A slow spiral into chaos - East Valley Tribune: News

A slow spiral into chaos

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Posted: Tuesday, August 8, 2006 3:45 pm | Updated: 2:23 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Day 3 in a 5-day special report series

By February, the donated household goods, toys and bikes are broken and discarded, littering the back porch, which Chad tries to clean up. The townhouse owner expected the family to begin paying rent in January, but Deborah Davis and Clifton Drummer are still without jobs.

The red leather furniture is gone. So is the dining room set and the TV, along with any semblance of order or security in Clifton Drummer's household.

By late February, there is chaos, inside and out.

The small patio is littered with a broken refrigerator, crumpled furniture, pieces of drywall, a car seat, toys and other debris - discarded donations from churches, neighbors and others.

Inside, dirty dishes fill the sink and piles of laundry overflow two huge boxes towering 4 feet high. The dishwasher, washing machine and downstairs toilet are broken.

Deborah Davis no longer allows visitors upstairs.

A piece of carpet pulled from the trash covers the living room tile, cockroaches crawl across the floors and kitchen counters, and roach eggs line the ceiling leading up the stairs to the bedrooms. A living room chair reeks of urine.

Two-year-old Courtney toddles around unsupervised, wearing only a poop-filled diaper. She eats what she can find - a small poundcake that had been crawling with roaches or some bites off her brother's plate. She begs for her daddy, Barney and Hot Pockets. Deborah has been spending more time in bed. She yells from upstairs for someone to change Courtney's diaper.

Chad, now 12, tries vainly to clean up the junk-strewn patio, then collapses in a chair by the kitchen, head in hands. His brother, Clinton, now 11, brags to some neighbor girls about putting two holes in the wall.

Why'd you do it? they ask him.

"Because I got mad," Clinton replies. He has been openly angry since he arrived in Phoenix in the fall.

Six months after this family of Hurricane Katrina evacuees arrived from New Orleans, Chad is the only member of the family who's had a job, helping construction workers in the townhouse complex for $5 an hour so he could save enough money for a minibike. He also bought a basketball hoop and food for the family.

The boys' attendance at two Tempe middle schools is spotty.

In addition to clothing, food and household goods, someone gave the family a puppy in early September. Pup-Pup hasn't had her shots or been registered. Deborah spent a night in jail in late January for failing to control the dog. In their old Sixth Ward neighborhood, she says, they didn't have these kinds of dog rules.

Mid-March

The family has been living in the two-bedroom condo off East Broadway Road rent-free, with help from Tempe real estate agent Vivian Teye, her University Presbyterian Church and the church of Rep. Leah Landrum Taylor, D-Phoenix. Now, Teye is threatening to evict Deborah, Clifton and the four children still living there unless they start paying $750 a month.

They received state welfare benefits, food stamps and a $2,000 lump sum payment from the Federal Emergency Management Agency when they got here in September, but it's unclear what kind of public assistance is still coming in.

Clifton, who was a waiter in New Orleans, says his $70 monthly unemployment checks stopped coming in January. Deborah's mother sends money from New Orleans now and then, and churches have been helping out, too.

"The other monies have just, like, floated out, know what I'm saying?" Clifton says. "Maybe the Lord wanted us to struggle."

Clifton, a muscular man with a round face and a cigarette behind his ear, says he can't work because of a variety of health issues, including a head injury he received when he says he was a New Orleans police officer. Deborah says she can't work because she doesn't trust anyone to watch Courtney and the other kids.

And she says images of the flooding still haunt her. Some days they immobilize her. Deborah dozes off in between sentences, not uncommon for this wisp of a woman, who alternates among being angry, charming or half asleep.

She, Clifton, sons Cardero and Chad floated through the streets of New Orleans on a freezer door for three days after abandoning their double-shotgun house in Treme, near the French Quarter. They were rescued, one at a time, by helicopter.

"Just 'cause it's over doesn't mean it's over," Deborah says in a whisper, her husky voice breaking. "Every time I think about it, it brings tears. And I get all these chills. And it still has a toll on me, you know?

"You could never really understand the reality to it unless you walked in that water."

Clifton knows his family faces eviction, and he doesn't blame Teye. He blames Katrina and FEMA.

"It's not my fault, know what I'm saying? It's not my fault.

"And I'm not here to try to live off that, because I know ain't nobody gonna take care of us for years and years and years."

April 27

Teye thought she'd get rent after Christmas, but she hasn't received any money from the family and is preparing to have them evicted.

They're no longer on speaking terms with neighbors, who in September were thrilled to have Katrina evacuees in their midst.

"After awhile you start seeing these people aren't even trying to help themselves, so why should I even try?" says Joy Dennis, who lives across the way. "I'm not too fond of them because they beg and borrow. They beg, borrow and don't give back."

The family has fallen further into despair and poverty, and there is no food in the house. The children continue to miss school.

"Look at this!" Deborah fumes as she throws open the empty refrigerator and kitchen cupboards.

"We have nothing. No food. No nothing," she says, her arms flailing, her eyes wild. "Take pictures of this and print this in the paper.

"What's a single lady with five kids to do? I'm about to go out and steal!"

Instead, she asks a Tribune photographer to drive her to a food and clothing bank at Mount of Olives Lutheran Church on East Thomas Road. The church also serves as headquarters to Katrina Aid Today, a federally funded program to help evacuees become self-sufficient.

Deborah, now calm and courteous, is greeted warmly by Penny Larson, who runs the food bank. Larson sits next to Deborah on a hallway bench and listens attentively while Deborah explains all that the family has been through. She gives her a hug and tells Deborah she'll do whatever she can to help her.

They select groceries from the food bank, and Larson tells a volunteer not to record the transaction. Families are only supposed to receive food boxes once a month.

The next day, Clinton is with a group of boys police say set fire to an empty townhouse across the parking lot from their home. Five units are destroyed when someone tosses fireworks onto a pile of clothes. Fire officials estimate the damage at more than $550,000.

Later in the day, a Phoenix fire investigator questions Clinton and other kids at the complex. Another boy is taken into custody, but not before Pup-Pup bites the investigator on the right ankle. The dog, who is pregnant, gets hauled off to quarantine.

For neighbors, the fire is the last straw. They are calling Teye and threatening to sue her, accusing the children of another fire, flooding a nearby unit and running around unsupervised.

"I did everything for this family," Teye says. "I'm sorry I helped them."

May 5

Teye has gone to court, and the family is served with notice that they'll be evicted.

Deborah is appealing to Lutheran Social Ministry for rent money, but isn't having any luck. Social service agencies typically offer rent assistance once a year, and then only if families can show they'll be able to pay it themselves in the coming months.

Teye, who's given generously of her time and money, has run out of patience. She hasn't seen her townhouse in two months, but her son tells her it's been trashed.

"I don't want to deal with them. I want them out," she says. "Let the government take care of them, or somebody else but me."

Fourteen-year-old Corey has become a passive observer of his family's disintegration. He's wanted to return to New Orleans almost since they got here. His brother, Cardero, went back in October.

Corey is the quiet one, a teenager lost in his own world. He rarely smiles, and lights up only when he's with his pals.

When a neighbor's dog wanders into the house and pees on the living room floor, and the toddler walks down the stairs into the mess, Corey looks on aimlessly, as if he's watching a movie of somebody else's life. Finally, at a visitor's suggestion, he grabs a mop and makes an uninspired pass at the urine.

Facing eviction, Clifton says he's grateful for the help they've received and determined to pull his life together. But he could still use a hand.

"I thank the Lord every day, and I thank all the wonderful people that helped us," Clifton says earnestly, his words tumbling over each other. "I want to be a man like I'm supposed to be. I want to be a provider . . . But it's not easy, know what I'm saying? I'm not trying to justify anything. But what I'm saying is this: Help."

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