It’s eight o’clock on a hectic Monday morning at Susan Rodriguez’s cramped one-bedroom apartment on the third floor of her parents’ Brooklyn-fringe brownstone. She’s desperately trying to get her three children to school or day care on time, but they’re not cooperating. Joseph, 3, wants to show off his new toy -- right now! Five-year-old Christina, HIV positive, needs help tying her shoelaces. At least Susan’s oldest, Samantha, is dressed and ready to go.
Just as the morning seems to be spinning out of control, Susan’s mother walks in and offers up a cup of coffee. Who has time for coffee? With that, Susan is out the door, kids in tow.
While this scene may be typical for any mother of three, Susan’s anxiety has an edge sharpened by intense financial apprehension.
Susan Rodriguez is the first to admit she hadn’t planned for her life to end up this way. Her late husband, Waldo, who died of AIDS last year, had worked at blue-collar jobs that didn’t pay much. Susan was the breadwinner as a well-placed paralegal. After Waldo was diagnosed with HIV, Susan tested positive and, worried about her children’s status, got them tested, too. That’s when she found out her baby girl had HIV. “Christina had swollen lymph nodes, herpes, problems with her spleen,” Susan says. “All these symptoms, and her pediatrician hadn’t even brought up the possibility of HIV.”
After Waldo died, the demands of taking care of herself and the children -- along with the stress of keeping her status a secret and scheduling Christina’s doctors’ appointments -- created conflicts at work. After her supervisor accused her of wasting time, Susan packed up her stuff and walked out the door. Right into the world of social services.
She can barely make ends meet on what the government provides. Just as bad, however, Susan often feels put under a microscope by government agencies. “You have to disclose all your personal business,” she says. “People come to your house, and it’s like an invasion sometimes. Some of the caseworkers can be really rude.” Although she can’t work and needs these benefits to survive, she says, “I’d rather not have to -- it’s like receiving charity.” But, she adds, “It did help me get my life on track financially, so I can focus on the things that are important, like taking care of my family.”
The children are enrolled in a city-subsidized child care program. The city’s Division of AIDS Services pays her rent. Susan wants to move into her own place with the kids, but has found that many landlords don’t want to rent to people on social services. “I’m lucky that my parents rented to me,” Susan says. “It’s hard having to feed three children. I’m using GMHC’s food pantry.” She cannot get life insurance and worries about what she would be able to leave for her children if she was gone. “It could be worse,” she says. “At least I qualify for disability; many other needy people don’t.”
In between appointments at government agencies that can each take a full day, Susan volunteers with the PWA Health Group’s Pediatrics Study. She’s determined to know about the latest options for Christina and herself.
POZ recently spent time with Susan Rodriguez to show what a week in the life is like for someone navigating the byzantine social-service “safety net.”