Homeless couple lives in tent
Posted: Friday, April 23, 2010 9:02 pm
By JOHN BRANNON
What would it take to make Robert and Donna Bolden happy?
“For me and my wife to have a home that we could call our own,” he said. “Or a trailer or apartment or something.”
“I’d be satisfied if we just had a bigger tent to live in,” she said.
What they are living in is a little red and gray pop-up tent undoubtedly designed as a temporary shelter for a weekend outing. For them, it serves a purpose but is no substitute for the traditional dwelling they once called home.
“You can’t stand up in it. It’s barely big enough for two people,” she said.
Come darkness, they crawl inside and close the tent flap. For entertainment, they have a small transistor radio.
What about weather? What did they do on a cold night?
“Well, we try to snuggle up. We’ve got two blankets, one on the ground and one to cover up with,” Robert said.
The Boldens — he, she and a mixed breed dog named “Panama” — have been “camped out” at AAA RV Park on Phebus Lane in Union City three weeks.
Tuesday, the couple, each of them in their early 60s, sat down with The Messenger and spoke of the lifestyle imposed on them by adverse circumstances.
“It’s tearing me apart, living like this,” Donna said. “Living in a tent is not my choice of a lifestyle. But …” She chokes up, ending her spoken words in mid-sentence.
Robert admits it affects him, too. “Yeah, I get depressed a little, but I just don’t show it.”
Parked nearby is the family vehicle, a 1987 Ford Ranger pickup, its odometer reading 334,582 miles. Scattered on the truck and on and around a nearby picnic table are a few possessions — clothes, blankets, a barbecue gill, this and that.
The Boldens said they don’t mind talking about their situation, but they want to make one thing clear.
“We aren’t looking for a handout,” Robert said. “We’re not working a scam. We’re just down on our luck. I’d like to have a job. I’m a ‘Mr. Fix-It.’ I can work on anything. I can do yard work, roofing, lay carpet. I’d welcome any kind of work just so I could make a living for us.”
They fell on hard times when Robert lost his job at Pictsweet Farm in Bells and got evicted from their Dyersburg home because they couldn’t pay the rent. After a frantic search of where to go, what to do, they called Bill Autry of Union City, who owns AAA RV Park. Donna pleaded their case.
“I said, ‘I am going to be honest with you, sir. All I know how to do is blurt it out. We get $105 a week, $200 a month in food stamps and we are basically homeless,’” she said. “He said he had a little spot we could use, that we could use it if Robert would do odd jobs around the park.”
And so they came to Union City, arriving in the middle of the night. Considering their situation, it was a God-send. The next morning they pitched the tent and unpacked their stuff.
Autry provides the living space and gives the couple access to a washing machine and toilet and shower facilities. In return, Robert does odd jobs such as mowing the grass and applying a weedeater to fence lines.
And early morning, they can go to the park office and get a cup of coffee. “Mr. Autry’s been awful good to us,” Donna said.
Groceries and gas
The $105 a week in unemployment benefits don’t go far. Even in this environment, there are bills to pay and gas to buy for the truck. And there’s no buying groceries in bulk to save money. Instead, it’s a piecemeal approach. Donna buys only enough meat to cook on the grill for one meal at a time. There’s no refrigerator to store perishables.
A truck driver by profession, Robert said he drove 13 years for Timberline Transport of Eastman, Ga. He figures he’s been in 48 of the 50 states. In his line of work, he’d be gone two weeks, be home four days, then leave for another two weeks. As you might imagine, it put a strain on his marriage which ended in divorce.
Eventually, the rigors of the road took their toll on him. Among other things, he began to see double white lines where there were none. He gave up trucking. He and Donna returned to Dyersburg where he was born and raised.
It was in Georgia where he met Donna, a native of Atlanta. They got married three years ago, the second marriage for each. Both of them have children by their first marriages. Robert has a son in Chicago but has had no contact with him for many years.
Donna has a daughter in the Army, stationed at Fort Hood, Texas. The last she heard, her unit was about to be deployed to Iraq.
Robert said he hasn’t tried to contact his son about his situation. Donna said she hasn’t told her daughter about their being homeless. “I suppose I could write a letter or something,” she said.
Not old enough
Robert said he visited a Social Security office where he learned he won’t be eligible for benefits until Aug. 17 when he reaches age 62. He said he was told he could apply for a separate supplement known as SSI. He did so and was sent to a clinic in Trenton for a physical examination.
“We waited in the parking lot a long time. We didn’t know it was closed that day because it was Martin Luther King’s birthday,” Donna said. “On the way back, we ran out of gas. We went door to door. We had gone about as low as we could go. Here we were, sitting in somebody’s driveway, asking for help. Finally, one man said he had some gas in his garage. He gave it to us. It was just enough to get us back home.”
And they still had to go back to Trenton for the physical.
“It’s already been a month and we haven’t heard anything from Social Security,” Robert said. “That’s what I don’t understand about Social Security. You work all your life and pay into it. But when you really need it, it takes forever to get it.”
What now? What is the future for Donna and Robert Bolden, this pair of senior citizens?
“We don’t know,” Donna mused. “We are stuck here.”
Published in The Messenger 4.23.10