It is time for Sunday school at the Pabellon de la Fe Church in Roxbury and teacher, Yolaida Martinez is doing her best to keep thirteen fidgeting young kids focused on Bible study. The fidgeting stops when the children get out of their seats and start working on dance steps for a worship song. Yolaida’s 10-year-old son is in the class. He gets upset when he accidentally breaks a necklace he is wearing, sending red, white and blue beads bursting across the floor.
“It’s okay,” Yolaida consoles him, “It’s all just materialistic”.
Materialistic things have been hard for Yolaida to come by since her life took an unexpected turn in the Spring of 2015, starting with a break-up.
“It was kind of something that was abrupt,” she said. “I [was] forced to pay everything on my own which was very, very hard for me, especially with two kids.”
Yolaida had been living in Dorchester and working as an EMT. She was making about fifteen dollars an hour but, once she was alone, the pay was not enough.
“I was working and I was trying to do my best. Sometimes there weren’t shifts available,” she said. “The bills started piling up and where I lived the home was being foreclosed so I had no other choice, and unfortunately I had to resort to the shelter system.”
Then just months later, the 29-year-old ran into health problems. First, there was her emergency knee operation.
“I ended up having the surgery and unfortunately my recovery period was a little longer than usual. I started feeling a little bit ill and then when I went in, they diagnosed me with rheumatoid arthritis which unfortunately then spread to my lungs,” she said. “I’m having a lot more issues and I’m just trying to adjust to my medication which actually lowers my immune system which would not be good if I’m working as an EMT.”
Stories like Yolaida’s are increasingly common in Boston. The majority of adults in Massachusetts who are living in or near poverty (without disabilities) are working. The state has one of the highest rates of poor working women in the country and with rapidly rising rents and stagnant wages, cities like Boston are too expensive for them to live in, according to Robyn Frost, executive director of the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless.
“When you walk into your dry cleaner, or you go into Dunkin Donuts or you might go into the supermarket, a lot of those people are minimum wage or slightly above, even $15 an hour,” she said. “And today rents are so much higher, child care is expensive, transportation is there. So when you talk about working poor, you really just need to look around you – it’s everywhere.”
Frost says the cost of housing in Boston is out of control, but even neighboring cities and towns that have historically been cheaper, are now too expensive for people like Yolaida.
Yolaida has not been able to return to work as an EMT because of her health problems, but she is one of the lucky ones. She is currently in a state funded shelter program that provides her with a three bedroom apartment and some short term support. Yolaida is also enrolled in a program provided by EMPath that gives her and her children more long term assistance.
She does not want to remain in shelter, but Yolaida insists she does want to stay in Boston. She says her children are thriving in the city’s schools, including her daughter who is studying dance at Boston Arts Academy.
“My daughter she has always said, 'one of these days, you know I'm going to be dancing in the theatre district, mom, you’re going to see me there, I'm going to be dancing there,' ” she said. “What parent wouldn’t want that for their children? What parent would want to diminish a dream or stop an ambition?”
Yolaida has ambitions too. She wants to go back to school and work towards a new career and, although the odds seem stacked against her, she even dreams of one day owning a home in Boston.
“I think I sketch it out almost every single day,” she said. “I can say first floor, second floor, attic and basement, and a nice backyard because I’ll definitely be doing some gardening, me and my son love gardening."
Yolaida is always positive and it is that attitude, along with her faith, that keeps her going during the tough times.
This story was produced in collaboration with our partner, The GroundTruth Project. You can read more about Yolaida Martinez and other working homeless families in Boston at: http://thegroundtruthproject.org/bostons-working-homeless-job-not-enough/