Last Updated on March 12, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1017
Can’t Win for Losing
Arleen is approved for the ninetieth apartment she has applied to. It is expensive, at $525 for one bedroom, but she has no other alternatives. She lied to the landlord’s son, Pana, about receiving $250 in child support to supplement her monthly stipend. Pana warns Arleen to “not get into trouble” because she has a fixed income.
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Jori and Jafaris must switch schools again, but Jori does not care. He went to five schools between seventh and eighth grades alone. He was absent for seventeen consecutive days while they lived in the homeless shelter. Arleen views school as a “higher-order need’” to be taken advantage of after housing is accounted for.
Jafaris does not want to leave the shelter because it is quiet and warm. There are also toys for him to play with. However, their new home is in great shape. Even the hot water works, and Arleen cannot find anything wrong with the apartment.
Arleen suddenly learns that Terrance—nicknamed “T”—was shot and killed by P.A., his cousin. Arleen is devastated and arranges to attend his funeral. She sends Jafaris to his former foster mother’s house and takes Jori with her to visit T’s street memorial.
On the morning of the funeral, Pana intercepts Arleen and Jori as they walk downstairs. He is upset that she called 9-1-1 two nights ago when Jafaris was having an asthma attack, saying that “This is a nuisance building.” He also received a complaint about Trisha knocking on neighbors’ doors in search of marijuana while she was babysitting for Arleen. Pana says that, if things do not improve, she will be evicted.
Arleen is overwhelmed. In addition to T’s death and to being in trouble with Pana, she is having difficulties with her food stamps. She submitted the required change-of-address form, but there is a delay in receiving her benefits. She must also find a way to remove her belongings from storage because she cannot afford to pay Public Storage anymore.
At least Arleen feels loved and welcomed by all of her family—“her people”—at T’s funeral. They are not helpful if she needs a place to sleep or money for utilities, “but they know how to throw a funeral.”
Arleen enrolls her boys in new schools and begins decorating their new home. She moves her belongings from storage and a neighbor gives her a couch. She never felt inclined to take care of the Thirteenth Street apartment because it was in such poor condition. However, Pana’s father takes good care of his property so Arleen takes pride in her apartment.
Two weeks after T’s funeral, Jori kicks one of his teachers. Police follow him back to the apartment, and Pana evicts Arleen. However, he offers to return her rent and security deposit if she leaves by Sunday. She agrees, and he helps her move out.
With nowhere to go, Arleen calls Trisha and blames her for the eviction. Arleen knows that she was evicted because of the police visit, but she has learned that making people feel guilty is an effective way to find help. Trisha agrees to let Arleen and her boys live in her one-bedroom apartment on Thirteenth Street.
Living with Trisha is horrible. She is prostituting herself. Men regularly visit and disappear with her inside her bedroom. She continues “turning tricks” after her new boyfriend, Sunny, moves in. Arleen thinks that Sunny supports Trisha’s prostitution and that he convinced her to increase Arleen’s rent from $60 to $150. What is worse, Little was killed by a car and Arleen’s boys are devastated.
Soon, Sunny’s parents and one of his sisters move in. There are now eight people living in Trisha’s apartment. The toilet breaks and the kitchen sink begins leaking, causing water to flood the floor. Arleen observes that the apartment “looks like slums.”
A Child Protective Services caseworker arrives. Arleen’s usual caseworker is aware of her new living arrangement, including the broken toilet and leaking sink. The new caseworker investigates the refrigerator and winces when she sees the lack of food. Arleen suspects that Trisha reported her.
Spring finally arrives, and Arleen and her boys have Trisha’s apartment to themselves. They do not realize that Trisha has moved out because her violent ex-boyfriend, Chris, was released from prison and came looking for her. Belinda, Trisha’s payee, found Trisha a new place to live. A moving company abruptly arrives and begins hauling everything out of the apartment.
Arleen and her boys briefly live with Arleen’s sister, who expects $200 per month even though they do not even have a room to themselves. All of Arleen’s stored belongings are thrown out because her sister's son either lost or stole the money she gave him to pay Public Storage. She finds another dilapidated apartment and begins interviewing for jobs. However, she and her boys are robbed at gunpoint inside their apartment. Arleen’s caseworker says that the apartment is too dangerous and that they must leave.
Arleen moves her boys into a homeless shelter again. Rents continue rising, and their next apartment takes $600 of Arleen’s $628 monthly stipend. Soon, her lights are shut off, and Child Protective Services places Jafaris with Arleen’s sister. Jori moves in with his father, Larry. Arleen, though deeply discouraged, borrows money from her Aunt Merva in order to pay her utilities bill. Her boys are permitted to move back in, and she finds another apartment near the Tabernacle Community Baptist Church.
Jori begins thinking about what he wants to do with his future, contemplating becoming a carpenter so he can build a house for his mother. He says that people “be not thinking that I can do this. But you watch.” Arleen wishes that her life could be different so that she “can sit back and look at my kids,” who will have “done something...more than me.” She wishes that they could “all be together, and be laughing” and “be remembering stuff like this and be laughing at it.”