Part one in a series

By Tess Sohngen, Over-the-Rhine Contributor 

“Who’r you again?”

Her name was Sandra, 74, and she lived alone. Her golden-gray hair was pulled back in a small ponytail, and her upper body tilted almost 45 degrees at her hips. She had to lean her head back toward her neck just to see up. Her eyes were as wide as quarters straining out from her dark face for the light from the television.

The television and the door were the only sources of light. The windows were covered with cardboard, towels and duct tape. A light wooden dressing wall separated the couch and coffee table from the kitchen piled high with boxes, vases, pans and dishes that look like they had not been touched in months. Lamps, fans, end tables, relics and cat paraphernalia stuffed the rest of the room around the television.

Where there was room for air, a thick aroma of smoke stuffed the vacancy, stemming from the ashtray on the coffee table. There was hardly room for us to stand, so Sandra offered me the seat next to her on the couch.

“We understand that you’ve been told you have to leave,” said John, the Director of the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition. “Our belief is that it is never right and never okay to evict someone.”

He asked her if she would prefer to stay here if she had the choice.

“It’s a mess, I tell you. It’s a mess,” she said.

She wasn’t talking about the room but rather the sudden change uprooting her life and the many knickknacks suffocating the room. Last month, she and the other tenants received a notice from their new manager. Everyone would have to leave by October 31.

“I’ve been here fourteen years,” said Sandra. “It’s been fast…”

She holds her hands up to her temples like she was trying to pull something out of her brain, or keep something out.

“… On me, but it’s been working on them for a long [time].”

Behind me on the couch, Sandra’s phone started to ring. She picked it up and held it backward to her ear.

“Hello, Sandra! It’s Tim. Do you remember me from last weekend?”

“Yes, I do,” she said.

I made eye contact with John, and then he shook his head. He knew Tim. Knew he was a personable, chubby man who worked for Model Group, the company that bought the building in June and is not kicking people out. Both good and bad, John would say. Like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Over the weekend, Tim the Housing Specialist for Model Group walked Sandra to a unit further north. It was not going to work, Sandra said. It was not the area she was going to be in. The neighborhood was home to all black families, and although Sandra fit the bill, she did not want to be so far from the city.

As Sandra told him this, I glanced behind her. On the couch was a cockroach the size of a thumbprint. It silently crawled closer and behind Sandra’s shadow. Sandra put the phone down and leaned back, and the bug crawled on her shoulder. I tried to scrape the bug off her with my piece of paper to no avail.

“Is that a bug?” Sandra asked. She reached back and grabbed the bug with her hand then placed it on the floor. The cockroach scurried away. “Those bugs are getting up everywhere.”

After our visit, I asked John if he thinks we could fight the manager on the lack of up-keep in the building. John said these units were in pretty good condition compared to other places he has seen around the neighborhood.

“This place is like my little second child,” said Sandra. “Now I just want somewhere where I can have my last days in peace.”

She took us around to the front of the building to meet her friend Dani. Dani was 73 and has lived on the north end of Race Street for 16 years. Her apartment had even more knickknacks and even more roaches than Sandra’s. The only real difference was the smell came from her small, mud-stained dog and the lights in the room turned on.

“Heck, I would love to stay here,” said Dani when John asked her the same question about having the choice to stay. “I love this place because it’s big and roomy.”

Her hair stood atop her head like a cloud, and her pursed lips were a dark pink. I looked across the room and counted 18 orange and white medicine cans. I couldn’t tell if they were empty or full.

All of the tenants the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition spoke with were African American and elderly. Only two residents – who dodged out of the building as Sandra led us in – were white and below the age of 30.

“I appreciate you coming out here,” Dani said to John.

John was frank. They were not going to be able to save the building, and Sandra and Dani would have to leave. But if the residents came together and fought back, there would be a good change that they could get something better than what they had now.

Currently, the manager was offering no help toward looking for places to relocate the residents. They would have to pay their rent up until the October 31st deadline, and there would be no help toward moving fees. The landlord told Dani that they would not be turning the heat on.

“Ain’t nobody helping us,” said Sandra.

Tess Sohngen is a Miami journalism student studying in Over-the-Rhine. This article was previously published in Streetvibes.