Kindness just wasn't enough - East Valley Tribune: News

Kindness just wasn't enough

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Posted: Thursday, August 10, 2006 3:57 pm | Updated: 3:29 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Day 5 in a 5-day special report series

Deborah Davis' last-ditch effort to get one month's rent from a Phoenix church has failed. Police tell the family May 16 they have to get out of this east Phoenix townhouse immediately, and the locks will be changed at 8 a.m. the next day.

Clifton Drummer has been up all night rummaging through the patio trash for usable items and packing the minivan.

He says he's surprised they're being evicted and wishes they'd had more notice. But no one arrives at 8 a.m. as promised, so he keeps working.

Deborah and Courtney sleep on the living-room couch until noon, while the boys start a dice game in an upstairs bedroom.

For months the couple has tried to find money to fly Corey, now 15, and Courtney, who just turned 3, back to New Orleans.

Clifton yells to Deborah to stay awake and call her mother in New Orleans about taking the kids. She makes the call, but falls asleep during the conversation.

Just hours away from being kicked out, and the 49-year-old can't seem to keep her eyes open.

This isn't uncommon for Deborah, a petite, intense woman with close-cropped hair and huge brown eyes whose behavior these past months has bordered on manic.

In the span of a few minutes, she'll snap at the children and rail against a social worker, solemnly recall the horrors of Katrina, politely but firmly say how desperately her family needs help, then start to nod off.

Her mother, Jerrydean Davis, has been sending money when she can, but can't afford plane fare for the children.

By now, all the boys want to return to New Orleans. Corey is chosen because he's old enough to take care of Courtney on the trip and be of most help to his grandmother once he gets home.

Once she's fully awake, Deborah makes a stab at sweeping up the filthy house in preparation for moving out.

She barks orders while Courtney looks for food and the boys complain that her diaper stinks. Eleven-year-old Clinton finally changes her diaper.

Weary and cranky, Deborah suddenly puts a bright face on their situation.

"This was our first apartment in Phoenix and we enjoyed it," she says sweetly.

"But I'll be happy to move to another area. This area's not too good for kids.

"Everything happens for a reason, you know."

Her mood darkens again after a midafternoon visit from McKemy Middle School principal Ardie Sturdivant, accompanied by a special education teacher.

They urge Deborah to meet with them to develop an education plan for Clinton, whose behavioral problems have qualified him as a special needs student.

It's Wednesday and the boys should be in school, and Sturdivant acknowledges their attendance has been spotty.

"It's been on and off. And I know that there's been other issues that keep them from coming to school, and we're trying to work with them on that," he says. "Of course, you know the best place for them is in school. But unfortunately that's not always possible."

After the school officials leave, Deborah snaps at the boys. A newspaper photographer's presence doesn't slow her down.

"Where the baby at? Shut up! Sweep that so somebody can sit down! Close that door!"

Phoenix police arrive in the evening and give them 10 minutes to leave.

A neighbor has offered to store some of their things. Deborah tells Chad and Clinton to stay with the neighbor, too, while the rest of the family drives off in the overloaded van, mattresses teetering on the top.

They unload at a studio apartment on North Seventh Avenue in Phoenix. The place is being leased by another Katrina evacuee who has returned to New Orleans.

May 19

The boys are scrounging around the neighbor's kitchen, looking for food. The power is off because the woman has failed to pay the electric bill and the condo is stifling.

Corey, who left with his parents two days earlier, has made his way back to the condo complex. Chad and Clinton say they haven't seen their parents since the night they were evicted, and they haven't eaten either.

Clinton flies around the apartment like a whirling dervish, shoves Chad and tries to pick a fight with him.

Then he climbs on the kitchen counters and paws through the cupboards. He finds pancake mix, pours it into a bowl and adds some water.

He tries to turn on the stove and realizes there's no power.

He swears and tugs at his hair. "I'm hungry!" he yells.

They say they haven't eaten in two days. A Tribune photographer brings back McDonald's, and they wolf it down.

The boys eventually move into the new apartment with their family. But they all face certain eviction - and homelessness - because they aren't on the lease and there are too many people living in the small apartment.

May 26

Vivian Teye's eyes widen. She is frantic as she tours her trash-strewn townhouse. It's just a few days since Clifton, Deborah and the kids have finally moved out.

Her son, Victor, called police after a neighbor reported that someone from the family had broken in. Phoenix police arrive to question Victor and others in the area.

"It smells like hell! Look at the carpet! Lord have mercy!" Vivian Teye cries, stepping carefully among cockroaches, empty food containers and soiled diapers.

"Ingratitude. Lack of conscience. Lack of respect for people's things," she says. "It's incredible that you want to help people and then they turn around and abuse it, and think it is a right that they have to be helped.

"Society doesn't owe you anything. They need to get the hell out of Dodge. They need to go back to New Orleans. We can't take this."

May 31

Deborah has been trolling churches and charity organizations each day, looking for food, rent and other handouts and playing the Katrina card. Mostly, she wants a way to get Corey and Courtney back to New Orleans. Without the little one to worry about, she says she can finally get a job. She arrives at St. Vincent de Paul in Phoenix in a gold pantsuit, and paces nervously. Sons Chad and Clinton wander off.

"A lot of people take advantage of us because we're Katrina," Deborah says, while waiting for a second caseworker to see her.

The first caseworker couldn't help with housing because they had no jobs and no prospects for becoming self-sufficient. Agencies typically provide one-month "bridge" funding to families for utility payments, rent and the like, but only to those who can show they aren't likely to need help again soon.

Deborah is disgusted with the place and doesn't mind showing it.

"Now that I'm evicted, I have five kids, where do I go?" she asks the social worker. Only four are living with her now, however, since her oldest son returned to New Orleans in the fall.

"We have nothing here. And you want to send me to a shelter?" she says, a little too loudly. "Homeless. How you like that?"

Later, while waiting for a caseworker to find a list of shelters and see about getting travel vouchers for the two children, Deborah becomes more introspective. Her voice and her face soften as she takes a visitor into her confidence.

"People don't mind helping you. Then you get to a point where you need to help yourself," she says. "But I've always had my mom catching my back. And Mom ain't here to catch my back."

June 2

The family has survived the worst that Hurricane Katrina could dish out, but they can't survive the Valley.

Crammed into the now-squalid apartment on North Seventh, the family is living a hand-to-mouth existence a heartbeat away from homelessness.

The boys are enjoying the pool at the apartment complex, even though they don't know how to swim. But Deborah and Clifton are worried that the children will cause them to lose the apartment, so they're constantly trying to keep them quiet.

With temperatures hovering around 100 degrees, the parents send all the kids to the minivan in the parking lot.

The boys keep a sharp eye on Courtney and try to amuse themselves for several hours until Clifton says they can return to the apartment.

Back inside, Deborah and Clifton fall back to sleep on the bed, which is three mattresses high. The children play video games in the dark and wonder what they will eat. Finally, Corey rifles through his mother's purse and comes up with $6. He takes Courtney and walks to a nearby grocery store, where he buys milk, juice, sausages and rice. He cooks up jambalaya for his siblings.

Deborah awakens briefly and scolds her boy for not making enough food for her and Clifton.

"Did you say grace before you ate?" she asks sternly. Yes, they reply, we did. She falls back asleep.

It's nearly midnight and Courtney is fussy. Clifton wakes up and takes his daughter in his arms, cooing and rocking her until she dozes off. Then he leaves the apartment, saying he's going for cigarettes.

By 2 a.m., Clifton still hasn't returned. Chad has fallen asleep on a pile of blankets on the bathroom floor. Corey and Clinton are still playing video games.

June 7

St. Vincent de Paul finally comes up with a way to send two of the kids back to New Orleans when a staff member offers Deborah her frequent-flier tickets on Southwest Airlines. A volunteer at the shelter calls Jerrydean Davis in New Orleans to make sure she's willing and able to take on two of her grandchildren.

"Yes, they were living with me before," Jerrydean, 71, says over the speakerphone. "Actually, I've raised most of them, so I have no problem with that."

She says that 50 more schools will be open in New Orleans this fall and she'll find an appropriate place to enroll Corey. He asks about her finances, and whether she'll be able to afford the two children.

"I have my retirement and my Social Security," the former schoolteacher says. "And we have a lot of family here."

Deborah thanks her mother and looks pleased. Then she takes the boys to the dining room for lunch. They talk about New Orleans and surviving Katrina. Deborah says too much has changed in her hometown.

"I don't want to go back. It's depressing," she says in between bites of sloppy Joe and corn.

"We had high ceilings, wood floors, mantelpieces," Deborah says of her mother's home in Treme. "Now they got a bunch of . . . trailers."

June 13

The two children finally make it home, greeted at the Louis Armstrong International Airport by a flock of six women - including their grandmother, older half-sister, cousins and Courtney's godmother. Several of the women take time off work to come to the airport.

It is a tearful, joyous reunion.

Courtney is a bit overwhelmed and clings to Corey. Before the hurricane she spent much of her days with Deborah's cousin, Joyce, and her daughter, Keitra, but now the child won't go to either one of them. The women tease and cajole and finally beg Courtney to let them hold her.

They make a fuss over Corey and marvel at how much he's filled out. Big sister Kisha pinches his cheeks.

Courtney starts warming up and begins chatting before the luggage arrives. Corey says he wants crawfish, so they plan a crawfish feast at Kisha's house that night.

By 8:30 p.m., Corey's already eaten three servings of crawfish and Courtney is splayed out, fast asleep, on the leather couch in the living room. The NBA playoffs are on and the house is filled with the easy laughter of family. Corey looks relaxed, and his grandmother, aunts and cousins are still beaming at him.

"Look at his chest, Miriam! He's buff," Aunt Sheila says to her sister.

They talk about relatives who survived the flooding, but just barely.

Jerrydean can't bring herself to go into the Lower Ninth Ward, which nine months after the hurricane looks as if the water has only just receded.

"I know people who lived in some of those homes," she says. "Some people never found out where their people are. Their bodies just washed out to sea."

June 14

Corey swaggers through the streets of his old neighborhood, pointing out Treme landmarks.

This historic area just outside the French Quarter, where three generations of his family lived in the same double-shotgun house since his mother was a child, fared better than some. There are debris piles along the sidewalks and construction crews at work.

"I used to walk right here, touch this, and go to school," Corey says, reaching down again to touch the statue of the Virgin Mary near the corner of Governor Nicholls and North Rocheblave streets.

"This is where I learned how to play basketball. Right there," he says, strolling along Ursulines Avenue. "This is where everybody used to be at."

Not anymore. As he passes the homes of his friends, the barbershop and even his grade school, all are abandoned.

Corey walks tentatively toward his grandmother's house on Governor Nicholls, where he lived with his parents and four siblings. He wasn't sure if he wanted to see the house, but it doesn't look too bad from the outside - the fence is broken and, he notices sadly, a few trees are gone. The water lapped over the small cement porch, and the mold inside is bad. But this house can be salvaged.

Indeed, as he turns to leave he hears a familiar voice. Big brother Cardero walks out the door on Aunt Joyce's side of the house. The brothers haven't seen each other since 18-year-old Cardero left Phoenix last fall. They hug, then settle down on the stoop.

Cardero looks smaller than Corey in his long dreadlocks, baggy shorts and no shirt. He says he's been back and forth between Houston and Baton Rouge.

They talk about the missing trees, who's moved back and who hasn't. Then they say goodbye.

"Man, this town is messed up," Corey says on the drive back to Kisha's house. "It seems smaller and dirtier."

Late June

Vivian Teye is looking for restitution, but isn't finding any.

Gov. Janet Napolitano's office and Lutheran Social Ministry, charged with helping Katrina victims recover, have turned her down. She's facing bills upwards of $3,000 to clean and repair the townhouse, not to mention the free rent and furniture she gave the family.

At the same time, she's hoping someone else will reach out to Deborah and Clifton. Despite her anger and feelings of betrayal, she genuinely cares about the family.

"This wasn't even about money. It was about the time and effort and energy it took to add seven people to your family."

Teye recalls helping Chad with his math homework and seeing the look on his face when he figured it out. They'd give each other high-fives. She once considered adopting Chad, she says.

"The kids were calling me Auntie Vivian. They would rush and come and hug me. I loved that."

Two months since she evicted them, and despite the difficulty and heartbreak the family has caused her, Teye still worries about them.

"I'm still thinking about them. And I don't even know where they are. I don't even know where the kids are," Teye says, and she begins to cry.

"I was really angry. But at the same time, I calmed down and I said, ‘These people need help.'"

Early August

No one has heard from Deborah or Clifton. They haven't called family in New Orleans to check on Courtney and Corey, and their cell phone number no longer works.

In mid-July, Jerrydean calls a Tribune reporter looking for help getting Corey's school records so she can enroll him in ninth grade. She says she had spoken briefly with Deborah in late June, but hasn't been able to contact her since.

"I don't know what's what," Jerrydean says. "I thought sure by now someone would have called me."

She's worried that Corey will have to repeat eighth grade, and this retired schoolteacher knows that could increase his chances of dropping out. She's put in touch with McKemy Middle School and the records are sent to New Orleans.

Courtney is back to hanging on cousin Keitra, as she did before the hurricane, but she asks about her parents quite often.

Cardero still lives in the double-shotgun with his aunt Joyce, most of the time. He's found a job.

There's no sign of the family or the green minivan at the Seventh Avenue apartment, and none of the social service agencies they frequented have seen them since June.

Traci Gruenberger, director of operations for Lutheran Social Ministry, one of the agencies coordinating long-term relief and the main agency helping the family, won't talk about Deborah Davis or Clifton Drummer. The family had caseworkers assigned to it from a variety of hurricane-relief and welfare organizations, but those people rarely, if ever, visited the home.

Deborah and Clifton don't want to talk about what's gone wrong in Phoenix either. They are unwilling or unable to acknowledge their betrayal of Teye and other benefactors. Asked to explain how the townhouse got trashed, Deborah gets mad and walks away. It will be several more days before she agrees to meet again with a Tribune reporter and photographer.

If they can make their way back to New Orleans, a court date awaits Clifton. If they've blended into the Valley's homeless population, something much worse awaits Chad and Clinton.

Nearly a year after Hurricane Katrina hit and the New Orleans levee system collapsed, killing more than 1,500 people and causing tens of billions of dollars in damage, the storm continues to claim more lives.

"Usually the hurricane knocks on our door and that's it," Deborah once said. "We waited too late. And the water got too high."

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