“The world couldn’t see her as someone who belonged in a shelter.” That’s what New York City journalist Lauren Sandler writes about the woman — who she calls Camila — at the center of her engaging and moving new book.
Camila is a whip-smart, beautiful, put-together homeless single mom.
In “This Is All I Got: A New Mother’s Search for Home,” Sandler chronicles one year of Camila’s life, beginning in the spring of 2015 as she gives birth to her first child and manages, despite impossibly long subway commutes and many obstacles, to keep up her college coursework and maintain a spot on the dean’s list while struggling to find a stable place to live in an increasingly unaffordable city.
Sandler deftly includes context, history and clearheaded explanations of the public welfare system and its dysfunctions in her detailed account of Camila’s life, the story of just one woman among the 14% of all community college students in the U.S. who were homeless that year, and one of the more than 20% who were single mothers.
The “system,” ostensibly there to help Camila, who became a ward of the state at age 15, almost becomes a character in the book, requiring her to spend hours waiting for her number to be called and ultimately letting her slip through the faulty safety net. In the months after she leaves the private Park Slope, Brooklyn, shelter for pregnant women where Sandler first meets her, Camila ends up losing her Medicaid coverage, child-care payments and eligibility for emergency shelter, even though she ably fights to keep on top of the paperwork and endures two-hour commutes, fitting in pumping breast milk for her son, to try to make it all work.
“She simply didn’t have time. Everything was a fight, it seemed, an exercise in Sisyphean futility every hour of every day. Her determination and focus couldn’t make more minutes in the day any more than it could shrink subway tracks or eliminate paperwork,” writes Sandler.
Also churning behind the day-to-day realities of Camila’s life are changing neighborhoods and skyrocketing inequities, creating two dimensions of life in the same city. Sandler describes these details (like the $2,500 price tag on rusting lawn furniture she spots on the sidewalk outside a Brooklyn vintage furniture shop as she and Camila walk by) as effectively as she details the way Camila carefully eats exactly half of each meal, saving the rest for tomorrow.
“The Brooklyn that Camila occupied may have shared the same sidewalks with such a bizarre parallel economy, but she acted as though it was an unseen dimension to her,” Sandler writes.
Sandler describes her own position of relative privilege in the same city, and details how she and her family become very close — but only up to a point — to Camila as the months go on. In one memorable passage, Sandler’s 8-year-old daughter begs her parents to just invite Camila and her son Alonso to live with them.
“It was so clear to her: They had nowhere to go. We had a living room. Her simple moralism wasn’t wrong. I felt it too, constantly. How could I make any other choice and try to teach her rightness, fairness, equality in society, she’d rage at me, searching for a word to encompass what she was trying to express,” Sandler wrote. “I explained what the word ‘hypocrite’ meant. That was the word, she said.”
Throughout the book, Camila makes persistent yet largely futile attempts to connect with her own family, and holds onto many of her goals despite everything. Ultimately, the story of her first year of motherhood is heartbreaking, inspiring and infuriating, all at once.
Erica Pearson is a Star Tribune reporter.
This Is All I Got
By: Lauren Sandler.
Publisher: Random House, 324 pages, $27.