Lesley Williams

Age: 21; Tested positive: 1995; HIV counselor and consumer liaison; parent of three Houston, Texas

$500 Houston Regional HIV/AIDS Resource Group counselor, part-time consumer liaison
$500 Project SOUL peer educator
$289 food stamps
$781 rental assistance

Williams' three-bedroom house costs $850 a month, and Shelter Care Plus, a federal HOPWA program, covers all but $69. "We have no living room furniture, though, not even a couch." Her electricity averages $175 because she has to use the A/C full blast during the Texas summer. "August is so hot. I have small children, and I'm not going to let them suffer." Plus $37 for water and $22 for gas.

Medicaid covers Williams' Viracept/3TC/d4T combo, plus doc visits for Williams and her three HIV negative sons. She gets free supplements -- alphalipoic acid, acidophilus and a multi -- from Montrose, a community clinic. Every other month she springs for a $10 box of Sudafed.

Through the WIC (Women, Infants and Children) program, Williams gets vouchers for dairy, juice, cereal and peanut butter for her two kids under age 5. Vouchers from the nonprofit Stonesoup cover other basics -- meat, pasta, fruit and toiletries. Any other groceries stay within her $289 food stamp budget. "Every other week, we treat ourselves to McDonald's."

Williams shells out $200 monthly for a '95 Plymouth Voyager to a coworker who is "very lenient" with the payments; $109 for car insurance and $75 to $80 for fuel. "Friends help out with the gas money -- sometimes!"

Williams' three kids do day care funded by Title IV; during the school year, a local church picks her sons up from school, provides dinner and homework help and delivers them to her door. Williams' sister, Natacha, 18, "helps out a lot" by kid-sitting for love, not money.

"I have a great support system: friends, sister, job and church. It makes a world of difference. Best of all, my kids come home and tell me they love me."

WIRED $125
$40 for a land line and, to cut down on bills, $85 for a cell with free long-distance.

The baby uses two packs of diapers, $34; two packs of baby wipes, $5; and two packs of pull-ups, $40, monthly. Williams' tip? "Buy in bulk." As for dressing the boys, "I pray on it!" They get school stuff from churches and ASOs; Mom may splurge on their sneakers, but "I tend to run into women with kids who donate clothes that fit my sons." Williams herself is secondhand Rose.

The kids swim at the Y, ride bikes in the park ("I spent $40 on a little red wagon to pull around the youngest") and play games on a donated computer, while Williams crochets, listens to music and sings in the church choir. "Gospel keeps me sane. When I feel down, I just turn on Yolanda Adams." She occasionally splurges on a game of pool, at $6 an hour.

TIP: To correct the popular misperception once and for all: People earning regular wages can qualify for food stamps. Since each state sets its own criteria and income caps, call the Office of Public Aid in your state capitol to see if you qualify for a handout at the checkout.