking and devastating way. To mark her youngest son’s second birthday, she planned a party which was to be a surprise to her husband. He’d been working so hard to make ends meet for the family she wanted to show him how much they appreciated it, how much it meant. As friends and neighbors gathered round to wait for him she remembers feeling light hearted, eager to see him. “I knew he’d enjoy seeing everyone,” she said, “and the kids were so excited.’
But as the clock ticked by his designated homecoming time, Susan’s excitement turned to apprehension, apprehension turned to dread. Hours passed. One by one friends and neighbors dispersed. There was no answer from his cell phone. She toyed with calling the police, but was too afraid of what she might hear.
Three hours after her husband was due home Susan managed to contact one of his friends. He was the messenger of devastating news: her husband had met someone else. He was leaving her. He wasn’t coming back. At first Susan couldn’t comprehend the news. “It made no sense, he’d been fine that morning,” she says. “Everything had been fine and now he was gone. And what was worse was hearing it from this friend. My husband wouldn’t talk to me, he refused to communicate with any of us at all.”
Faced with her husband’s sudden departure and the prospect of supporting five children under the age of thirteen alone, Susan fell into a depression. But with no financial support from her husband and rent and bills piling up, she had no choice but to keep going, to put her grief to one side and go out and get a job.
Jobs in Florida weren’t easy to come by but Susan found one, housekeeping at a nursing home an hour and a half away from where she lived. She enjoyed the work, the friendships with her colleagues and the clients but with the long commute, Susan was out of her house and away from her children for over eleven hours every day. “I was exhausted all the time,” she recalls, “I still wasn’t sleeping, even when I got to bed I cried all night over my husband. But I had work, I was lucky, I knew that. That’s what kept me going.”
For over a year, Susan persevered, balancing the needs of her job with that as a mother, with no help and virtually no financial support from her husband. She held down the job through the lows of her own depression, through her commitments at her children’s schools, through their appointments with doctors and dentists, even through family counseling sessions that she had set up to address the anxiety detachment issues she had noticed with her seven year old son. “Of all the children, he seemed to take his Daddy’s leaving the worst,” she remembers. “Even though he liked the friend who would take care of him when I was at work, he’d get so upset every time I had to leave. He was afraid I wasn’t going to come back, like his Daddy. I had to keep telling him that I was always going to be there, that I was never, ever going to leave him.”
Slowly, the counseling helped her son and the rest of the family come to terms with what had happened and deal with the impact of the loss on all of their lives. Despite her grueling work and commuting schedule and the fact that there was never enough in her paycheck to cover all the things the family needed, things seemed to be looking up for her, just a little. Until the day her car broke down on her way to work one morning, never to start again.
Susan’s car had been a lifeline for her and she’d spent precious dollars on it before – fixing it up and making sure it was safe for her and her children. But this time it was finished. The new engine it needed would require hundreds of dollars to fix –hundreds of dollars Susan simply didn’t have. Her friends wanted to help out but no-one had any cash to spare. Her bank refused to meet her to discuss a loan. Without a car and with no available public transport, Susan had no way of getting to work, no way of earning what she needed to support her family.
For a few weeks Susan tried to set up rides to work with coworkers but with different locations and shifts this soon became impossible. Even if she could afford it, there were no public transport options that worked. She had no choice but to give up her job and look for another, closer to home. As the days turned into weeks she experienced for herself what she had seen in the headlines – that no-one was hiring. And because she’d voluntarily resigned from her old job, there was no state aid available for her and her children. As bills piled up around her and the last of her final paycheck ebbed away, Susan knew she had to take action and fast.
Susan swallowed what remaining pride she had and reached to anyone she could who could help her. An old friend in New York responded to her plea. She suggested Susan come back to the city where she might have better luck finding a job. She offered her a place to stay with her children, until they found their own.
Susan jumped at the lifeline. She moved quickly – calling schools to enroll her children in, packing up their meager belongings for the thirty hour bus journey to their new home. For the younger children the overnight bus journey on dark highways was an adventure but at fifteen, Susan’s eldest daughter sensed her mother’s trepidation. “We’re very close,” Susan says, “she can read me, just like I can read her. She knew that we were taking a chance, how afraid I was that we were making a mistake. I was scared that in New York that things might get even worse for us, but I had to do something.”
On arriving in New York, Susan’s worst fears were realized. The area the apartment was in was run down, on the block itself there were higher numbers living homeless than she’d seen before. Shocked to see the building itself was completely unsecured so anyone could come and go, Susan was even more horrified to realize her friend’s own apartment too, was completely without any locks. “My friend had changed a lot since the time I’d known her. I didn’t feel safe from the second I set foot in the building,” Susan recalls. “Anyone from out on the street could come into the building and they did. There were drug deals happening in the hallways.”
That night, Susan didn’t sleep. Lying on the living room floor, listening to the footsteps in the hallway and the sounds of men’s voices who came to visit her friend, she knew she had to get her children out of that environment. The next day she pounded the pavements to find housing, a job. That evening, exhausted and hungry, when she came back to the apartment with her youngest children, a man she’d never seen before burst through the door. He was abusive and threatening to her sexually and she knew he’d taken drugs. As Susan tried to shield her children from what was happening, she managed to fight him away. And she knew then she had to leave immediately, that there was no time to spare.
That was the night before Susan found herself on the soup kitchen line. She’d ended up in a cheap hotel room with her children – all of them together, cramped into a single room without a bathroom. Somehow she found the energy to playact with her children to keep their spirits up, pretending this was another chapter in their big New York adventure. Her eldest played along. She thought the youngest ones believed her but it was harder to explain why after paying for the room for the night she didn’t have enough to buy them food as well. The next morning, someone told Susan about the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen. They told her how they didn’t turn anyone away, how she would get a hot nutritious meal, a warm welcome, how they had trained professionals who would help set her and her children up with housing and benefits.
“I didn’t want to go to a soup kitchen but I had nowhere else to turn,” Susan says. “I’d no idea what to expect. I was afraid I’d meet the kind of people I’d met at my friend’s apartment, that it would feel threatening, but it wasn’t like that at all. Everyone was so friendly, they made me feel so welcome, like I was coming home. Sitting at the table with the other people –some people homeless, some people down on their luck like me – I had this feeling, a feeling I hadn’t had in a long time. I felt at peace. I knew that me and my family were going to make it, no matter what.”
That rainy Thursday was the day Susan’s life changed. She met with Jess, one of our trained social workers who jumped in immediately to help. Jess found Susan and her family safe temporary housing, enrolled them in public assistance and obtained bridge money until it began. Jess helped Susan update her resume, reaching out to our network of contacts in the hospitality industry to seek job opportunities.
Within a week Susan had several job interviews. Within two, she had landed a job.
Susan and her family are currently living in sheltered housing in the Bronx. The apartment has two bedrooms and they have their own kitchen and bathroom. “After the hotel, the kids love the space,” Susan says, smiling, “they love to run around. We have a little stove and my youngest likes to help me make dinner on that.” Things aren’t perfect. It’s a long commute from the apartment to the three different schools her children are attending. Getting them to school on time and herself to her job can be a challenge, but she manages it. And on the days when Susan isn’t working, she manages to find time to volunteer in the soup kitchen where her life started to change.
Like many of our guests, Susan has a strong faith. Throughout all the trouble and tragedy of her life, this is what has kept Susan going. She believes that what she felt that day – as she ate alongside the marginalized, the homeless, the poor of New York City – was God, that Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen was God’s way of working in her life.
“I owe so much to Holy Apostles and the people who keep it going,” she says, “Volunteering here I feel like I’m working to give service, to give something back. Once I’m back on my feet I’m going to start donating. I want to make sure that other people can be helped, the way I was helped.”
This is Susan’s story. Every day, we feed 1,200 people here at this soup kitchen. Every one of those people has a story. We want to help change their story, like we changed Susan’s. Please give what you can and help us to do that.