BALTIMORE – Michelle Andrea Church, 41, stacks quarters into neat piles on the living-room table in her two-bedroom apartment in Glen Burnie.
It’s 1 in the afternoon, and after an eight-hour night shift and a three-hour nursing class, she should be sleeping. But it’s laundry day. She needs a lot of quarters to wash a lot of clothes. She’s a single mother of a 15-year-old son and an 8-year-old daughter.
“It’s hard,” Church said. Even though she spends up to 12 hours a day, not including studying, at work and school, she can’t make enough to support her family without government or community help.
She gets to spend only two to three hours during the work week with her children. When they get out of school at 3, she’s sleeping.
If she wants to see them or cook dinner on a weekday, she must sacrifice sleep. She tries to cook three times a week. Last night she made spare ribs. She’s a good cook, like her mother who raised six daughters on her own.
But she’ll keep working and studying and applying for all the assistance she can. “I don’t want to go back,” she said.
Two years ago, Church was addicted to drugs, jobless and then homeless after eviction from a public-housing unit in Annapolis. She and her children landed in a single room at Sarah’s House, a homeless shelter in Fort Meade.
For the first time, Church didn’t have anywhere to live. “I had let myself and my children down,” she said. At 40 years old, she knew she had to change her life.
With the help of a caseworker at the shelter, she stopped using drugs, got a full-time job, earned her high school diploma, enrolled at Sojourner-Douglass College and saved enough money to move into the apartment in Glen Burnie off Tall Pines Court Road.
She plans to graduate as a licensed nurse practitioner by New Year’s, if she can keep the grant covering her $5,000-a-semester tuition.
She must reapply for the grant each semester. If she doesn’t qualify next semester, she’ll take out a student loan. If she can’t get a loan, she can’t finish school. If that happens, she doesn’t know what’s next, she said.
Before attending class in Baltimore for three-and-a-half hours, Church works from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. at Arundel Lodge, an adult psychiatric rehabilitation center in Annapolis. She earns $10 an hour — $1,600 a month before taxes.
A single parent with a school-age child and a teenager needs to make at least $26 an hour — $4,640 a month — to make ends meet living in Anne Arundel County, according to the 2012 Self-Sufficiency Standard. That study, by University of Washington researchers, calculated the cost of basic needs for low-income families by looking at the local price of necessities like housing, food and childcare.
She pays $960 for rent. Church applied for rental assistance through the Anne Arundel County Housing Authority four years ago. She’s been stuck in spot No. 14 on the waiting list for the past year, she said.
She sets aside $300 to $400 to pay for bills: electric, water, cable, car insurance and cell phone. She keeps the lights off during the day to save on the electric bill. She only allows the TV to be on for two hours a day.
She considered selling her car, but relying on public transportation to commute to Annapolis and Baltimore every day would only make her life harder, she said. Her children ride buses to school.
Church applied to every assistance program she could. She is on Medicaid and receives about $300 a month in government food assistance.
She saves on child care costs by having her teenage son watch her daughter after school. She also has a 21-year-old daughter who lives in the same neighborhood and comes over when she can.
At the end of the month, Church has about $50 to $150 a month to spend on gas, taking her kids skating or to the movies on Saturdays and getting her hair styled every now and then. That, she said, helps cut down on stress and depression.
“It’s a struggle, but I make ends meet,” she said.
Church shares a bedroom with her daughter, who sleeps on an air mattress on the floor. They used to share a bed, until Church applied for furniture donations a month ago through social services, which sent her request to a local charity. A man came one day and gave her a bed. They held hands and prayed for her.
Church’s son has his own bed and room because “he’s a boy and he’s at that age,” she said.
Everything else they own are donations, mostly from Sarah’s House. Two TVs, beds, dressers, all of their clothes and shoes, her daughter’s Build-a-Bear and play-make-up set, Church’s two Coach purses.
“It was amazing,” she said.
Framed pictures of Church and her children and her nephews and nieces cover the surfaces around the apartment. When Church talks about her kids she smiles, showing the empty space where one front tooth is missing.
Church’s son wants to be an accountant, she said. “My daughter wants to be everything. She always says, ‘Mom, when I grow up, I’m going to take care of you. I’m going to get a good job.'”