Back From Homelessness, Woman Faced $54K Debt

Lori Teresa Yearwood writes that the most vulnerable are punished by fines and fees
By Bob Cronin,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 29, 2021 4:58 PM CST
Changes Are Needed to Avoid Debt Following Homelessness
Boxes with donated fresh food sit next to tents used by the homeless on the CA-110 freeway in Los Angeles, as California Gov. Gavin Newsom, returns Wednesday, Dec. 15, 20921, to a nearby park to highlight California's $1.1 billion plan to clean areas near highways, roads and other public spaces, an...   (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

(Newser) – When Lori Teresa Yearwood emerged from homelessness, she wasn't immediately stepping back into a life of independence. She was bound by debt, a pile of fines and fees that she'd incurred over the past two years totaling more than $54,000. In clearing that debt, Yearwood writes in an opinion piece in the New York Times, she discovered that "the most traumatized and vulnerable members of our society" are slapped with bills that they don't know what to do about and that impede their ability to find housing. Yearwood's goal is to eliminate the obstacles keeping people from reaching "the other side" of homelessness, as she did.

"These bills are another way that American society criminalizes people experiencing homelessness—hidden penalties that can start with the towing and impoundment of the vehicles people sleep in and that can continue with a long list of misdemeanors," Yearwood writes, "such as loitering, camping, asking for money in public and even standing in one place for too long." A former Miami Herald reporter and business owner, Yearwood was evicted and broke after a series of traumatic losses, becoming "a woman forlornly clutching plastic garbage bags as she makes her way from food pantry to shelter to public library to park bench."

There were catch-22s. After Yearwood was repeatedly sexually assaulted, she didn't speak for almost two years. Her hospital bills reached $48,000, which she was charged because administrators say she "refused" to talk and didn't tell them she was homeless. Yearwood eventually found a home with the help of a nonprofit and rebuilt her credit score. It tanked again when the hospital bill surfaced. Experts say one solution is for organizations to help homeless people clear their debt all at once, the way bankruptcies work, so they aren't held down by debt that stays with them after the rest of the ordeal is over. Yearwood is a reporter again, covering companies and institutions "that tried to profit off my collapse." Her credit score is good. Still, Yearwood says, "My anger remains." (Read more homelessness stories.)

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