Unemployed and forgotten

Saturday July 30, 2011

BRATTLEBORO -- Unemployment isn't supposed to be a career.

Alexandra Jarrin, 50, knows that very well. She also knows she's living by a thread, holding on only with the support of strangers.

She is one of many in the hard-luck group of jobless Americans, "99ers" as many call themselves, because they've spent the maximum 99 weeks of unemployment benefits they can claim.

"I'm literally living on the kindness of strangers," she said, sitting on the edge of her bed, tears welling up in her eyes.

Everything she owns lines the walls of her 50-square-foot room at the Motel 6. Last year she moved to Brattleboro from Tennessee because of Vermont's health insurance policy, she said.

She's sent out resumes and cover letters to any job that's posted, checked Craigslist daily for any job opportunities and still hasn't been able to find employment.

By noon today she will be without a place to call home. She has no money to pay for another night's stay.

It's been nearly a year since multiple news sources, including the New York Times, Huffington Post and CNN had profiled Jarrin as a symbol of those who haven't been able to find work. She still hasn't be able to find a job and no one has offered her one.

Jarrin went from a $70,000 salary as director of client services for a communications company to living on the brink of having her car repossessed. She lost her job in March 2008 after her position was outsourced to the Philippines.

In the last few weeks she's been able to get by with the help of Pam Sexton, 45, who lives in Kansas City.

Sexton has similarly taken on a symbolic role, one that has embodied the spirit of the main character in the Depression-era novel "The Grapes of Wrath," Tom Joad.

The two met through a mutual friend and fellow activist, Mike Thornton, on the social networking website Facebook.

"I became interested in her situation because I had gone through many of the same problems," Sexton said. "She's tried it all and when you're a 50-year-old woman without disability you fall through the cracks."

Sexton has a master's degree and has been what she calls "underemployed" for more than two and a half years after being laid off by Sprint in March 2009.

"Due to age, illness or geography, some people have very few to no options," Sexton said. "If I see a person suffering, struggling, I cannot walk by them anymore. If through no fault of their own, a person cannot pay for rent or food or whatever, I will step in and offer assistance, this kind of generosity needs to grow."

This new America is falling apart before our very eyes, she said. The middle class is eroding and something needs to be done.

Like Tom Joad, the main character in "The Grapes of Wrath," Sexton has embodied his relentless spirit, exemplified in this quote from John Steinbeck's famous novel: "Whenever there's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Whenever there's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there ... I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad an I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry an' they know supper's ready. An' when our folks eat the stuff they raise an' live in the houses they build -- why I'll be there."

Even though she was far overqualified, Sexton worked at JCPenney during Christmas time as seasonal help because she was able to get health insurance after just one month of employment.

"JCPenney saved my butt," she said. "If I didn't get a job I didn't know what I was going to do. I'm already digging into some of my retirement."

But Sexton said she's got it better than a lot of people.

"I've got my house, which is being rented out by someone who can afford it, and I've got a job," she said. "Why shouldn't I help someone else out?"

Since that time she said she's "rescued" about a half dozen jobless people, mostly strangers, in some small, medium or larger extent even though she's struggling herself.

"I used to rescue animals, now I rescue people and animals," Sexton said. "When asked why, I say, ‘It is because I'm a Kansan.' We are nice and help people and besides, it's the right thing to do."

When asked why she was letting strangers into her home, her answer was humbling.

"They're middle-of-the-road people just like me," she said. "They've fallen on hard times and someone has to give them a chance. People need a place to sleep, to take a shower, to not fear where their next meal is coming from. People need hope."

Currently Sexton is living with two roommates.

David, 47, of Massachusetts, who previously had a six-figure income, now chases storms repairing people's roofs and homes.

Sue, 54, of Chicago, like Jarrin, contacted Sexton when she was about to be homeless. Sexton ended up paying for another week stay for her at a Motel 6 and sent $20 so she could buy some food. After that she sent Sue more money so she could drive to Kansas City.

Sexton said she felt like she was running some modern form of the Underground Railroad out of her apartment.

"The three of us -- David, Sue and I -- and my four pets are comfortable and get along," Sexton said. "So it's working out just great. I have too many pets and too many roommates, but I have the resources to help, so that is what I'm doing."

No one realizes the enormity of this crisis until they have to live it, she said.

Jarrin would have moved in with Sexton but because of her medical condition she couldn't afford any kind of treatment in Kansas, she said.

"I've been out there, I've given the rest of the country an opportunity, but Vermont has health care," she said.

Jarrin suffers from hyperparathyroidism, a condition that affects the body's calcium level, and she has been waiting to get surgery to fix the problem for months.

"I can't afford gas money to even make my doctor appointments," she said. "If there was a job elsewhere that included health care from day one I'd take it. There just isn't."

Currently Jarrin isn't on disability, but the arthritis in her knee and back may qualify her soon. She was also diagnosed with the beginning stages of diabetes.

She's not supposed to eat anything canned or boxed, but with only a microwave in her motel room and no money, it's impossible to find quality food.

"For months in Tennessee I couldn't eat nothing but pasta and ketchup," Jarrin said.

Recalling the many years of turmoil brings more tears to her eyes. She can't go to the shelters, they're full and families come first.

"I can't take a bed away from a child," she said.

She found a possible cheaper living situation through Craigslist but her potential roommate may not be able to afford the rent if Jarrin can't gather enough money each month.

Sexton has tried to put together a fundraising effort to at least get her a couple months worth of rent, but funding hasn't come in.

"How can she pay her motel bill for tomorrow, let alone the next three weeks?" Sexton asked in a post on Facebook to other 99er activist groups. "How does she pay a deposit of $465 and the first month's rent of $465? How does she eat? I cannot do this alone. I'm already supporting four others ... I cannot be her lone benefactor."

Jarrin said what time isn't spent looking for a job is filled with despair.

"I've been so blessed for the past year, but I'm on my own, spending my nights crying," she said. "I have no social life, doctors have told me I need to reduce the stress, but how can I when all I can think about is how I'm going to make ends meet? The longer you're unemployed the worse it gets."
Both of her parents died, and she can't ask any of her children because they're all in similar situations. Her only companion is a cat, Princess, who she found abandoned after leaving New York to move to Tennessee.

"I don't know what I'd do if I didn't have the cat to talk to," she said. "If I didn't have her I would have committed suicide back in Tennessee. But I couldn't justify abandoning her again."

Unless someone comes to her aid she'll have to be out of her motel room by noon, back into her car, unless someone comes to repossess that. Then, Jarrin said she doesn't know what she'll do.

Josh Stilts can be reached at jstilts@reformer.com, or 802-254-2311 ext. 273.


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