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Three impoverished women spoke to U.S. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer on Tuesday through videotaped interviews compiled by counseling organization Walden-Sierra.

Identified only by first name, the local women described their struggles finding work, raising children alone, learning to ask for help and, in one case, overcoming social stigma and personal guilt after committing a serious crime.

Their stories, Hoyer (D-Md., 5th) said, illustrated some factors contributing to poverty, including the youth of parents and grandparents and the disintegration of families and social networks.

A Walden-Sierra staffer presented the video at a meeting of the 5th District’s Women’s Network Advisory Committee, dedicated to studying women’s issues.

The insecurity endured by “10 to 15 percent” of Maryland’s population is unimaginable even to people of relatively modest means, he said. Citing U.S. Census figures, the video notes that Maryland’s 2010 poverty rate was 8.6 percent, with woman-headed households being twice as likely to be poor as those headed by men.

“I don’t really feel people’s pain in the sense that I haven’t walked in their shoes. My family didn’t have much money, didn’t have money for my school, but I never worried about whether I was going to eat the next day or whether I was going to be kicked out of our apartment,” Hoyer said.

The interviewees, all single mothers, made suggestions for ways to help people like themselves, including counseling, vocational training, legal aid and more food stamp money to meet medical needs, like those of one woman’s diabetic daughter.

Hard luck storiesShartae, of St. Mary’s County, described pushing her 18-year-old son to finish high school and her efforts to get him into college, something proving “more challenging than I thought it would be.”

Shartae, haunted by a theft conviction from two years ago, is working part time. She described the humiliation of applying for jobs as a felon on probation.

“It is really hard with having a criminal record. When you go in, you’re applying to places and you automatically get to the place it asks about corrections, and it’s kind of hard,” she said. “I know, for me, I decided not to apply for some places. I know once I check the box saying, ‘Yes, I do have a conviction. My charge is a felony’ … even if they say it doesn’t bar you from getting employment, I don’t hear back from them.”

Her mother and a counselor helped her overcome the crippling guilt and shame she felt for her crime, stealing from her employer when she worked as an office manager. Crying, she said she did it to help feed extended family members; as the oldest sibling, she felt obligated to provide for them.

Christal, a Charles County resident for three years, lost everything when she quit her job to go to college, she said in the interview, conducted on her 30th birthday. She and her two daughters, now 14 and 8, ended up in a homeless shelter for a while.

“Life has been a struggle,” she said. “With the support of my family and God, I have just completely overcome everything,” including losing the family apartment and truck, and moving in with relatives only to be kicked out.

Veronica, a single mother of five, now has a job at the Prince George’s County Department of Social Services where she said she was initially embarrassed to go for food stamps and other help. Laid off in 2009, she exhausted her savings, then relied on family and friends as much as she could.

“When all my funds ran out, I ended up walking to DSS,” she said.

“What I’m most proud of is being honestly independent now, and self-sufficient. I’m really most proud of that. I really, really am. … It’s not just a paycheck. I earned every penny of this paycheck. It makes me feel good about myself,” Veronica said.

Support systemsThe video focused on the urban poor, but rural poverty can be even less tractable, Hoyer said.

“Rural poverty is something that is not as visible as urban poverty. Urban poverty is centralized. … You see the graffiti, you see the human spirit kind of denigrates. You don’t see that in the more rural areas. It’s isolated and frankly rural poverty is almost much more challenging than urban poverty. [With] urban poverty, you have a shot at accessing services,” while country-dwellers are farther from towns and one another.

When Hoyer’s daughter had a baby at 17, she turned to her parents for help, he said. But Hoyer’s deceased wife, “Judy used to say one of the problems we have is grandmas have disappeared. They haven’t disappeared — they’ve gotten much, much younger. They’re still grappling with things,” he said.

His assessment was similar to that of committee member Patricia Morris, a Prince George’s County resident.

“The key to almost everything that we do has to do with support, has to do with someone caring. When you find that you have so many different generations here, us who have the support and then you have the younger generation who are grandmas at 25 years old or 30 years old. They don’t know exactly how to be a grandma and they don’t have a support system,” Morris said.

Christal and her children turned to LifeStyles of Maryland, a La Plata charity, for shelter. Dana Harty, LifeStyles program director, said in an interview Wednesday that youth, isolation and shame do contribute to poverty.

Since 2009, the charity has seen professional people coming for help, Harty said, including embarrassed former six-figure earners who have no idea how to navigate the welfare system.

“We’ve asked, ‘Have you applied for unemployment?’ And we’ve had folks go, ‘What’s that?’”

Harty wasn’t sure what governments should do to help the poor, other than subsidizing “truly affordable housing, not $1,200 or $1,300 a month,” she said. She also urged people with any means to pitch in.

“All I can say is, as a community we have to learn how to help each other,” she said.

emitrano@somdnews.com