‘Never Thought I Would Need It’: Americans Put Pride Aside to Seek Aid

The cars arrived at the food bank in southern Dallas in a stream — a minivan, a Chevrolet Tahoe, a sedan with a busted window, a Jaguar of unclear vintage. Inside the vehicles sat people who scarcely could believe they needed to be there.

There was a landscaper, a high school administrator, a college student, and Dalen Lacy, a warehouse worker and 7-Eleven clerk.

Like 70 percent of the people who showed up at Crossroads Community Services one day last week, Mr. Lacy had never been there before. But when the coronavirus pandemic drove the economy off a cliff, Mr. Lacy, 27 and a father of two, lost his warehouse job and saw his hours at 7-Eleven slashed.

“I’ve never had to actually do this,” Mr. Lacy said, after a gloved pantry worker hefted a box of food into the trunk of the car he was riding in along with two neighbors. “But I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do for my kids.”

By the hundreds of thousands, Americans are asking for help for the first time in their lives, from nail technicians in Los Angeles to airport workers in Fort Lauderdale, from bartenders in Phoenix to former reality show contestants in Minnesota. Biting back shame, and wondering guiltily about others in more dire straits, they are applying for unemployment, turning to GoFundMe, asking for money on Instagram, quietly accepting handouts from equally strapped co-workers, and showing up in unprecedented numbers at food banks, which in turn are struggling to meet soaring demand as volunteers, many of them retirees, stay home for safety.

David Greenfield, chief executive of Met Council, a nonprofit that provides food and housing assistance in New York City, said that at first, “we saw retail workers, chefs and waiters, and restaurant owners.”

By last week, he said, they were seeing employees from law firms: “Folks who in many cases were employed their entire lives.”

In its unsparing breadth, the crisis is pitting two American ideals against each other — the e pluribus unum credo of solidarity and its near-religious devotion to the idea that hard work brings rewards. Those notions coexist peacefully in prosperous times.

Today, both are being put to the test, forcing the newly unemployed to re-evaluate beliefs about themselves and their country.

In St. Louis Park, Minn., Scott Theusch, 61, a mechanic, filed for unemployment benefits for the first time, becoming one of the record-shattering 3.3 million people who made claims across the country in one week. He set aside his deeply felt conviction that people who had to seek the aid, which is largely funded by payroll taxes on employers, weren’t trying hard enough. “There really isn’t any option for people,” Mr. Theusch said. “They’re told not to show up for work, so what do you do?”

In Los Angeles, Samantha Pasaye, a 29-year-old nail technician, pleaded for donations on Instagram after the salon where she worked shut its doors. The request made her mother cry. “I’m not someone who asks for help,” Ms. Pasaye said. “I do everything by myself. But at this moment, I needed to put my pride aside.”

Another new Dallas food-bank client, Adedyo Codrington, a trade-show worker and union steward, filed for unemployment as soon as his jobs were canceled on March 8. But the first check would not arrive in time.

So Mr. Codrington, a 41-year-old father of two, went to the food bank, only to learn its supplies had run out. Humiliated, he tried again last week, arriving early. But people were already lined up around the block by then, and he left with a lone bag of green beans. Colleagues scrounged together $100 for him, but it is nearly gone, and he is down to eating just one meal a day, living off sugar water and what he calls “wish sandwiches” — two slices of bread with imaginary filling.

“To go from making $1,500 to $2,000 a week,” he said, “to be reduced to this.”

Even with America’s long tradition of giving, from immigrant-aid groups begun by religious organizations in the 19th century to the politically polarizing social welfare programs born in the 20th, rugged individualism has remained a defining feature of the national identity. Perhaps no class of worker is more lionized today than the start-up tech entrepreneur.

“A lot of people in the United States are very proud of feeling self-sufficient and independent,” Alice Fothergill, a professor of sociology at the University of Vermont who has studied the human effects of natural disasters. “This is something that is definitely going to be very, very difficult.”

She said that people who feel ashamed about seeking help are often the ones who need it the most. In one study of women who had endured devastating floods in North Dakota, she found that working-class and middle-class women were the ones who despaired most about needing public assistance, because of a fear of a loss of status. They did not want to be seen as poor. They also engaged in techniques to make it clear — to themselves and others — that they were accepting charity reluctantly, such as offering to pay for donated items and refusing to refer to their government-supplied trailers as “home.”

Mr. Greenfield, of New York’s Met Council, said the scores of people approaching his charity for the first time are roundly apologetic: “They’re saying: ‘I’m sorry but can you help me? I’m sorry but I need food, I’m sorry but I need rent, I’m sorry but I need help.’”

For people of some means, deciding whether to file for benefits also involves second-guessing. Does the fact that others are in greater need mean that they should not apply, even if they are qualified?

Kirk DeWindt, 36, a personal trainer from Brooklyn Park, Minn. and a three-time contestant on “The Bachelor” television franchise, saw his business come to a halt after all in-person sessions had to be canceled. He has some savings, so when his mother urged him to apply for unemployment benefits, Mr. DeWindt hesitated.

“I’m in a more privileged situation than I would assume most that are filing,” he said. “So what do you do with that?” He decided he would file.

The anonymity of the internet has helped some charity-seekers get over any shame, with restaurant and other business owners setting up online fund-raising campaigns that keep their workers’ names private. On GoFundMe, some $120 million has been donated for campaigns related to the pandemic since the first week in March, a spokeswoman said. By comparison, that is more than four times as much as campaigns for the Australian wildfires raised in three months.

But unlike natural disasters, the pandemic has hit a far greater swath of people hard, making it difficult for some to gin up help. And some campaigns have fallen short.

In Phoenix, Raven Green, a 28-year-old single mother of two young girls, turned to GoFundMe after losing all three of her jobs — bartending, promotional work and singing gigs — in less than a week.

Ms. Green was terrified. She had a few days’ worth of groceries but her car payment had wiped her out, and she wasn’t sure she qualified for benefits. She set up a GoFundMe page seeking $1,500 but, abashed at having to ask for help, couldn’t bring herself to share it on social media. “I don’t want people to know that I’m struggling like this,” she said. As of Tuesday afternoon, the campaign had no donations.

(After this article appeared online Tuesday evening, she quickly raised double her original goal. “Bless you all!” she wrote to her donors.)

The abrupt change in circumstances may perhaps be toughest for people who reordered their whole lives around the American dream: immigrants.

Alex Rotaru, 48, a filmmaker and actor in Beverly Hills who left Romania at age 21, said, “the idea of welfare from a communist country was quite natural to me.”

“When I came to America,” he said, “I never thought I would need it.”

He was wrestling with the idea of filing for unemployment after all his work screeched to a halt. Then he considered the stack of bills he faced. “There was a certain embarrassment and I got over it quick thinking about my son,” he said.

Ernst Virgile, 38, moved from Haiti with his wife in 2012, determined to work tirelessly. He held two jobs at the Fort Lauderdale airport, as a wheelchair attendant and in international arrivals customer support, and she worked in concessions. They saved painstakingly for a house, and bought one last year, where they are raising their three children, ages 7, 5 and 2. They were stunned when they both lost their jobs in March, and bereft.

Mr. Virgile’s wife wept at the prospect of having to ask the bank to put their mortgage payments on hold. Mr. Virgile is still trying to figure out how to apply for food stamps and unemployment benefits, and fears seeking out food banks because of possible virus exposure.

They had never before needed such assistance, and both, he said, are devastated.

“We’re not used to it,” Mr. Virgile said. “We knew before we got here that we had to work hard, very hard, to live the American dream. But we have to file unemployment. We have no choice. There’s nothing we can do.”

Christina Capecchi, Marina Trahan Martinez and Adam Popescu contributed reporting.

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