Displaced: A Different Narrative
Maria cradles her infant son, Joshua, as he begins to cry. “The other day I went into the Krystal,” she tells me. “I was crying because it was raining. Sometimes I feel like I’m a bad mom because I can’t provide what I need for my kids. I get tired of walking around and having my kids out in the heat all of the time. It causes [my husband and me] to argue, causes us to say mean things to each other that we really don’t mean. I know they say it’s ‘for better or worse,’ and that’s why I’m still here . . . because I married him in the struggle, and I plan on being with him out of the struggle.”
The dominant narrative says that people in homelessness are primarily single men living on the street who are unwilling or unable to work; it says these single men are drug addicts and/or mentally ill with extensive criminal backgrounds. But as I sit across the table from Maria Davis, her husband James Cesar, and their two children at the Salvation Army’s shelter, it is clear there are important exceptions to this (severely skewed) narrative, which heavily weights the most visible forms of homelessness.
Maria and James are married, college educated, and hard working people who have fallen on hard times. They are good people who have dreams. Like many working class folks, they lived from paycheck to paycheck until concurrent setbacks pushed them off the edge with no safety net to catch them. It is a story that would cause many working class people to shake their heads and say, “That could be us.”
“What’s hurting us,” Maria explains, “is that there’s more money going out than coming in. A lot of people think all homeless people have drug addictions, and that’s not true. Even the people with drug addictions have gone through something to put them in that place. The reason why they’re doing that is they’re hurting. But we’ve never had addictions. The whole reason we’re in this situation is there’s more money going out than coming in.”
Maria’s tells me about her growing up years; how her mother worked to keep their family afloat. “I remember that at one time,” Maria says, “[my mother] was working three jobs to try to support us because my dad had gotten into a head-on collision with a dump truck, and he had almost died. So she was taking care of all of us for a while.” This was quite a feat for Maria’s mother considering Maria was one of three siblings, in addition to the two other kids Maria’s mother had taken in.
Maria says her father had always been “strict,” but he became verbally and physically abusive after his accident. Concerned for her children’s safety, Maria’s mother left her father when Maria was 17. Maria had been home for one year from a Job Corps training program in Kentucky. After Job Corps she spent two years at the University of Florida where she earned an Associates Degree in Business and Finance.
Not long after graduating from the University of Florida, Maria met James. “I was at the Edison Mall bus station,” she explains. “I asked him for a lighter, and I said, ‘Oh you have kids?’ because I saw a picture of his son on his keychain. He asked me for my phone number, and I was, like, ‘Oh, ok…Here’s my phone number. The bus is here. I have to go!’ I got on the bus and got a text message. He said, ‘Are you going to come see me tonight?’ And I was, like, ‘I don’t know . . . I don’t know.’” A smile creeps across Maria’s face. “I wound up going to see him.”
“She didn’t know I knew how to cook,” James says of their first date that took place later that night. “And the place where I was living was actually a nice place, and the first time she walked into my house . . . ”Maria interrupts and exclaims, “I said, ‘Oh, its clean!’” [laughs]. “I was cooking spaghetti,” James continues, “and she looked in the pot, and she goes, ‘Oh, you know how to cook?’” The couple has been together for five years now.
“My childhood was good,” James explains. He says that he was one of seven children. “We lived in the projects in Southwest Florida. My parents were together for 48/50 years. My parents were strong. I can’t complain about my childhood.”
There is an intensity about James that is immediately apparent. It feeds a strong entrepreneurial spirit. He tells me that after he earned an Associate Degree from what is now Northwestern University in southwest Florida, he started his own business. “My business was car detailing, audio/stereo hookup, which I learned on the street. Everyone was into having their car stereos hooked up in Florida. If you knew how to do it, you could make money off of it.” Eventually James incorporated his business, which grew to include many things beyond car stereo hookup. “It was a jack-of-all-trades business. I’m a J.A.C.—James Anthony Cesar/ Jack-of-All-Trades.”
I ask the couple how they first became homeless. They explain to me that a series of problems, which began with the financial burden of James’s child support payments to children from previous relationships, led to their becoming homeless. James says the amount of child support he pays was set when he was making more money and was much more financially stable. He says he is making the same payments now even though his income has dramatically decreased; about half of his current income goes to pay child support. “I’ve petitioned and tried to go to court,” he explains. “I can’t afford a lawyer.”
The financial burden has made it difficult for this family, but the mishap that triggered the family’s initial loss of housing was what sounds like a miscommunication with their landlord. “Unfortunately,” Maria explains, “the landlord signed a lease with someone else before we could renew our lease. Then we moved up here. I saw that it was a lot cheaper to live here, and I figure we could afford to live up here a lot better than we could down there. I wanted to be in Perry where I was born.” Maria says they intended to move into a family home in Perry, but construction in the area around the house prevented them from occupying it. After staying with relatives in Warner Robbins for a couple of months, the family came to stay at the Salvation Army’s shelter in Macon.
“When we got here, we wanted to enter into the rapid re-housing program,” Maria explains, “but there are no more funds in it. I was crying. Miss Naomi told me, ‘It’s ok, don’t worry, just keep having faith.’” Naomi Ladson, Social Services Director at the Salvation Army, has been a major advocate for getting the family into permanent housing. “Once we get the letter of approval,” Maria explains, “we will be able to get into a place.” While the couple awaits approval for Section 8 housing, they spend their days at the library searching the Internet for employment listings and rental properties accepting Section 8 vouchers.
Two weeks after I first sat down with Maria and James, they came by my office to use the computers and to share their good news. Maria said she had applied for a job at the Marriott to be a housekeeper. A couple of days later, she stopped back by the hotel to check on the status of her application; the hotel was very busy that day. As she sat in the lobby waiting to speak to a manager, a woman standing nearby struck up a conversation. “I like your shoes. Are you here for the funeral?” the woman asked. Maria explained she was not aware of the funeral the woman was speaking of. “Gregg Allman,” the woman explained. “We’re all here for his funeral. My husband’s an Allman,” the woman said, introducing him to Maria. Slightly embarrassed, Maria apologized for her obliviousness. The man said, “That’s all right,” Maria recalls. “People tend to be fake when they know who you are…Don’t worry, you’ll get the job.” Maria laughed. The man said, “No, I’m serious,” she recalls. “We have clout here.” Sure enough, the unknown Allman, who Maria says looked like a young Gregg, with “good facial structure,” spoke to a manager, and Maria started work at the hotel the very next day.
While Maria and James still face many barriers, they can now see the light at the end of the tunnel. “My plan is to try even harder to fix our problem,” James explains. “I’m praying to the good Lord to become financially stable.” Thanks to their hard work and resilience, the help of organizations like the Salvation Army, and, perhaps in some mysterious way, the Spirit of the Allman Brothers, it seems like things are beginning to change for the better for this family.
Daybreak is a day center in Macon, Georgia where men and women living in homelessness can escape the streets to a place that offers a warm welcome and the services they need to move toward lives of stability and dignity. Services offered include hygiene, education, employment, and healthcare. To learn more about Daybreak and how you can support it as a donor or volunteer visit: https://us.depaulcharity.org/depaul-home/our-work/programs/daybreak-center-macon-ga or call Gaye Martel at 478-955-4519