I had one prospect left. Java, a woman I met about a year ago.
When I met Java she was sleeping on abandoned loading docks on 11th Street. She’d left a bad relationship to sleep on the street. Her days were spent in the Community Kitchen and her nights in St. Catherine’s Women’s Shelter. About a year ago, after being on a waiting list for months, she moved into a small apartment on the 14th floor of Dogwood Manor.
I stopped by to see her last Sunday. Her new apartment was clean and warm and her living room window overlooked the river and North Chattanooga. She told me about the hoops she had to jump through to get the place. Her rent works on a sliding scale and she was coming up for an evaluation soon. “It don’t help to worry about it, though,” she said.
She makes jewelry to sell when she can. She gets a clothing allowance from the Community Kitchen and sometimes uses the money to buy beaded women’s shirts at thrift stores. She takes the beads off the shirts and uses them to make her jewelry.
The purpose of my visit was to interview her. I started the formalities of it but things soon digressed into simple conversation. I told her about sneaking out the other morning to get chocolate. “You can’t be feeding a baby chocolate that early in the morning,” she said. She told me a story from her hippie commune days.
“I used to take all the children to the Berkeley House Restaurant back then. I’d get a group of some of the children from the commune and maybe one or two more adults and everybody had to be clean. We’d have a nice meal. Great service. And the kids would learn their table manners. Everybody would behave and enjoy their dinner.
“I liked teaching the kids table manners. You never know. It may be nice to know sometimes which fork to use. Me, I don’t get worried about it. I like whatever fits my hand. Anyway. English riding lessons didn’t do me much good, either.”
When I told her about the incident with the drunk man and his dollar bill she laughed at me.
“Well, what’s there to be mad at? He wasn’t giving you a dollar anyway,” she said. “He was giving it to that little girl for candy. She didn’t get mad about it. If somebody offers you a dollar you take it.”
Java laughed again.
“This little guy Shorty at the Community Kitchen one time stuck his finger in my back like he was trying to rob me and says, ‘Give me all your money.’ And I was thinking like, ‘Heck, I got a bunch of pennies I don’t even like carrying around.’ And I said, ‘OK! Here! I’ll gladly give you all my money.’ I go to give it to him and he don’t want to take it. Now that’s pretty pitiful when you’re getting robbed and then they change their mind.
“Anyway. It was funny. He finally took them, though. I kind of shamed him into taking them. Lousy little robber, didn’t even want to take the money.”
At the Department of Social Services, Al Tucker notes that $1 million in stimulus funds helped many people last year, but that money was gone. Director Camilla Bibbs-Lee says that of the 14,000 families aided last year, many do not fit stereotypes. They are newly unemployed, helping elderly parents, people who are afraid they will lose their homes or apartments. Many just need assistance to pay their lighting or heating bills. They are, in fact, the working poor next door.
“This is not one agency’s problem,” she says. “Innovative ideas are needed to break the cycle. For-profit, nonprofit and government sectors need to work together…we need to change to a model geared to successful outcomes.”
In the meantime, in between time…is it your problem? Is it our problem? Time to find the answer.