The Great Divide
Montgomery County is famously a place for the well-heeled, and for the wealthy. But it's also a place now where some line up for free food and sleep four to a room.
A 37-year-old from Cameroon says she has a master’s degree in health care administration from the University of Maryland. She is now a nursing student in Northern Virginia, separated from her husband and raising three children 10 and under. She came here on an immigrant visa 10 years ago to teach—her profession back home—and was working with emotionally disturbed students at a private school in Gaithersburg. “I like it so much, because I saw the kids develop,” she says. Then she was laid off in 2009.
“Because I am in school, I have hope,” says the woman, who is staying with a friend in Silver Spring. She’s paying for nursing school with loans and receiving some child support from her husband. But it’s not enough. “I’m still looking to see if there is something I can do at night to care for somebody,” she says. Life was going along for her, she says, and then suddenly it wasn’t. “It could happen to any person today who’s a millionaire.”
Her vehicle loaded with food from Manna, she starts to drive away in a Mercedes van, given to her by her husband in happier times—a 1990 model with 300,000 miles on it.
A U.S. Marine veteran who served in Afghanistan takes his place in the Manna line. A 38-year-old African-American originally from Baltimore, he and his 30-year-old Dominican wife live in a Gaithersburg apartment with their two children.
The GWOT license plate on their green Explorer van identifies him as a veteran of the Global War on Terrorism. Suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), he has been unable to work. He’s studying psychology at the University of Maryland University College, hoping to earn a master’s and became a social worker, but he has a year and a half left to complete his undergraduate degree first. “Trying to find some work where they understand the problems I have is really frustrating,” he says.
He last worked as a support assistant for a psychologist, but got fired because he “had a lot of problems with PTSD.” He has been unemployed since 2008. Between veteran benefits and a Social Security disability check, his monthly income comes to $5,400, more than many, but still insufficient, which is why he’s at Manna. At first, “I felt a little apprehensive, a little weird about taking handouts,” he says. But “I don’t feel so bad now because I understand it’s for people in need—and I’m in need.”
Deirdre Hernandez didn’t lack for anything growing up in New Mexico, McLean, Va., and Georgetown. Her father was a Yale-educated official in the Reagan administration who also served on corporate boards. “It was a good time to live in this country,” she says.
Now 43, the divorced mother of three is barely scraping by. “It just goes to show, you don’t always end up in the same position your parents were in,” she says.
She’s in the food line at Manna with her 17-year-old son, Justin, a senior at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville who has brought along Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. They’ve arrived in a 10-year-old van with a Julius West Middle School Honor Student bumper sticker. They leave with, among other things, bread and watermelon. Every time they go to Manna, she says, “it’s like Christmas.”
She has been a regular for six months. “This is the only program we qualify for,” she says. Her income amounts to about $50,000 a year, thanks to $1,200 in monthly child support and help from her dad. She last worked for a swimming pool firm, making $10 to $12 an hour. When she couldn’t get a raise, she quit and she has been hard-pressed to find employment since.
“I did child care at my home for friends,” she says. But even though she says she charged just $5 an hour, one family never paid. While struggling financially, she also was battling an eating disorder that required two hospitalizations. She says she’s better now. She pays $320 a month for health insurance for herself; her children get insurance through their father.