For the first in time what seemed like years, the constant stress and pressure felt like it was relenting.
Brittany Feldhaus had lived much of her adult life under the threat of homelessness. For a short period of time, she had been forced to live in a shelter in Hamilton County.
But with the help of the local United Way and other social agencies, Feldhaus was able to establish some stability. The 28-year-old has an apartment, child care for her son, Liam, and a job to provide for her family.
Still, with even a slight setback, the life she’s worked hard to establish could all come crashing down.
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“I’m able to support my son, keep a roof over our head and keep our bellies full. Basically, I’ve been able to avoid that catastrophe,” she said. “I know I’m just one paycheck away from being homeless,” she said. “But at least we have this.”
Feldhaus is one of the dozens of Johnson County residents struggling with poverty, with the possibility of becoming homeless always weighing on their minds. The United Way of Johnson County works with these people every day in the hopes that they can stop the spiral in their life, lay down a foundation and build something better.
At times, the situation can seem hopeless. But Feldhaus emphasized that it’s not a fight you have to wage by yourself.
“I’d be selfish if I didn’t share my story and give someone else a little hope. I don’t want people to feel like they don’t have anyone to support you. It’s horrible to be in that place, to feel alone,” she said. “Despair can be worse than death.”
In Johnson County, the United Way has emerged as the primary force pushing against the weight of poverty. The organization funds programs such as its Helpline, where people can call and be connected with the social agencies throughout the community who can help.
Financial assistance and long-term case management allows for both immediate aid and assistance establishing their lives more permanently.
Starting this fall, the United Way will launch its No Place to Call Home program, the first comprehensive, coordinated effort against homelessness.
“What we typically do is find out what our clients’ needs are, what their life situation is and what has led them to the point where they’re calling us for help,” said Nancy Plake, executive director of the United Way of Johnson County. “It could be a job loss, it could be health care issues; there is something that has led to it.”
For Feldhaus, she came to the United Way of Johnson County at her most vulnerable.
She had struggled with homelessness in the past. Before moving to the southside, she had lived on the northeast side of Indianapolis most of her life. In her early 20s, she was living in Fishers, at a time she describes as one of her most difficult.
Feldhaus was struggling emotionally and felt abandoned by the people nearest to her. At her lowest point, she attempted suicide. When her roommates asked her to move out after the attempt, she couldn’t move back home.
She ended up in a shelter in Noblesville.
“It’s scary, not have anything to fall back on,” she said.
The experience was sobering, forcing her to alter the course her life was taking. Feldhaus moved to the southside in 2012 and found a job. She was working at TJ Maxx when she discovered that she was pregnant with her first child.
Liam was born in October 2014, what Feldhaus describes as the happiest time in her life.
At the same time, it also represented a crisis for both of them. Feldhaus had to leave her job at TJ Maxx. Though she had money saved up, she was unsure how long that was going to last and how she was going to survive.
Shortly after Liam was born, a nurse told Feldhaus about the Healthy Families program. Aimed at helping low-income families, it provided her with advice, counseling and direction while Feldhaus tried to navigate not only parenthood but the social safety net.
Her counselor directed her to the United Way of Johnson County and its economic assistance abilities.
“Brittany was stable, and then she didn’t have a job, and she was in trouble,” Plake said.
She started meeting with a caseworker, who helped Feldhaus figure out how to pay her bills until she could get a job.
“I don’t know what I would have done without her,” Feldhaus said. “She was the exact thing I needed. She helped me get through, making sure that there was enough funds to take care of us and that we got what we needed.”
In one instance, Feldhaus and Liam were two days from being kicked out of their apartment. If an assistance check had not arrived when it did, she would have been forced from her home.
“The assistance we provided Brittany provided that stabilization long enough for her to work on some of her other issues,” Plake said. “If we hadn’t provided her with that help with housing, imagine the whirlwind that would have put her in. It’s hard to deal with multiple issues at one time.”
She didn’t have family nearby, her parents and siblings had cut off contact and her friends didn’t have the room to take her and her son in. Feldhaus describes her relationship with Liam’s father as complicated, and he was unwilling to help at the time, either.
Johnson County doesn’t have an emergency shelter where she could regroup. Her next-closest option at the time was to find a homeless shelter in Indianapolis.
“That scared the crap out of us,” she said. “I’d been in a shelter before. I know how bad it can be. I wasn’t going to bring my baby to that.”
Faced with crushing pressure of losing her home, the solution wasn’t as simple as “finding a job.”
She didn’t have money for child care for Liam, so that meant she couldn’t search for a job. Without a job, she couldn’t pay any of her outstanding bills or rent, threatening their very survival.
“Some days, I felt like a really bad mother,” she said. “I was so stressed out from trying to take care of us, and I didn’t have anyone helping me. It was just me.”
Everything started with finding a way to care for her son and work. That was the first piece of foundation that supported her life.
She applied for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, a government program that provides assistance for families with children under the age of 18. Through that program, she received child care vouchers so that Liam could go to Building Bridges Early Learning Center.
The center provided Liam with an opportunity to socialize with other children and learn from the center staff, all within walking distance from their apartment.
Most critically, the center also offered Feldhaus a job. She has been working at the center for seven months now, working with the 2-year-olds as a co-teacher.
She makes lesson plans, interacts with the seven children on her roster and works with them on skills such as numbers, colors and shapes. One day, she might put together a project for them finger painting with food-colored shaving cream. Another, they build with edible clay.
Liam turns two in October. The blond-haired little boy is inquisitive and friendly, with a bright smile. Feldhaus credits him with giving her the strength to get through the past two difficult years.
They live in Greenwood within walking distance of all of the places they need to go. Feldhaus is working with her employers to get her child development associate credential, which will provide her greater career opportunities.
Her plan is to go back to school to get her bachelor’s degree in education. The hope is to one day teach high school English.
She hopes that her experience can help others struggling with homelessness realize there is a way out.
“You’re not alone. People are out there who have been through more horrible things. Everything I’ve been through, I’m still standing. I’m on my own two feet,” she said.
Occupation: Instructor at Building Bridges Early Learning Center
Family: Son Liam, 22 months