ELYRIA — The single mother of three surveyed her living room, sizing up what to take next and reaches for a pack of cigarettes instead. At that moment, taking long drags was the only thing that calmed her nerves as she moved through the biggest change of her life.
“I really didn’t plan for this,” Tabitha Crabtree said on a recent Saturday as she blew smoke into the air.
“I’m just tired — tired of being here,” she said. “I was never supposed to be here this long. You don’t move to a place like this and think you’re going to stay that long. So, yeah, I think now is the time. I’m moving my family out of the projects.”
That’s how long Crabtree, 31, lived in Wilkes Villa, an apartment complex run by Lorain Metropolitan Housing Complex on Elyria’s south side. There are 174 apartment homes in Wilkes Villa, built on less than five acres of land in the early 1970s. The idea was to give people a safety net to hold them as they made the leap to independent living.
Crabtree moved into Wilkes Villa in 2002 when pregnant with her first child and homeless. By all accounts, it was the best place for her to be in that situation.
She just didn’t think it was where she would stay.
“I just thought I would have figured out a way to move out,” she said. “I’m not lazy. I stay working and with a job, but it’s still not easy.”
In this day and age of layoffs, foreclosures, furloughs and cutbacks, the voices of people like Crabtree proclaiming how hard they are working at the bottom of the economic ladder often fall on deaf ears when heard by others working just a few rungs higher. The Crabtrees of the world are used to hearing things like “get a job,” “get off the public dole” or “you would have more if you weren’t so lazy.”
When LMHA announced earlier this year it had developed a master plan for the complete reconstruction of Wilkes Villa, Elyria’s cyber community erupted with harsh comments. Very few looked beyond the issue of how more adequate and energy-efficient public housing was needed in the community to address the housing needs of hundreds of women, children and families.
“It has been labeled as something bad in the community, but the residents there have the same desire to have clean, happy and safe homes for their families as everyone else in Elyria,” LMHA board chairwoman Evelyn France said in early June.
The plan also led some to question why the complex wasn’t being used as the stepping stone it was intended to be.
The answer is something social service agencies have known for decades. It takes a lot more money to meet a family’s basic needs than people may think or the federal government’s poverty guidelines suggests.
The 2012 Poverty Report and companion Self-Sufficiency Standard Report, researched by the University of Washington Center for Women’s Welfare and commissioned by the Ohio Association of Community Action Agencies, to illustrate just how the poor are getting by said that an average self-sufficient family of four — “self-sufficient” is defined as not needing any public or government assistance of any kind — will spend upwards of $3,386 a month on basic needs.
For one in six Ohioans living in poverty, their budget is typically half of that or $1,900, which may seem like enough, but realistically cannot cover all the needs of a four-person family such as housing, child care, food, health care and transportation.
Never mind things that the poor see as luxuries — like saving or eating out at restaurants from menus beyond the dollar offering of popular fast food establishments.
“The Self-Sufficiency Standard helps families, agencies and policy makers know what income level it takes in their community to reach that goal without government assistance,” said Philip E. Cole, executive director of OACAA.
Cole said the families living in the shadows of middle-income are working hard.
“It is the goal of all Ohioans to be out of poverty,” he said.
Mothers and kids
Some days, it’s 28-year-old Christina Beetler who handles the kids — finding them games or making each something quick to eat. It’s the summer, so there are a lot of children to occupy and fill the void of a missing school day.
On another day, the duties will more than likely fall to one of her neighbors.
Not growing up in Wilkes Villa, Beetler didn’t know exactly what to expect when she moved into the complex with her daughter five years ago. The place has long had a reputation of being more than a little rough.
But, Beetler said, Wilkes Villa is more neighborhood than people think.
“When you boil it down, it’s just a bunch of mothers trying to raise their kids,” she said. “We’re doing the best we can. When you live this close to people and share the same problems after a while you grow into a family. You take care of each other and look out for each other.”
Beetler moved to public housing after living on her own in an apartment in Sheffield. She was working as a server at the Applebee’s in Avon and doing OK on her $2.13 an hour plus tips.
Then, like a set of dominos, she got pregnant for a second time, lost her job because she missed too many days of work dealing with pregnancy complications, lost her apartment and needed a place to live.
Wilkes became that place.
“I moved over here because it was income-based,” she said one recent Tuesday outside her White Court apartment while her kids — a more independent 6-year-old daughter and rambunctious “all boy” 4-year-old son — clamored for attention. “I wanted to go back to school, but how can I do that, work full time and still be a mom?”
It’s not easy to do all three, as Beetler is now learning.
When her children’s father lost his job, her child-support checks stopped coming in, and she had to pick up more hours at Bob Evans, where she works now. His help has since returned, but now she has to cut her hours so she can finish classes at Lorain County Community College.
Even once she obtains her degree — she’s working toward an associate degree in human service — she wonders if she will be able to get a job that will be able to handle everything her family needs.
“I can’t wait tables forever. It’s tough on your body and eventually you have to do something else,” she said.
But even with child support, Beetler said she only makes about $1,200 a month.
She fills the gap with food stamps, Medicaid, child care vouchers and child support. She can’t imagine losing any of the support. She would need a lot more than full-time at Bob Evans, she said.
“I would have to, like, quadruple my income, and I just don’t see that happening anytime soon,” she said. “People who are making $3,600 a month are living the American dream. Some of us are just living.”
Beetler knows there are people who wish she didn’t need entitlement programs to live, but she can’t let those comments keep her from feeding her kids or keeping a roof over their heads. It’s just her making sure her two kids are OK, she said.
“My life works itself out, and I try not to get stressed out thinking about other people,” she said. “You know some people have moms, dads or family to help them. I only have me.”
Stepping up is not easy
The new-to-her trailer Crabtree is settling in.
Proximity wise, Wilkes Villa is a mere five minute car ride away. But in the mind of a single mother trying to teach her kids — Scott, 10, Dillon, 6, and Aurora, 3 — how to be self-sufficient, the worlds are separated by miles.
“I’ll be the first person to say I didn’t go far,” Crabtree said. “I’m literally around the corner from the projects, but I got my family out, and I am never coming back.”
By all accounts, Crabtree said she doesn’t see herself as the stereotypical public housing resident — the kind of person anonymous persons referred to as “leeches on society” and “zoo animals” in online comments earlier this year when LMHA unveiled its master plan for re-making Wilkes Villa.
In the coming years, the hope is to raze the entire complex, building by building, and replace units with energy efficient homes.
Crabtree read the comments as well, thinking the same about some of her neighbors — the ones with more children than her, no job in sight, and the ones who party all night when she has to get up in the morning.
If you ask her, she will tell you she is not like them.
She has never been afraid to work.
But, like so many who end up in public housing, Crabtree got there because she was not prepared for adult life and ended up making poor decisions.
A disagreement with her parents over a curfew led to her being kicked out of her family home a few weeks after high school in June 2000. She bounced from friend to friend until she met her oldest son’s father.
By January 2001, she was married.
“It was like finally I had a connection to someone,” Crabtree said.
Her husband promised her the world and sold Wilkes Villa as the stepping stone to a better life. By October 2002, she was a mom for the first time at age 20.
“A young 20 that didn’t know much about life,” Crabtree said.
The marriage did not last long. He left Crabtree and Wilkes Villa behind.
She became a single mother with just a high school education — she graduated from Open Door Christian School — to fall back on.
Her next relationship — she bore another two children — was much of the same. She has remained friends with the father of her two youngest children, but the relationship ended some time ago with Crabtree taking on the day-to-day job of raising her children. It also left little time for her to pursue what seemed like a pipe dream — leaving public housing.
“I was working so we could be OK today,” she said.
It didn’t help that Dillon, with his infectious smile, presented her with a problem that seemed to never get an answer. Dillon wouldn’t eat food, didn’t socialize well and seemed off — not like her other son.
She suspected something in the autism spectrum for years, but a diagnosis would be years in the making. In the meantime, Crabtree spent years carting her kids between Elyria and Cleveland for numerous doctors’ appointments.
There were entire weeks where the household budget was spent on gas or entire days at the doctor’s office when instead Crabtree could have been working. She had to find out what was wrong with her son.
“I felt like it took my whole life to get here,” she said of her son’s diagnosis last year, not long after he started kindergarten and a teacher noticed something wasn’t right and suggested Dillon undergo further testing.
She is finally receiving some cash assistance for Dillon, and he will start attending a school for children with autism in the fall.
“That’s been the hardest part. How do you explain to people that your child is not normal without a clinical diagnosis?” she said. “How do you explain to someone you need them to watch your child so you can work, but he has meltdowns, doesn’t like new places and refuses to eat?”
With huge issues looming over her head for her family, Crabtree said she only dreamed of leaving the safety net of Wilkes Villa. She needed to be in the now for her children and that has meant working as much as she could to say ahead of what they needed.
Daring to dream
In less than a month, Bobbie DeShay Calloway will head to Columbus.
The two-hour drive will end with the 34-year-old mother of three either getting her license to practice cosmetology or not. After years of working mainly customer service jobs, Calloway said she decided months ago to step out on faith and go after her dream.
She enrolled in the Ohio Regency Beauty Institute.
Calloway has loved to do hair for as far back as she can remember and has long dreamed of opening her own hair salon.
“Everyone around here knows me as the one who does hair,” she said. “Sometimes I like to do braids and hairstyles for girls before they go back to school.”
The residents of Wilkes Villa dream, too, she said. Hers extend farther than her apartment on Bohannon Court.
Calloway knows there are some people who think she would rather sit around than work, but she doesn’t listen to that – that’s just people not knowing who lives in public housing, she said.
ReThinkHousing.org estimates that of the 2.2 million people who live in public housing, 41 percent are children and 32 percent are elderly.
With three young children — 7, 2 and 3 at the time — Calloway moved to Wilkes Villa from Cleveland almost 12 years ago. All of her family lived in Elyria and she needed to move closer with her children.
“You know, this place offers a kind of stability. Even if the economy is bad, you won’t have to worry about bouncing from place to place because you can’t pay your rent or pick rent over feeding your kids,” she said. “I know its Wilkes Villa, but I didn’t want to hop around with my kids.”
Calloway’s children are now 19, 15 and 14. One finished her second year in college and the younger teenagers are students at Elyria High School. She also has one on the way in October.
“They don’t hang around getting into trouble,” she said. “They’re turning out to be OK. I would say I have pretty good kids.”
Raising kids at Wilkes Villa has not always been easy. There have been times Calloway said they have asked to move and wondered why they couldn’t have the big house with the picket fence.
And, it’s not like Calloway has never dreamed of that for herself. She never moved to Wilkes Villa with a plan to stay so long — a sentiment so many people have expressed.
“But it just happens. One day turns into years. You spend so much time caring for your kids … that’s all you worry about,” she said. “But when they started talking like that, I tell them my mom always raised us to believe it’s not where you live, it’s how you live,” Calloway said.
It was less than a month ago when Crabtree went to the Colonial Oaks Mobile Home Park to just look at trailers but ended up dropping hundreds as a deposit on a three-bedroom unit.
She has wanted to own something, but she worried that at $9.41 an hour her job pays would not sustain such a leap.
She will soon find out if she was right.
“I’m really stressed about the money aspect, but you know I got to just do it,” she said. “This is the first day I have had off in three weeks. I’m pulling like 60 hours a week and if that’s not enough I’ll get a second job. I’ve done it before.”
Her lot rent is the same as her apartment rent — about $315 a month — and her trailer mortgage will tack an additional $200 onto her monthly budget, but Crabtree said it’s time she stepped out on faith that she is ready to stand on her own two feet.
The spontaneity of her decision was evident one rainy Saturday afternoon as she and friends moved through the half-packed and half-lived-in apartment she would soon be leaving. Dishes were in the drying rack from dinner the night before, and pictures of her kids remained taped to the refrigerator door.
“I’m doing it all today,” she said.
Her confidence filtered down to her three kids. All helped in the move and couldn’t stop talking about their new home.
“Can we play outside now?” Dillon wanted to know.
“I don’t let my kids play out there,” Crabtree said of the playground a stone’s throw from her front door at Wilkes Villa. “The first time Scott went out there, he was punched in the face by another kid, and I said never again.”
“Yeah, you can,” Crabtree said turning to her middle son, the one who in the chaos of the move lost a flip-flop and was nearby hopping on one foot in search of his other shoe.
“But first we have to move, so let’s get moving. It’s time to go.”