The way Tyshika Britten saw it, she had a choice. She could explain to children who still believe in Santa Claus that some years are harder for him than others. She could stand on the street with a sign and a bucket. Or she could turn to an unlikely place for help — Craigslist.
She began typing.
“I am a mother of six, 5 boys and 1 baby girl,” she began. Then, in a single paragraph, she laid out how her family would soon be evicted from their Maryland home, how she had yet to buy a tree or gifts, how this was the first time she might not be able to give her children a Christmas.
“I’m so hurt,” the 35-year-old hairstylist wrote. “I’m trying my best. I pray everyday and now I’m begging for help. I know it's not about the gifts, but they are kids! I’m such a failure right now . . . please help me.”
At a time of year when the lines at food banks seem to become longer and the phones at nonprofits ring nonstop, Britten is not the only parent to ask for help this year on a site normally used to find free furniture and cheap services.
Across the nation, similar pleas on Craiglist reveal the pressure the holidays put on poor and working-class families. Many already struggle to pay their bills and can feel overwhelmed by the extra financial burden of gifts and trimmings. Their postings tell of single mothers and unemployed fathers. They list parents’ ailments and children’s ages. Some offer to work in exchange for help, while others promise blessings and appreciation.
There is no way to tell how many are legitimate, just as there is no way to know if a post advertising free clothes is a lure for something more sinister. But organizations that work with families in need say they are not surprised that parents are looking everywhere and anywhere for help at Christmastime.
“It’s a high-anxiety time, and there is a bit of desperation,” said Mark Bergel, the founder of A Wider Circle, a nonprofit in Silver Spring, Md., that serves families in need throughout the Washington region. “Some folks will start calling for help with the holidays in May.”
The organization, which offers several ways for families to receive new toys, gets nearly 500 calls a day. This season alone, the group will serve about 2,500 children and adults, giving them holiday gifts that have been donated by the community.
Even then, Bergel said, it’s not enough. “It’s our philosophy to not say no,” he said, “so this season is especially difficult because there is so much demand, and we can’t say yes to everyone.”
At Cornerstones, a Northern Virginia nonprofit agency that provides shelter and support to families in need, the staff fulfilled 1,300 wish lists for children in the Reston and Herndon areas alone. Northern Virginia Family Services, a nonprofit agency based in Oakton, will give gifts to about 2,100 children through a donation program.
Nationally, more than 1 in 3 children are growing up in low-income working families, according to data from the Working Poor Families Project. In the Washington region, which has some of the highest-income counties in the nation, more than 1 in 4 children fall into that category.
Bergel said the needs differ from one family to the next, but there seems to be a shared theme to all the requests: “There are a lot of moms looking to provide some joy this holiday season.”
The same could be said of the Craigslist listings.
“I am a single mom of three,” begins one from Fairfax, Va.
“I am a stay-at-home mom of 4 children,” starts another from Montgomery Village in suburban Maryland.
“They say trouble don’t last always,” wrote Juanita Herrin, 34, of Annandale, Va. “I am a divorced mother of 4 battling lupus.”
Herrin said she turned to the site in desperation after being turned down for help from several nonprofit agencies. She recently started a cleaning service, but she said it’s a struggle to pay bills, keep up the insurance for her business, and still provide a special day for her children, ages 6, 11, 13 and 15.
“I don’t want any money from anyone,” Herrin said. “I just want my kids to open up something on Christmas Day.”
Britten’s children were still asleep when she woke up at 4 a.m. and posted her ad on Craigslist. She had advertised her hairstyling services on the site with success and decided to turn to it now, when she needed help most.
“I had nothing to lose,” she said. “It’s been hell this year. Everything just started crashing under us at one time.”
Britten said she went back to cosmetology school this year because her fiance, Donnell Booker, was earning enough at his construction job to handle their $1,450-a-month rent in Oxon Hill, Md. But then his hours were reduced and the bills piled up. A look at one of his recent paychecks shows that he earns $17 an hour, and on a week when his gross pay totaled $204, after deductions for taxes and child support, his check was for $21.
Britten said this has meant the family has been late on rent and now faces an eviction that could come any day. In the months leading up to Thanksgiving, their water and gas were turned off. To cook, they used an electric skillet, and for water, they ran a hose across the street from a generous neighbor’s house.
“Once one domino fell, they all started falling,” Britten said. “Christmas is just breaking my heart. A lot of people say it is not about the gifts. I know that. I know that as an adult. But as a kid, you don’t want to process that.”
Her 15-year-old son wants new clothes the family can’t afford. Her 13- and 11-year-olds have asked for a PlayStation video-game console that is out of her budget. Her 8-year-old son hasn’t requested anything specific, but as he sat in the family’s living room on a recent afternoon, he excitedly recalled what was waiting for him under the tree last year.
“I got books and a bubble gum machine and a puzzle,” Donnell Booker Jr. said.
Then, just as quickly as the second-grader started talking about gifts, he stopped. He knows his family is struggling this year. In the corner of the room, a tree his mother bought for $5 at the Family Dollar store leaned against a wall on a broken stand.
“It’s mainly for getting together with your family,” Donnell said of the holiday.
His 3-year-old brother, Chase Booker, climbed into his lap and disagreed. “Christmas is for getting toys,” he said quietly. “And trucks.”
In the week since Britten’s posted her plea, she has received two responses. One was from a woman who asked for more information and then never wrote back. The other was from a man who typed: “Are you still looking for assistance? Are you a BBW?”
Britten knew that was shorthand for “Big beautiful woman,” and told him she wasn’t interested in his help. He responded, saying he wasn’t looking for sex, just a picture of her feet.
Britten said she knew when she posted on the site that she would be opening herself up to unsavory responses. People have to be discerning on both sides of the exchange, she said. Craigslist has been linked to murders and other brutal crimes across the country.
But if anyone doubts that there are real people behind these pleas for help, Britten said, she invites them to come spend time with her family.
“I wouldn’t sit here and do this if I didn’t have to,” she said. “I’m willing to do anything I have to do for my children. I’m tired of struggling. I’m tired of them struggling. I just want them to be happy.”