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Witness stirs painful memories for two lawmakers

Reps. Al Lawson and Denver Riggleman talk about homelessness and relying on food stamps

Rep. Denver Riggleman, R-Va., spoke with CQ Roll Call about his family's reliance on food stamps.
Rep. Denver Riggleman, R-Va., spoke with CQ Roll Call about his family's reliance on food stamps. (Photo by Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

Al Lawson and Denver Riggleman don’t have a lot in common, other than the shame.

Lawson is a laconic Democrat and veteran lawmaker who represents two of Florida’s largest cities. Riggleman is a chatty Republican and Air Force veteran who first won his rural Virginia district in 2018. Lawson has a moderate, pro-business reputation despite voting with Democrats on 97 percent of floor votes last year; Riggleman is a Freedom Caucus populist who fell in line with the GOP 94 percent of the time.

The embarrassment that comes with poverty, how a disapproving stranger’s click of the tongue or a cruel child’s laugh can stick with you for decades, is what the two lawmakers share. It’s a sensation most members of Congress don’t know.

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As a child, Lawson suffered through years of homelessness. Riggleman grew up on food stamps and spent time on Medicaid. Those are stories they both have hinted at but, until now, haven’t fully told.

When Lawson ran for Congress in 2016, his campaign ads told voters about the fire that burned down his home when he was 6, and going to work in the tobacco fields at 8, but they didn’t say he went years without a permanent — or proper — roof over his head.

“My brother and I could look up at night, and I could see the stars,” Lawson told CQ Roll Call. “It was in poor condition. … For a while, I felt really ashamed.”

[Riggleman bid for second term in Virginia seat gets tougher]

On the campaign stump, Riggleman talks about growing up on food stamps, but not that he raised his own kids on them, back when his rent was $500 and his monthly paycheck was just $913.

“Here I am, sitting in Congress … just thinking about when my wife and I were in line, using food stamps. The people behind us were scoffing at us,” he said.

Both have found success in business and politics, but the feelings they had growing up — ashamed of their circumstances and proud of their parents for clawing their way, in time, out of them — never left.

So when Jeffrey Williams, a security guard from Richmond, Virginia, testified before the House Financial Services Committee in January about his own homelessness, and the humiliation he felt, the memories came flooding back.

‘Feel like a failure’

“My son one day asked me — and I’ll never forget it … he was 9 at this point — asked me, ‘Dad, can I help you work to put a roof over my family’s head?’” Williams told the committee, his voice cracking with emotion.

“When you do all you can as a father, as a husband, as a provider, you feel like a failure,” he said.

Williams spoke at a hearing on affordable housing and homelessness. The Housing and Urban Development Department’s last point-in-time survey counted 560,000 homeless Americans, and 1.4 million Americans sleep at least one night in shelters over the course of a year. Williams’ family spent three years living out of their car and in motels, meeting the federal definition of homeless, after they were evicted in 2016. Williams was one of the 3.7 million renter households evicted that year.

Williams’ testimony inspired Riggleman and Lawson to share their own struggles.

“When I looked at your son, it brought back flashbacks,” Lawson said. “My family was homeless for five years.”

“If it wasn’t for food stamps [and] Air Force basic allowance for housing, all the help that we got, I couldn’t afford to live anywhere,” said Riggleman.

Williams’ story is a common one. According to a 2019 Harvard University study, nearly half of all renter households, 20.5 million, are cost-burdened, meaning they spend 30 percent of income on housing.

For decades, real average hourly wages have barely budged. According to the Pew Research Center, wages rose from $20.27 per hour in 1964 (adjusted for inflation) to $22.65 in 2018. Meanwhile, median asking rents skyrocketed, more than doubling from $483 in 2000 to $1,002 in 2019. That’s put a strain on many family budgets.

Williams was evicted when he seized upon a job training opportunity. The training cut into his hours. His landlord didn’t hesitate to evict when Williams fell behind on rent.

Lawson wasn’t evicted like Williams, but he knows how it feels. His family lost everything when his home burned.

“We didn’t have any clothes. We didn’t have nothing,” he said. “It was just basically hand-me-downs.”

Afterward, Lawson’s family spent the next few years bouncing around, trying not to overstay their welcome. “Family members started just turning us back,” he said. “I can tell that they were kind of tired of us.”

Eviction can have the same effect as a fire. A moving crew hired by the landlord usually shows up along with sheriff’s deputies. The tenants face a choice: Pay for storage, with money they presumably don’t have, or it goes on the curb.

The eviction ruined Williams’ credit score, so landlords refused to rent to him until Virginia Public Media reported on his family’s plight. That led to an anonymous listener agreeing to co-sign his lease.

Short-lasting relief

It took Williams weeks after the move to feel at ease. “It was only on Christmas Day when I was standing looking at the tree that it really hit me. This is our home,” he said. “The relief has been indescribable.”

But it hasn’t lasted long. Only a few weeks later, in January, his wife caught the flu. Williams had to take off work, and again money ran tight. A few days after he described to Congress how he had finally put his eviction behind him, Williams faced another one. “‘If you don’t have the money by such and such date, we’re going to file papers,’” Williams said the property manager told him.

Williams managed to pay the rent, but the experience weighs on him. “We all live with that fear, that it can be taken away,” he said.

Williams’ testimony inspired Riggleman to address his own party. “When I hear these type of things, I wonder why all of us aren’t in tune, that there has to be a basic social safety net,” he said at the hearing.

It also inspired Riggleman to say he’d go to Richmond to talk more with Williams, one on one. California Democrat Maxine Waters and Ohio Republican Anthony Gonzalez also told Williams they’d follow up with him.

But a month later, Williams told CQ Roll Call that only Waters’ staff had reached out, emailing him a list of support services in his area. Williams said he understood the legislators were busy. “I’m probably the low man on the totem pole,” he said.

But Williams hopes they’ll find the time anyway, as his story is just one of many. If he can “just be real,” with a few representatives, and explain how a small debt put his family through years of uncertainty and suffering, he thinks they might then “help the next million and millions of families that’s going through this.”

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