Sandra Kessel spent two decades in welfare programs. Now she has a full-time job and receives no government assistance, but the burden of making rent on low wages is a constant struggle.
Kessel, a 47-year-old single mother of three, works as a researcher at an Ohio recruiting firm. Rent and utilities eat up more than half of her monthly income. There is little left over for groceries and clothing.
After years working the third shift at a gas station for $8 an hour, Kessel is grateful to have an office job.
Kessel rides the bus for an hour each morning from her apartment in Parma Heights, a quiet, working-class suburb of Cleveland, to her job. Her take-home pay is about $1,200 a month.
She pays $600 a month for a two-bedroom apartment for her and her 20-year-old son, and spends about $300 more on utilities.
“Is it the housing and the bills that are killing me, or the salary? To say I am making $12 an hour sounds like heaven. It means the world to me. But it’s the taxes. So many taxes taken out. Where does all that money go?” — Sandra Kessel
Finding affordable places to rent has always been a struggle. She faced eviction from her previous apartment a year ago, but thanks to guidance from the Cleveland Tenants Organization, a non-profit that advocates for affordable rental housing in Greater Cleveland, Kessel was able to come to terms with her landlord through an arbitrator.
Even getting up the courage to argue was difficult. Kessel suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder following years of physical abuse.
“For me to be sitting here now after the beatings I took from my marriage and other relationships, it’s a miracle. I should have died a couple of times.”
She is proud to be standing on her own, but tears up when talking about providing for her youngest son.
“To be sitting at home and your son needs new shoes because he has holes all through them, and he asks, ‘Mom, why can’t we afford those shoes?’ It’s one of the hardest things to answer to your child.”
She has only two pairs of shoes and a closet full of used clothes. “On a $12-an-hour job, I’m still living as if I was on welfare,” she says.
Her hope is that politicians will make housing a priority.
“If things changed on the government side, people in Ohio would follow,” she says. “Even crappy apartments are $600, $700, $800 a month, with nothing included. Where did the apartments go where you at least had heat or electric included?”
Still, she tries to remain positive and recently made an investment in herself: She found a dentist who would accept monthly payments of $20 to correct longtime dental problems including several missing teeth.
She hates to spend the money, but she’s been putting it off for decades. “My boss is proud of me for doing it,” she says. “He wants me to have my smile back.”