By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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By Kyle Swenson
Charles pointed out the small storage shed in the back yard and the space beneath the back porch for recycling. He gestured toward a citrus tree with a bright red "X" spray-painted on its trunk. "That's gotta come down," he said. "I don't know what kinda fruit it is." He led me across the strip of lawn along the other side of the house, distracting me with his chatter. I did not notice the overflowing shopping cart wedged against the high wooden fence at the end of one neighbor's lawn, or the sag in the chainlink fence between our house and the house to the north. I was too busy imagining where we would plant rose bushes and fruit trees. "I like being a tour guide," admitted Charles when we arrived at the sidewalk again. "It makes me feel important."
A late-model sedan pulled up beside my car, and a husky white man in his late forties stepped out. Forrest unlocked the front door of the house and showed me the living room. A long cramped corridor ran along the south side of the house, opening into the first bedroom before widening into the kitchen. At the end of the kitchen counter, another door opened into the second bedroom. There were no appliances and only empty space in the compartments built for the air-conditioning units. "We'll install those when you move in," Forrest explained. "It's the same no matter where you are. If a house is empty, people find out about it. Even my own house, which is a $400,000 house up in Broward. It was empty just before we moved in, and people came and stripped everything. Once you move in, everything will be fine."
"We're not in the business of renting," he continued as he touted the new paint, new wiring, and new appliances he would install. "We're in the business of fixing up houses and giving people a chance to own their own homes. We've really seen some neighborhoods turn around." We would rent the house at first, while his nonprofit organization would connect us with a credit counseling service to "clean" our credit reports and make it easier to secure a loan. A homeless person had been hired to stay in the house until a buyer could be found. "But," Forrest conceded, "that's not the same as someone actually living here."
Nothing he could have said would have prepared us for what it would be like to live there. The last tenant, he said, had fallen back into a drug habit while residing in the house on a rent-to-own basis. "I should have known something was going on when he started reporting the appliances stolen," he said. If a reference check showed that my partner and I had no prior problems with drugs or the law, all it would take was a cashier's check, and we would be in.
Back in the front yard, I met Anthony, the neighbor I had seen earlier. He spoke slowly and did not smile, but his tone was warm. "We'd like to have some good neighbors," he said. "I hope y'all stay awhile." We chatted about the neighborhood as the late-model car drove away. An ashy-skinned woman in a thin cotton housedress opened the screen door of Anthony's house. "I told you yesterday to stay away," she complained to me in a voice softened by a Kreyol accent.
"That's not her," said Anthony, rolling his eyes. "She's going to buy the house next door."
"Oh," said his wife, closing the door before I could introduce myself. I would meet her later, I told myself, eager to practice my Kreyol. If pregnancy and gainful employment meant that I needed to settle down, at least I'd live in a neighborhood where I could speak a new language and explore a new culture. I had lived in some of the most dangerous cities in the world, including Nairobi, Kenya, and Bogotá, Colombia; a few homeless guys wandering the street did not scare me. I had helped mobilize African-American women on welfare and Mexican migrant workers in some of the most impoverished communities in the United States. I had occupied government buildings, organized marches, and had my share of run-ins with the police. I could handle a few vagrants in my own back yard.
About 8:00 on the morning after we moved in, a chubby brown-skinned girl in her late teens wearing a pink strapless sundress came to the front door. She seemed surprised when I answered, but quickly recovered, asking, "Oh, did they sell this house already?" As she walked away, I saw Mickey Mouse heading up the street to the north, this time wearing a plain red T-shirt. I followed her to a vacant house in the middle of the next block, where she stood next to a shopping cart full of cans.
"I take drugs," she confessed matter-of-factly, her voice husky and her gaze fixed on the ground. "But if I ever get like her," she continued, referring to the coughing woman, "just call the police or put me in the loony bin. She's really bad. She'll get in the car with anyone and do anything for five dollars. That's the bad stuff. Heroin."