For 10 minutes and 52 seconds, Britten tells her story.
She is right — it is about survival. She is also wrong — it is not just about her family.
It is also about other working parents who were financially hurting before covid-19 closed schools and businesses, and are now hurting more. It is about the many people who occupy, or soon will, that economic space between having no roof and having one they can sit comfortably under, and stay under for long stretches to try to avoid this deadly virus.
In the video, Britten speaks to them and for them. “You guys, we can do this,” she says at one point. “We can get through this.”
The video, which Britten recently posted on YouTube, has this title: “Surviving covid-19 in a hotel.”
It is part confessional and part guidebook.
In it, she speaks openly about her family’s situation. She is living with her husband and five of her six children at a motel in Prince George’s County, Md., sharing a room with two beds that costs $77 a night during the week and $84 a night on the weekends.
She also offers encouragement and advice from that screen to anyone who might be new to that life. One suggestion: Cook large meals that will stretch — spaghetti, casseroles, chilis.
“What I want you guys to know is there is hope,” she says. “You can survive out here, you guys.”
Before you start to feel sorry for Britten, you should know she doesn’t want pity. She also doesn’t want handouts or the spotlight. She makes that clear in the video. She explains that her motivation for publicly sharing her family’s private struggles — and why she plans to post more videos about their life — comes from a sense of duty “as a black woman, a mother, a provider, a friend, a sister, a cousin.”
The coronavirus is expected to claim more than 100,000 lives across the country in the coming months, but it will also leave many people devastated in ways that don’t involve death. Already, jobs have been lost and bills have gone unpaid.
Britten’s family has not been untouched by that economic ripple.
She was a hairstylist working at the Shops at Iverson before covid-19 caused the Maryland shopping center to close “indefinitely,” according to its website. She says her husband, who has long worked in construction, lost his source of income months ago and now works various jobs to make ends meet.
But Britten’s family is also in a position that she is choosing at this moment to see as a strength: They have weathered financial hardships before.
Put another way: They know how to survive.
Britten tells me this when we talk on a recent afternoon, but she doesn’t have to say much about what her family has gone through because I already know. I first met them during one of their lowest moments.
Four years ago, I happened to see a Craigslist posting from Britten, pleading for help because her family was facing eviction and she feared she wasn’t going to be able to give her children any gifts for Christmas. “I pray everyday and now I’m begging for help,” she wrote at the time. “I know it’s not about the gifts, but they are kids! I’m such a failure right now . . . please help me.”
Similar pleas pop up each year, and people usually ignore them because they have no way of knowing whether those claims are legitimate. So I met Britten at her home. When I got there, I found a $5 tree on a broken stand, pay stubs and other documents that supported her story and children who were polite and hesitant to talk about what they wanted for Christmas because they knew their parents were struggling.
After I wrote about the family, strangers made sure they had a memorable Christmas. People sent enough presents to fill their living room, and Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder gave the family a check for $10,000.
Others accused Britten of embarrassing her family and questioned her parenting ability.
“I love my children,” she said at the time. “And I will take care of them, and I will get them what they need, any way I can.”
What that entails now is grocery shopping for others through Instacart and DoorDash most days, and doing hair on the side when clients call. Britten says she tries to practice social distancing as much as possible, but she doesn’t have the option of staying home. She says her family does not receive assistance from the state, and she needs to work to pay her car insurance, buy food for her children and cover that daily motel fee.
At 9 on a recent morning, her husband had already left for a job and Britten had to get to a hairstyling gig. That meant she had to wake up her three youngest children, ages, 11, 7 and 5, so they could go with her. She takes them everywhere with her now that their schools are closed. She has no choice.
As the family dresses, Britten’s youngest child, a girl named Morgan, weaves her arms through the handles of a Wendy’s bag.
She uses it as a backpack to carry her art supplies and a doll she named Emily. The doll’s face is covered in black makeup smears because Morgan tried to do to the doll what she sees her mom do to clients — make them pretty.
Britten says she has been struggling since the last recession to achieve financial stability, and that it is particularly hard to find affordable housing when you have teenagers. Her three oldest children, including one who is staying with his father, are 14, 16 and 18. Britten says her family has been turned away from shelters and turned down for apartments — which is how they ended up at the motel a few months ago.
“We’re the forgotten,” Britten says of her family and the parents and children who fill the rooms around them. “People don’t realize we’re out here.”
Britten credits a recent conversation with her sister with leading her to change her perspective and create that video. She says she was questioning her purpose, wondering why her family had experienced so many struggles, when her sister suggested that maybe those struggles were part of her purpose.
She says that’s when she realized that she had something to share with others — those who are in the same position as her family and those who will end up there.
“Everyone is panicking,” she says. “I’m not really panicking out here.”
Toward the end of the video, Britten tells viewers that in future videos, she plans to let them see inside her life, that she is going to take them into that motel room with her to give them a glimpse of what she cooks for dinner and what her family does together.
She also invites people to ask her questions about anything they want to know, whether that is how to use the laundromat or how to “weather all types of things.”
“We’re going to get through this,” she says. “It’s called survival mode, you guys. Surviving the coronavirus. Surviving covid-19. We’re going to get through this, you guys. So stay prayed up — and stay tuned.”
Read more from Theresa Vargas: