Updated: Aug 30, 2019
Jenny Hudson’s house is a tidy ranch on a cul-de-sac. Wildflowers and hostas edge the walkway, and the car in the driveway has one sticker on its bumper: Meals On Wheels.
“He is just so sweet. Sweet as can be.” Jenny has a way of saying things twice for emphasis, to make sure you got it. Her voice is melodic and kind and so you feel as if you could happily listen to her say everything twice all the time.
She is talking about a man who stays at the homeless shelter where she works. “Every Saturday, he goes to kidney dialysis and because of his condition can’t always eat the food that is served at the shelter, so he goes out to the store and uses his SNAP benefits to get healthier food– but then has no way to cook it.”
“He just needs something more. Just needs something more.”
Jenny moves slowly with her cane across her kitchen, as she puts up a bag of fresh garden vegetables from a friends garden. She’s made a career of working with people experiencing homelessness. But as she advocates for and frets over the needs of the people she serves, she is neglecting to speak to the elephant in the room: Jenny needs an advocate, too.
Two years ago, Jenny became ill. Each time it was something a little different; a new pain, a new feeling of nausea. Uninsured, she did not have a regular doctor but was seeing whoever was available: nurses, PA’s. Finally, she was hospitalized and within hours got a diagnosis. Jenny had cancer.
The cancer was advanced and surgery was imminent. Within days, Jenny had to leave her job and moved back across North Carolina to be closer to family and to a hospital that could treat her condition. Here, she and her two sons live doubled up with her parents, saving her money and buying her the time to go through chemo and heal.
A short and miraculous year and a half later, Jenny is cancer free. She praises God, she praises her family, she praises her doctors who did things like call all the other cancer patients to ask if anyone had leftover medication when Jenny couldn’t afford to fill a prescription. Jenny has found another shelter to work in, where she can do what she is called to do.
“Some days are better than others,” she says, looking down at her legs. Jenny’s body has been left weak and vulnerable from the chemotherapy. “On the days where I just can’t walk well, my work has been very accommodating. I need the hours of course, but no matter how much I need it or want it, some days my body says differently.” She taps her cane with her long purple nails reflectively. “Sometimes it just says differently.”
For North Carolinians like Jenny whose lives have been disrupted by illness or who are battling to keep their hours up at work, meeting the most basic of her family’s needs can seem impossible. “I have to juggle what is more important: paying this bill or that bill or food on the table,” she explains, reflecting a common theme among the people we speak to.
“My SNAP benefits were reduced sharply after I returned to work–we now receive only $15 a month. I wanted to work, I need to work. But it feels like I make a choice between the livelihood of my family and a balanced meal every day. Not working isn’t an actual option but that stereotype seems to always persist. It’s a choice between bad choices.”
Jenny says she uses the $15 in SNAP benefits that her family gets carefully. She details the different stores in the area, and where she can buy large bags of cereal. Her benefits don’t help her get the food that she has been told she should eat by her doctors: vegetables and fresh foods, and “all the expensive stuff.” But for $15, she can buy milk with the cereal.
“My doctors want me on multivitamins, but I can’t afford them right now,” she says.
Jenny is sitting at the dining room table. Behind her are tall bookshelves with family pictures, books and North Carolina pottery. She shows us pictures of her sons–they are growing up, and under their youthful skin features that hint to what they will look like as grown men are appearing. They are both tall, handsome.
“There are a lot of stereotypes about people who need SNAP,” Jenny says, putting away the pictures on her phone. “Drug users or not educated. People that don’t have a job or want to work. But it’s the economy really. It’s people like me. People just like me.”