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    Cover Image: Stacie Oates has been evicted multiple times; photo by Terrence Humphrey

    A little bluff of spilled sugar dusts one corner of the kitchen table, grains of sweetness just along the edges of the tabletop’s stone-like tiles, so close to slipping into the little black cracks between. Stacie Oates eases into a seat and sets her mug down. She wears a striped hoodie, gray and deeper gray, and sweatpants. With petite revolutions of her wrist she spoon-stirs her coffee, though the creamer and sugar have already dissolved.

    “It doesn’t take much when you’re living paycheck to paycheck,” she says. “It takes nothing for the bottom to drop from up under you.”

    So far the bottom has dropped from up under her at least six or seven times, if you’re counting the homes she’s lost. More if you count the jobs, a vehicle or two. Then there’s the house she lived in with holes in the floor hiding beneath the carpet like mines — the bottom not dropping, just gone. And then there’s her legs.

    It was May 2012, and Oates was working on the cleanup crew at a wedding reception. Rather than wait around for the revelry to smolder, Oates decided to grab a nap at the house she was renting with her daughter on River Park Drive in Shawnee — about four homes ago, though Oates sometimes loses count. When she woke up, she couldn’t move. 

    “I found out I had something called spondylolisthesis,” she says, her spoon still clinking. Spondylolisthesis is a condition in which a vertebra slips forward over the bone below, causing back pain and weakness and numbness in the legs. But Oates wouldn’t skip work. “There’s nothing worse than saying you’re going to do something and then don’t do it,” she tells me. She managed to “scooch” back to the reception, “which I had to look crazy, now that I think about it, with the limited mobility,” she says. She couldn’t keep it up forever and started missing shifts. “One time was like a week or so. Next time was like a month,” she says. “When your back goes out on you, that’s what happens, you know what I’m saying? You’re done. You’re done.” 

    The 45-year-old has to wear a back brace and knee brace when she runs errands. She has had lower-lumbar injections, epidurals, has participated in aqua therapy and takes a cocktail of pills every day, but her back still pains her. 

    Oates’ daughter, Danielle, steps into the kitchen in a bright red hoodie and matching sweats, looking for her favorite mug. “It’s probably in there on the backside of all those dishes,” Oates tells her. “I know it’s in there.”

    Danielle casts me a sideways look, the half eye roll, half smile only women in their mid-20s can perform. “She steals my cup,” Danielle says.

    “I didn’t steal it; I washed it!” Oates says. She looks around the table and notices my coffee. “Oh, I gave it to Dylon.” Cue laugh track. Danielle shakes her head, a shy grin painting her face, grabs a different mug and disappears down the hallway. 

    After so many moves, it’s hard to hold on to the kind of minutiae that makes up that feeling of permanence you find at home. Though Oates and Danielle have lived in this three-bedroom apartment near 17th and Jefferson streets in the Russell neighborhood since March of last year — when the Urban League helped Oates work to improve her credit and find a place despite several evictions on her record — Danielle still has not hung anything on the walls, anticipating another move. “That is the part that scares me,” Oates says. 

    But there’s a lot more to be afraid of. Oates has been denied assistance from the Social Security Administration on the grounds that her condition does not qualify as a disability. She wants to fight the decision, but she’s not sure how. Danielle’s job at Kroger is the only income for the two of them. The apartment’s ceiling soars — I estimate at least 12 feet — and Oates says her LG&E bills have reached $285 a month. Add that to the $646 in rent, and it’s too much to handle. Oates has applied for Section 8 housing but says she may not hear anything about that until September. “We will have to move or be evicted, because we can’t afford it,” she says.

    Oates’ story is hardly unique. According to U.S. Census data from 2015, the vast majority of residencies in Oates’ current ZIP code (40203) are rentals: 7,677 compared with 1,309 owner-occupied homes. Approximately 66 percent of renters live on yearly household incomes of less than $20,000. About 32 percent of them paid between $500 and $799 for rent each month. (The public-housing complex Beecher Terrace is in 40203, which includes portions of downtown, Smoketown and Old Louisville.) According to Kevin Dunlap, executive director of REBOUND, an organization affiliated with the Urban League that builds or refurbishes housing in west Louisville, there’s a shortage of affordable rental housing in the area — or, rather, “affordable livable housing.” Dunlap mentions issues like lead contamination, and also poor insulation, which can lead to higher utility costs, which can lead to unpaid bills, which can lead to eviction, which prevents people from finding new places to rent. “It creates a cycle,” he says. Though it would seem more accurate to call it a corridor that opens onto the street. 

    When Oates talks about getting evicted again, she doesn’t seem sad or even afraid, exactly. She seems resigned, her lips pressed firmly together. “Here we go again,” she tells me. When she tries to remember the narrative of her many moves, she gets lost in the street maps in her mind, and somehow finds herself in multiple places at once. She’s on Indian Trail in Newburg, but she’s also paralyzed on the couch on River Park Drive, the latter address owned by an elderly woman who had it managed by a rental company. Oates would get behind on rent, eviction proceedings would start, and then she’d catch up on the rent, plus late fees, only to fall behind again. She’s on River Park but also in a house on 36th Street.

    Oates says she always felt safe growing up in west Louisville in the Cotter and Lang projects, what is now Park DuValle. She says properties owned by the Metro Housing Authority at least had consistent standards. “They don’t play, you know? If the chip of paint on the wall doesn’t look right — ‘Fix that, we’ll come back.’ That type of thing,” she says. “So once I left Housing Authority, that’s when the places started to fall off. They don’t have to live up to anybody’s standard. So I guess if the water’s running and you can flip the light on, you know, that’s about as complex as they’re gonna get.” (She left Cotter when she was about 19 to find a place of her own.)

    Oates lived in the Iroquois neighborhood for six years, and then kept a place on Jackson and Liberty streets downtown for 10 years after that. Transience is not in her nature or her upbringing. Which is one reason why the house on 36th got to her. She never felt safe there; she felt watched. Oates worked as a driver for TARC3, the city’s transit service for disabled people who cannot use regular public transit, and when she left early each morning for work, she looked over her shoulder. She worried someone would watch her leaving, make note of her schedule, and try to break into her house. Her daughter still slept upstairs, where the flooring on the sides of the attic was, Oates says, too unstable to walk on with confidence. She wanted storm doors, one more barrier between her home and everything outside. She never got them. Downstairs, the floor sank inward like space around a black hole. The slant was so bad that, one evening, supper slid off the stove, as it often did, and the next thing Oates saw was a shower of sparkling glass blooming in air along the wall, slivers and shards and tiny grains prismatic for the infinitesimal amount of time it took for them to fall to the ground. She couldn’t be exactly sure what she’d thrown now that it was totally shattered, a glass perhaps, but she recognized the look on Danielle’s face, the surprise, the concern, perhaps a shade — oh so dark — of understanding.

    In her kitchen on Jefferson, Oates folds the napkin she’s been using to dry her tears and absently presses it between the table tiles, as if cleaning. She’s used the phrase “the hardest part” several times — for finding people to help them move (they’ve dwindled), for living with a back condition (the pain has not) — but this seems to be truly the hardest part: “Having your daughter (stay) in a shelter just kind of crushed me.”

    They’d been homeless before, after they’d been evicted from house number four (or was it five?), the place on Grand Avenue. For about six months, Oates and Danielle stayed first with Danielle’s “step-dad,” Oates’ ex who had filled a paternal role in Danielle’s life since she was three years old, and then for several months with one of Oates’ best friends. But this time, they’d exhausted their options, and Oates had to turn to her aunt, who didn’t offer to let Danielle stay. Danielle went to Wayside Christian Mission. 

    Oates stirs at her coffee again, and the consistent volume of the metal ringing against the glass makes the decrescendo of her voice all the more pronounced. It is as if her voice is dropping out from under her. “It was like trying to catch your breath, and you were running out of air. At that point in time, she was stronger than I was. And I started taking anything Securitas had that I could work,” she says, mentioning the temp security job she took while living with her aunt to try and save up for a new place to get Danielle out of the shelter. (Oates lost her job with TARC, where she’d worked for more than six years, because, as she puts it, “I didn’t know how to shut my mouth.” She says they would “bog down” her shift, giving her too many runs.) “And anything (Securitas) had, I took it, whether it was babysitting brand-new Ford cars or sitting in an empty building. It just didn’t make any difference. And I knew my back hurt, I knew this spondylolisthesis was running down my leg, and I would cry when I got home because I was in so much pain.” Something comes together in her, though it seems incomplete, like two puzzle pieces joining when all the other pieces are lost. “It didn’t matter,” she says. I ask how she made it through the pain at work, and she stares ahead blankly. “I don’t know.”

     Oates and her aunt did not get along well. She tells me that her family members told her she wasn’t working as hard as her father had. “My father worked so hard he had a stroke,” she says. “Is that the way you want me to do it? You want me to work to the point I stroke out? That’s nice.” She says her aunt kicked her out on March 18, Oates’ birthday, just a few days before she got her current apartment. But it was Oates’ aunt who mentioned the Urban League, and a few months later, Danielle came over from the shelter to see the new place. “The day we seen this apartment was the day we signed the papers,” Oates says.

    Oates likes her place, though it’s had its own issues. Boxes of latex gloves and paper face masks sit on the couch in the entry room, which is connected to the kitchen. Oates got them after the room flooded, water pouring from the water heater, she says. She tells me that tiny wriggling creatures swam along the floor. 

    Soon Oates will start looking for a new place. It’s hard, homes slipping through fingers like water gone bad. She chokes up. “I’m the one that feels like they’re letting the team down,” she says. “Because I’ve got this” — she struggles with the word — “disability that is limiting me from what I feel like is living. I went from being able to work 50, 60 hours a week, go to the gym three times a week, lose 100 pounds. And then, wham, this thing with the back just literally took my legs from up under me.” And she’s crying in her kitchen, she’s crying on Indian Trail, she’s crying on River Park Drive, she’s crying on 36th Street and Grand Avenue and Goldsmith Lane, little pieces of her sparkling down her face, full of light in the infinitesimal amount of time it takes to fall.

    This originally appeared in the March 2017 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazine, click here. To find your very own copy of Louisville Magazine, click here. 

    Dylon Jones's picture

    About Dylon Jones

    Dylon Jones is a senior editor at Louisville Magazine.

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