Allison is a US Army veteran and mother of two young children who grew up in Richmond. In the years since serving her country, Allison has had difficulty finding steady employment—especially after she served a brief jail sentence. Fleeing an abusive relationship in Alabama, Allison returned to Richmond four months ago with no place to go. After spending the summer sleeping in her truck, she found St. Joseph’s Villa, a nonprofit that supports children and families. Nine days later, Allison and her children had housing. Now, she’s getting back on her feet. To protect Allison’s current and future employment prospects, at her request we have changed her name and certain identifying details.
I’m from a little town in Arkansas. My family moved to Richmond when I was a kid. My dad had substance abuse issues. He got drunk one night, and my mom had met this lady—her husband worked up Northern Virginia—and, I kid you not, the lady said to my mom, “If you want him to do better, just load him up in this truck, honey, and my husband will take him up North.” My mother went home that night, packed his bags, put him in that truck, and my dad was so drunk that he didn’t wake up until he got to Tennessee. But in Virginia, he did really well for himself. He sent for us to move up here.
My parents were go-getters. They always worked hard. But at 18, 19, 20 years-old, life was a party to me. I realized that that my parents were disappointed; I was following the same path as my dad, but without the hard work. I was underage and drinking every single day. I was turning into an alcoholic. I decided, it’s do or die: either I’m going to stay on this path and never be happy, or I’m going to do something productive.
I had wanted to be a soldier since I was a kid. It was a childhood dream. So, my dad was talking to me one day, and he said, “What are you going to do? What are your plans?” I told him, “I’m going to join the Army.” He said, “No, you’re not—you’re just talking.” He had always wanted to serve, but an injury suffered in a car accident made it impossible. He couldn’t believe I might do it. The next morning, I went to see the recruiter. “Where do I sign up?” I asked. “What do I have to do?” Within a week and a half, I had completed the written tests, the physical, and I was all set to go to basic training. My parents had never been prouder of me.
I joined the Army on September 27, 2007. During basic training, they broke me down, built me back up, and I came out feeling ten feet tall and bulletproof. They attached me to an aviation unit, and that turned out to be one of the best times of my life. The camaraderie, the trust you build with people who will literally give their life for you—there’s nothing that compares. And I was ready to go to war.
My roommate’s unit was set to deploy before mine, and they happened to have a slot for my job. I volunteered with them, they accepted me, and I passed my physical. I was super stoked about leaving. Then they gave me a blood test. I found out I was pregnant. It hadn’t shown up on a urine test, but there it was in my hormone levels. That shut me out of the deployment. I had a choice: I could get an abortion and deploy, or stay behind. I had wanted to go to war since I was a little kid. But it wasn’t worth the alternative. That was my decision, and it’s really been the best choice of my life. My son is the coolest little boy in the world.
It was so hard to figure out the next steps. I was honorably discharged and they offered me unemployment benefits, and that helped. But what do you do when you’ve had your dream job, and then you lose it? To make matters worse, there’s this perception among so many employers that all veterans have PTSD. You hear business people talk about wanting to hire veterans. But I swear to you, every time I check the box for “veteran” on a job application, I don’t even get an interview. When I don’t check that box, I do get an interview. For me, when it comes to trying to get a job, being a veteran has been a disadvantage.
Then there's my so-called “criminal” history. My license was suspended after I caught a couple of tickets for driving too fast and not wearing a seatbelt. This happened before I went into the Army, but I couldn’t take care of it after I got out. Then, one day while driving to work, I was pulled over for a broken tail light, and they found that I wasn’t allowed to be on the road. I had to go to court and learned that I was facing a mandatory jail sentence.
I spent ten days in jail. I had a lip ring that I couldn’t remove, and I was told it could be a security problem. So I was put in isolation. For ten days, I was locked down for 23 hours a day. The card I was given to call my son during my hour out of the cell didn’t work. The lights were on at all times and I had no sense for the time of day. I tried to cover my eyes so I could get to sleep, but that wasn’t allowed. There was shouting, screaming. Inmates with mental illness were put in the isolation wing with no treatment; they were just shut away. It was horrible. For ten days, it was like torture. All because of a suspended license.
But you know what the really frustrating thing about it is? During my sentencing, the judge never asked me why my license had been suspended for several years. If he had asked, I would have told him the truth: I couldn’t afford the fines, the interest on the fines, and the reinstatement fees. I prioritized keeping the lights on for my kids instead of paying fees. That’s why I went to jail: because I didn’t have money. Those ten days cost me my job, and gave me a record.
My mom passed away about a year and a half ago, and she left me and my sisters $5,000 each. Every cent that I received, I had to pay to get my license back. I never would have gone to jail had someone said, “Here’s a payment plan, here are some options.” I found out later that there were payment plans, there were options. But no one let me know about them.
How can you expect someone to pay driving fines if they don’t have the money, and can’t get to work to earn money? What good does it do for the county to put someone in jail because they drove to get to work to support their children? After I get out, I still have to work—and that means I have to drive. I can’t afford a taxi; I can’t afford an Uber. The only way that I finally had that money was because my mother died. That’s terrible.
I’m not sure if we will stay here. With all of the good ways that Richmond is changing, and with the schools here in the county, in many ways I love it here. But I worry about getting tickets and another suspended license if I can’t afford to pay them. And I like a slower pace of life like what I knew in Arkansas. I love my kids, and we have so much fun together. But I need to find a better-paying job where I can work nine-to-five and be with my kids in the evenings. Nighttime stories, homework—I’m missing all of that. I’m having to pay someone to do those things for me and for my children. I need to be there.
— interviewed December 8, 2016
Reporter, Richmond Times-Dispatch
Daughter and mother
Veteran and mother of two
Procurement Manager, CARITAS
Assistant Manager, Clothes Closet
Attorney, Virginia Poverty Law Center
Director of Access to Legal Services
President, Muslim Chaplain Services
Director, Carrico Center at UR Law
Case Manager, VA Supportive Housing