Our Lady of the Projects

Octavia Anderson and the last days of the James E. Scott Homes

Pamela Anderson was thirteen years old when she had Octavia. After a couple of years playing Mom, Pamela checked out. "She thought she was too young to be raising children," Octavia explains. Octavia and her brother and sister lived with their grandmother, Louise Hayes, and nine cousins in an apartment in Scott Homes. Louise Hayes provided the discipline. Pamela sent gifts at Christmas and on Octavia's birthdays. "But she wasn't there to raise me," Octavia says. Pamela, her mother, always seemed more like a glamorous big sister....

Although her grandmother was strict and tried to instill in Octavia a sense of purpose and responsibility, it was Pamela's example that Octavia followed. When she was thirteen, she got pregnant, too. Then, pregnant with her second child at age fifteen, she dropped out of high school. "My grandmother had a saying: “You make your own bed, and you lie in it.' And I made a hard bed."

Community activist Earnestine Worthy: "Lord, please help your people!.... Start stepping!"
Steve Satterwhite
Community activist Earnestine Worthy: "Lord, please help your people!.... Start stepping!"

In 1989 -- living on welfare in Scott Homes where she was raising four kids and had no prospects for the future -- she took stock of her life. "I decided to make my bed softer," she says quietly.

Octavia understood the choices her mother had made, the pressure she'd felt, and how easy it would have been to let someone else raise her children. But she decided to do what she needed to do. Louise Hayes applauded that choice. "My grandmother's proud of the fact that I'm here with all my kids, and they are excelling," Octavia says. "I guess I felt so strongly about that because my mother ... I made the opposite decision."

That's when Ms. Hayes's lessons kicked in. "She taught us values. I think she did a damn good job." Octavia says. She enrolled in a class to study for her GED. When the teacher wouldn't or couldn't explain things in ways that made sense to Octavia, she dropped out and studied on her own. When she failed the test the first time, she took it again and passed. "I knew if I put my mind to it, I could do it. And I just made a commitment," she says.

Octavia showed the same resilience at work. She took a minimum-wage job she hated, pricing stock at J Byrons. Now she earns $17,000 annually and feels good about the future. After sixteen years together, she and Phillip are talking about marriage. Her credit is good. She thinks she may be able to qualify for the county's first-time homebuyer program. She barely has time to catch her breath, but when she finally hits the bed at night, it's softer.

With that attitude, Octavia could be a poster child for the kind of person the housing agency would welcome back to the redeveloped Scott and Carver HOPE VI community with open arms. She's got gumption, grit, self-determination, and a can-do attitude that kept her keeping on despite the odds.

When Octavia looks around at the other women in the projects, she sees people like her grandmother and like herself. And if she has anything to do with it, she wants to make sure HOPE VI doesn't screw them over. Given opportunities and support, Octavia believes, a lot of these women would choose school, a decent job, and an opportunity to become homeowners. HOPE VI promises that. From personal experience, Octavia says she knows how hard it is when you are poor, uneducated, and relying on government programs. Trying to get aid from bureaucracies can get frustrating fast. If you complain, you're likely to get nothing: "A lot of them just done gave up," she explains. In community meetings Octavia exhorts Scott women to stick together and fight to get the housing agency to make more than promises. "If you don't stand up for yourself, you might as well just lay down," Octavia admonishes.

On a muggy Wednesday in May, everything began peacefully enough in the Scott Center's meeting room: a sterile, government-issue box with tan linoleum floors, lit by fluorescent bulbs. On brown metal folding chairs arranged in a circle sat a brigade of eager and well-meaning bureaucrats fresh from their Miami-Dade County jobs. Most wore dress shirts and sharp suits. They'd come to deliver what they believed was good news to the people of the Scott Homes project. The audience was smaller than expected -- nine black women scattered like birds, each with a brood of squirming young ones vying for lap time. A pumped-up speaker from Dorsey Educational Institute, himself thrilled by the great opportunities these women have knocking, is naming careers to be launched by his school: nursing assistant, electrician's helper... The women listen politely.

Soon other people start slipping in the door, Octavia's new allies: Roy Hardemon; Max Rameau, a Marxist and a former software designer; Earnestine Worthy. None live in Scott Homes, but all are "advising" Octavia, and are prominent in Miami African-American affairs.

Then Jeffrey Mellerson of Liberty City-based Low-Income Families Fighting Together stands up. "All these jobs and everything sounds good," he shouts, "but why are you waiting until now to tell us about it?" And then, his voice raised, Mellerson complains that as a convicted felon and recovering crack addict, out of jail for only two years, he can't get a job unless he lies about his record. All the training in the world "isn't going to help!" He goes into a rap about how tough it is for the black man to make it in this world when people who aren't his color just cruise on by.... Four cops had been watching the action. Now they abruptly close the meeting down. "Why can't you answer our questions?" someone yells. The cops clear the building.

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