3 Nov 2012
Trick or Treating for Dignity and Respect
By Jade Brooks
Lincoln residents were supposed to be out of their apartments this Halloween (after being given only 30 days to move out). But there are over 150 people who haven’t found a place to stay and many who don’t want to leave. So the community gathered two nights ago for a Halloween block party. Elders in wigs danced to Marvin Gaye and hip hop, little kids in robot costumes scavenged for lollipops, and residents packed two tables with buns and soda while they waited for the grill to get hot. If anyone was driving by last night, they wouldn’t have realized that the people dancing were facing homelessness; that they’ve been treated like they don’t matter. People driving by would have seen the Lincoln that still exists: a community of mothers, grandmothers, kids, fathers, and workers who want safe and stable homes for themselves and their families.
While the grill was heating up, two cars full of Lincoln residents took a drive to trick or treat. They weren’t seeking candy, instead these residents were traveling to the home of Mr. Larry Suitt, the chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Lincoln Hospital Foundation (which owns Lincoln Apartments). The residents’ demands were that Mr. Suitt ask the other board members not to start eviction proceedings and give them at least until the end of the year to keep looking for places to live.
Mr. Suitt lives in Treyburn, a wealthy community nearly 30 minutes away from Lincoln, where glowing mansions stretch across winding streets called Covington Lane and Vintage Hill Drive (prices for homes there start at over $200,000). There is a country club and a reservoir, and people travel between each others homes by golf cart. This neighborhood is not only geographically distant from Lincoln–it is economically and culturally far away as well.
But residents weren’t afraid. When our cars arrived at Mr. Suitt’s house, everyone marched to the front door, ready to explain what they wanted. At first, it appeared no one was home. Residents knocked and knocked, then got ready to leave a note and travel back to the party. But just as we were walking away, a silver BMW pulled into the driveway: Mr. and Mrs. Suitt’s car. Mrs. Suitt joked that she better know us, since our cars were blocking her driveway. They had just gone out to dinner.
Ms. Barbara, Ms. Sherri, and other leaders at Lincoln quickly introduced themselves to Mr. and Mrs. Suitt. They explained who they were and why they were there. They wanted more time to find another place to stay and to save money to put towards moving expenses and a security deposit. They asked Mr. Suitt to please let them stay through the end of the year and to use his power to delay eviction proceedings.
At first, Mr. Suitt was vague in his response. He said he’d look into it, then he’d think about, then he said, “I’ll see what I can do.” Meanwhile, Mrs. Suitt went into the house and brought out the Halloween candy she had bought for trick-or-treaters. But residents didn’t only want her candy–they wanted dignity and respect and to be treated with kindness and understanding. Mr. Suitt’s tone grew hard when he accused the residents of not paying their rent and made it seem like it was their fault that the Lincoln Apartments had to close. Residents explained that Leila James, the Southern Real Estate representative who works at Lincoln, has been refusing to take their rent money for months because she knew the apartments were closing. Then Mr. Suitt tried to divide the residents, claiming maybe they were the “good” ones, but their neighbors were a problem. Through all of this, residents and People’s Durham members who were there supporting them remained firm–would Mr. Suitt come to Lincoln Apartments to meet with residents? No, he absolutely would not. Could they meet him at his office? No, they could not. Would he stop the eviction proceedings? He’d “see what I can do.” Could they call him tomorrow for the final word on his decision? Yes, Mr. Suitt said finally, at 5 pm he would take the residents’ call.
By the end of the visit, Mr. Suitt agreed to a sit-down meeting with residents, but only if Keith Chadwell, Durham’s Deputy City Manager, was present as well (which is lucky since Chadwell promised to meet again with residents within 48 hours after their successful march to his office on Monday).
The Lincoln folks felt victorious as they debriefed under the full moon beaming down into the cul-de-sac, even though many of Mr. Suitt’s accusations had stung. With freezing fingers they drove back to Lincoln to eat burgers and bbq chicken, and to dance late into the night. They also drove back armed with a recording of their entire trick-or-treat conversation–just in case Mr. Suitt tries to back out of his promise to listen to their concerns.
UPDATE: On Thursday night Mr. Suitt did speak by phone with a representative from People’s Durham. He said he was impressed with the dedication and resolve residents demonstrated by coming to speak with him at his home on Halloween night. He also said that as long as residents can demonstrate a commitment to paying their rent he thought it reasonable to delay eviction proceedings until the beginning of the year. While the battle may not yet be won this is a definite victory!
We are, however, continuing to call on city officials and faith communities to pool their resources and provide assistance where needed. Many residents have already poured money into application fees, storage units, and moving expenses and may have trouble making ends meet. Nonetheless this week is ending with a definite cause for celebration! At the very least 50+families have avoided homelessness for the holiday season.