In May, the Housing Authority raised her rent from $84 a month to $174 a month. It lowered her rent in June to $171 a month but raised it again in July to a monthly rate of $217.
Keisha’s 24. She doesn’t understand. Why can’t they settle on one amount? She has no idea what August’s rent might be. She owes about $100 for March and all of April’s rent. She pats the notices together, making a thin stack, and sets them on the floor. Tidying up gives a sense of order for a minute. A neat pile doesn’t pay bills. She stares at the papers as if they were bugs in her carpet.
The worn couch we sit on doesn’t have cushions. A blue, patterned Mexican rug covers it, and Keisha sinks low into the rug against the coiled springs. She tugs at her yellow sweatshirt and jeans. She picks the papers off the floor and rattles off the rent figures again to herself. Perhaps this time, the umpteenth time she’s read the notices, she’ll figure out the reason for the fluctuations in her rent. She tugs a strand of blond hair.
In February, Keisha’s Housing Authority caseworker accused her of earning more than $800 a month as a certified nursing assistant, $100 more than what she had been reporting. The caseworker said she received this information when she called Keisha’s employer. As a result of that conversation, Keisha’s rent would be raised.
That can’t be, Keisha said. She works just 22 hours a week at minimum wage, about $760 a month. Six hundred something after taxes. She had her paycheck stubs to prove it. Her caseworker said that didn’t make sense.
“Ma’am, I’ve been on the phone with you for 45 minutes, and now you get it. No, it doesn’t make sense why you’d say I’m earning what I’m not.”
Her caseworker said she’d look into it further.
Keisha hasn’t heard from her since then. She just receives notices about her rent. Up one month, up more the next. She sinks deeper into the couch and glances around her living room. A painting of Jesus and a small angel decorate the otherwise bare yellow walls. She looks out the window at her overgrown yard, bright green under a clear sky on the east side of Kansas City, Missouri. Mostly black, mostly poor. I’m a freelance writer. A social worker before that. As a reporter, I go around and ask social service agencies for story ideas. One Salvation Army case worker suggested I meet Keisha. Keisha had sought her help with the Housing Authority.
As I mull over Keisha’s situation, I think of my father. He lost his job when I was a kid. He ran a cigar company started by his father. By 1980, however, business had dropped to such an extent he was forced to sell it. He had invested wisely and after he sold “the business” as my mother referred to the cigar company, we lived off the interest from those investments. My family got along as if nothing had happened. Our lives didn’t change. We had a roof over our heads, three meals a day and still took vacations. We weren’t suffering is what I’m saying.
Financial uncertainty is the bridge to cross to understand Keisha’s world. I’m well on the other side of that bridge.
As I sit beside Keisha, I can’t help but think about Melvin Caswell. About a week earlier, a social worker with the Housing Information Center, a Kansas City nonprofit that, as its name implies, assists people with housing, told me that Caswell, one of her clients, was getting evicted from his Forest Avenue home, another eastside address. I showed up the morning he was removed. A woman from a mortgage company paced outside his home.
“I know today’s the day to complete the eviction,” she says into her cell phone. “Listen, they want me to hold off for 48 hours so he can get his stuff out. I don’t know what to do. What? OK.”
She snapped the phone shut.
“They have to talk to their lawyers,” she said to my Housing Information Center contact, Pam Johnson. “They’ll call me back in five minutes.”
“Can’t you get more people to help?” a sheriff’s deputy asked her.
“No,” Pam said. “People want to get paid. We can’t afford more than these two.”
She pointed to two men in T-shirts and jeans near a pickup. They were there to take Melvin’s belongings to a storage place on Main.
“It’ll be any time now,” Pam told them.
I don’t mention Melvin to Keisha. No need to tell her about someone else’s bad luck. She has enough of her own.
“I don’t even know what I’d have to be making to bring home $862.50 a month.” Photographs of Keisha’s two children, a 4-year-old boy and 2-year-old girl, stand in frames on a small night table. As far as she knows, her son’s father is in jail and the girl’s father is about to be.
I don’t ask why or how she hooked up with such men. Beneath such questions lies judgement. A judgement that suggests she not only made bad choices but that these choices show her to be morally flawed, a bad person. Judgements spare me from introspection. I don’t need to care about Keisha, or, for that matter, Melvin. He too, I’m sure, made mistakes. His faults, his problem.
There’re times, Keisha says, that she works more than 22 hours a week. Sometimes 30. Someone calls in sick. A few more patients sign up for care. She works a double shift. Those times her hours increase for a few days, a week, maybe even two weeks before they drop again to 20, 22 hours. Maybe that’s what happened. Maybe her employer mentioned those fluctuations and her caseworker thought Keisha works 30 hours all the time.
Keisha thinks her problems started when she changed jobs. Last year, she worked for a home healthcare agency that paid her twice a month. It was hard to stretch her income between pay periods with a minimum wage job, so this year she switched to another healthcare provider that pays every Thursday.
“Wednesdays are my broke days,” she says. “But I usually make it.”
Keisha told her caseworker about the new job.
Maybe she became suspicious when Keisha mentioned she would be paid weekly instead of biweekly. Maybe she thought Keisha would be raking it in and decided to confirm her income. Who’s to say? Keisha wished she hadn’t said anything. Her caseworker said she spoke to someone named Brian in the human resources department. He was the one who said she made more than $800 a month. Keisha tried to find him, but no one knew a Brian.
“Now I got to have my job get the right amount on paper and fax it to my worker. I can’t bring it down myself. I was told it can’t touch my hands, otherwise they’d say I made the numbers up.”
If she can straighten out this income deal and get her rent back down to $84, that will free up a little money to pay her gas bill. She owes about $500. She had started falling behind last year but wasn’t cut off until April when the weather warmed up. Everybody on her street, it seems, was cut off about then.
Melvin’s power was cut off, too. Step by step, the bills piled up until the pile of bills became a mountain he could not climb. How did it come to this? I asked Pam. A 70-year-old man on a fixed income gets sick, falls behind in his mortgage payments, juggles bills, waits too long to ask for help. That’s how, she said. After living on Forest for 20 years and with just $13,000 left on his mortgage. That’s how.
Pam and I watched as about a dozen men huddled behind the deputy. At the deputy’s signal they will empty Melvin’s house onto the sidewalk. The deputy won’t allow Johnson’s guys in the house. They must wait for the deputy’s men to carry Melvin’s things out to the sidewalk before they can load the truck. Plastic sheets were spread out earlier to prevent Melvin’s bed mattress from being damaged by the damp ground.
“You could use more help,” the deputy told Pam.
She ignored him, watched neighbors step around puddles, gather on the street to stare. Some looked as if they have just gotten out of bed, yawning, scratching their stomachs.
“I’ll stay out here watching everything until we’re done,” the deputy said. “Then I’ll have to go.”
“I can’t stay and guard it,” Johnson said. “I’ve got other clients.”
“Then tell your guys to load it fast.”
I imagine the same scene outside Keisha’s house. She looks at me. Perhaps she imagines it, too.
This isn’t the first time she’s been without gas, she says. Last year, too, for a few months she didn’t have gas. Her daughter couldn’t tell the difference, but her son figured things out pretty quickly when he watched Keisha turn on the stove. Nothing happened.
“Baby,” Keisha said without the slightest hint of surprise in her voice, “I can’t cook you nothing to eat.”
“Done cut our gas.”
“Don’t have no money, that’s why. How ‘bout some cereal?”
She microwaves water to wash her children, tests the temperature with a finger. Feeds them hot dogs and peanut butter sandwiches. She tries to get them McDonald’s once a month. That’s their kind of stuff, anyway. They like it. Give them cereal and a packet of fruit snacks and they’re happy.
It’s adults, Keisha thinks, who trip off needing four-course meals, not kids.
“It just feels trifling not having gas. It’s not home if everything ain’t the way it’s supposed to be, is it? But I just got to keep it together.”
She has begun potty training her daughter to save the $5 she spends on Pampers. Probably the best thing to do is to move to an apartment. Be smaller. You can heat an apartment a whole lot cheaper than a house.
Keisha’s good on her water and electric bill.
Even when she falls behind, they usually don’t bother her. Her debts have to start rolling into the $300 range before the light people notify her. Usually a $50 payment here and there keeps them off her back.
She’s proud of herself. She takes her difficulties like a champ. She can talk about it without whining. Lose your pride, she says, is when you go “from poor to po’.”
Last year when her gas was shut down, she was a nervous wreck. Not now, though. Struggling has made her grow up some. She didn’t cuss out the gas people the way she did last year when her gas was shut off.
“If I get nervous, the kids get concerned. So I try not to show it. I’ve tried as hard as I can. Now I just deal with it.”
She doesn’t borrow money. Whoever lends her $20 will need it back next week and she won’t have it, so what’s the point?
Her mother gave her $100 not too long ago. That helped.
Melvin also received help. Not from his mother of course—she was long passed—but from Pam and other social service agencies. But no nonprofit had the means to pay off all his bills.
“Had we known what was going on sooner we could have pulled this out of foreclosure,” Pam told me. “He waited too long.”
I looked inside the house and found Melvin in his kitchen, a short, stoop-shouldered man in baggy pants and sweatshirt, a bandanna wrapped around his head. Dishes filled the sink, and a black-and-white television played a morning news show. A mattress for Mr. Socks, his 10-year-old Chihuahua, took up most of the floor. Melvin shuffled back and forth without purpose around empty boxes he should have been filling, his eyes red, rimmed with tears.
“I just wanted to stay until I died here,” he said to no one. “It’s a little old shack, but I like it.”
A musty blanket hanging in the kitchen doorway sealed him off from the rest of the house. He had lived in the kitchen most of the winter to reduce his utility bills. He liked to bake bread and stayed warm by the oven.
I looked out into the living room. The sheriff’s deputy was considering the rattan chairs stuffed with teddy bears, two sofas cozied up with quilts. Potted plants hung from the ceiling near some pictures Melvin bought at Walmart. Stacks of jazz records pillared both sides of a television. A rainbow-colored sculpted parrot guarded the fireplace.
“This is a lot of stuff,” the deputy said.
I walked back outside. I imagined someone walking into my parent’s house. Front hall. The grandfather clock. Lamps. Hat rack. A chest of drawers. Then they look out the front door at where they will set it all on the street.
The woman from the mortgage company was putting away her cell phone.
“They said he’s already had a week’s extension,” she told Pam.
Pam nodded. The woman told the deputy it was time. He waved his men toward the house and together began removing paintings from the walls and carrying them outside.
Keisha has plans to forestall eviction. She’ll sell some of her food stamps. Can’t buy anything to cook without gas, so she might as well sell them. She’ll go to her momma’s house and make some chicken. What’s left over, she’ll stretch for the next week.
“When I cash my weekly check for 160-something, somebody, either the gas man or the landlord, is going to get 100. I’m left with $60.”
She picks up the stack of rent adjustment notices again and repeats the numbers to herself. Suddenly she looks very tired. It’s the kind of exhaustion that suggests giving up. I imagine the deputy sheriff arriving outside Keisha’s home.
Keisha walks me to the door. I have what I need and thank her for her time. She doesn’t hear me. Her thoughts are with her house and where she’ll be after I’m gone. Alone with her kids and the overdue rent, that’s where.
Worse comes to worse, she can leave her son and daughter with her sister, she tells me. She could stay with her mother. If it comes to that.
“What do you think?”
I don’t answer. I can’t say any more than I know what Melvin Caswell should do. I start my car and raise my hand goodbye. Keisha remains in the door staring through me, watchful and silent, unable to change a thing.