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Where does debt come from? How does it get so out of hand? And why is it such a difficult topic to discuss?On South Carolina Public Radio's InDebted, host Scott Morgan explores the issue of debt in the Palmetto State, including medical debt, student loan debt, short-term loan services, financial literacy, and more. According to research by the Urban Institute on the amount of personal debt burden across the U.S., eight of the top 50 counties with the most debt were in South Carolina, with more than half of the residents living with excessive debt. Join us for a deep dive into the factors that make our state one of the worst places for debt in the country and the stories of real South Carolinians living in this ecosystem of debt.Interested in sharing your personal story with debt? Learn more about our InDebted Profiles series here.

Indebted: How to lose your home by getting sick

'Michelle Strickland' was living a good life, until she wasn't. Medical care took her ability to work and the bills eventually led to her losing her house. She wants you to know it can happen to anyone.
Linda Nunez
South Carolina Public Radio
'Michelle Strickland' was living a good life, until she wasn't. Medical care took her ability to work and the bills eventually led to her losing her house. She wants you to know it can happen to anyone.

“Michelle Strickland” isn’t Michelle Strickland’s real name. She doesn’t want the world to know her real identity.

She does, however, want the world to know her story. It’s a warning shot about how bad medical debt can get for a person.

Strickland’s story reads like a fable gone dark. She and her husband had a home worth $200,000-plus. They both made decent money. They had nice things. She drove a nice car.

“I was living a good life, you know?” she says. “But when [my husband] got sick, he couldn't work, and his folks was in New York. I was the only one down here and I had to take care of him. I became almost a full-time caretaker, which interfered with me working.”

Strickland used to work at BMW, then later in healthcare, as a patient’s aide – the person who makes sure sick people get what they need. But she lost a lot of work caring for her ailing husband. When he died in 2017, she didn’t have much of a savings account from which to pay his medical bills.

And then ….

“I got sick,” she says. “I've been sick with cancer.”

Carcinoid cancer to be exact – an especially insidious cancer that typically starts as tumors in the stomach, appendix, small intestine, colon, rectum, or lungs.

She actually already had it when her husband took ill. It just hadn’t shut her down yet. Today, Strickland’s carcinoid cancer is Stage 4.

“I have some in my stomach and my liver,” she says. “I've been dealing with my stomach and liver for a while.”

In an unfortunately common scenario, Strickland was too sick to work, had no financial help, was raising a granddaughter on her own, and was left to pay mounting (and gigantic) cancer treatment and surgery bills.

Eventually, the bills got too big. With nowhere to go for financial help, she turned to a title lender, but ended up with just another bill she couldn’t escape, and an interest rate of 300 percent, she says.

United Ministries, a faith-based social and financial assistance organization in Greenville, and her church, stepped in and got her a loan with a much lower interest rate that eventually helped her pay down the title loan and keep her car.

But her car, more than a decade old by now, wasn’t running very well, and her granddaughter’s cousin wrecked her granddaughter’s car. With no money to fix her own so she could let her granddaughter use it for work, “I had to go get another title loan,” Strickland says.

That one proved too much. She lost her car. She also lost her house.

“I lost everything,” she says. “Technically, I was homeless. I would have never thought: Me, coming from a $200,000 house to being homeless. I never seen that. I never thought I would end up to that point. But it’s possible.”

Strickland had been placed in an apartment and then a shelter – which was a far-from-ideal place for someone with cancer to spend the COVID-19 pandemic. She has since found her own apartment, which she shares with her granddaughter in Greenville County. The cancer has not subsided, though, and neither have the bills.

Despite her illness, the pain (“excruciating” was the word she used to describe it), and her bleak prognosis, not-Michelle Strickland plans to leave this world in peace.

“What brings me comfort is, I'm not afraid of dying,” she says.

She gets that comfort from her faith in the Almighty. And from the fact that her situation has made her more empathetic to people she sees wandering the streets of Greenville.

“When I see these people, those homeless people walking around,” she says, “I wonder what they used to do. How did they get here? I don't think anyone chose to be homeless. They had to have some type of trauma to cause them to get to this point. I empathize with them. I feel bad for them because I just always wonder what caused them to get to this point. It could happen to anyone. I was just lucky. I was just blessed to know where to go, to get some help.”

United Ministries assists in crises, provides homeless assistance, and hosts learning about economic mobility and financial literacy. The organization can be found by clicking here.

Scott Morgan is the Upstate multimedia reporter for South Carolina Public Radio, based in Rock Hill. He cut his teeth as a newspaper reporter and editor in New Jersey before finding a home in public radio in Texas. Scott joined South Carolina Public Radio in March of 2019. His work has appeared in numerous national and regional publications as well as on NPR and MSNBC. He's won numerous state, regional, and national awards for his work including a national Edward R. Murrow.