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First Person: Activist Tiana Caldwell on finding strength in the face of eviction

In this Oct. 14, 2020, file photo, housing activists erect a sign in front of Gov. Charlie Baker's house in Swampscott, Mass. (Michael Dwyer/AP)
In this Oct. 14, 2020, file photo, housing activists erect a sign in front of Gov. Charlie Baker's house in Swampscott, Mass. (Michael Dwyer/AP)

Hear our other hours featuring Tiana Caldwell here and here.

Find our full hour tracking unspent pandemic relief funds here.

Tiana Caldwell lives in Kansas City, Missouri. And when On Point first spoke with her in May 2020, Tiana had been furloughed from her job and had just received an eviction notice from her landlord.

TIANA CALDWELL [Tape]: These are the problems that millions are facing across the country. You shouldn’t have to decide … between your vital medication and food or rent or whatever your child may need.

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: That was May 12th, 2020, the end of the month was just a couple of weeks away. So I had to ask Tiana a tough question.

CHAKRABARTI [Tape]: On June 1st, when it rolls around in a couple of weeks, will you be able to pay your rent?

CALDWELL [Tape]: No. And like millions of others across the country, I’m terrified about it.  

CHAKRABARTI: Well, it’s been a year and a half since that conversation. We and many of you wanted to know what happened to Tiana and her family. So we recently reconnected with her. And we asked Tiana, Did she get evicted last year as she had feared?

CALDWELL: I did. I did get evicted there. I mean, I was angry. I was hurt.

CHAKRABARTI: Her family was effectively homeless from October until May of this year.

CALDWELL: We were in hotels for about six months after that, and the next place that [we] could get into scammed us out of $4,000. The night that we stayed in there, after showers, the sewage was backing up. And we had to be out of the house so we couldn’t be there, it was uninhabitable and not safe or healthy for us, which just put us back in hotels again.

CHAKRABARTI: There was a lot going on in Tiana’s life when we first talked to her in May 2020. She’d also just received devastating news about her health. Looking back, she says that news factored into the family getting evicted.

CALDWELL: I had just gotten my second cancer diagnosis and was actively in treatment. And we were having to fight an eviction after we had done all the paperwork for the American Cancer Society and those things, we were still told no. And my son and I were actually sitting in the waiting room when we heard the manager say, I don’t want her to die in our unit. So she was trying to figure out how she could deny us and go ahead and evict us. And so that was like a reality check. Like you just let me know that people in power can do those things to people who don’t have any.

CALDWELL: Simply because I was in a dark place my life, I was dealing with an illness that was deadly. They didn’t want to deal with me. And what do you do with that? How do you fight that? It just, it made me feel like I was nothing. I couldn’t do most any of the legwork. I was very, very sick. And there was pressure on me to be at appointments or be at court on certain days. And just having to fight feeling like I didn’t want to move, you know, because I was going through that and feeling sick. And they knew about all of it. And there was no empathy, not even from the judge. It was just like, You need to be here.

CHAKRABARTI: Tiana and her family told us they did not have a secure place to live for six months. Ultimately, though, they found a home almost by accident. Earlier this year, Tiana and her family pulled over to the side of the road to help a man who was having trouble with his car. He happened to work for a property management company. They talked and swapped stories. And after hearing what her family was going through, Tiana says the man pulled some strings and got them into a home.

CALDWELL: So me and my family were helped recently, which was great. We’re still having people who are struggling to get through that system, in that process to get the assistance. Money is only going to be temporary, and it’s not going to fix the problem. You know, we have to fix this with policy. Evictions are a form of violence. And it disrupts families lives for years and years and years. After that eviction and after being displaced, it kind of follows you for the rest of your life. You’re always trying to find a way out.

CHAKRABARTI: As Tiana said, eviction disrupts an entire family. It definitely disrupted hers. They had already been suffering due to the pandemic. And when we first talked in 2020, Tiana told us her husband at that time was sleeping in the car outside. He was afraid he might bring COVID home to Tiana, so he wouldn’t dare sleep in the house. Again, that was last year. The family’s doing a lot better now.

CALDWELL: My husband, Derrick, he’s been amazing and there has been a lot, especially in the beginning. So I’m very grateful for Derrick. And then my son, AJ. is 14, really, really smart young man. I brag about him a lot. He’s a straight-A student. He’s a freshman in high school varsity football. We try to keep things as normal as possible for him. He’s been in this school system forever, and all his friends were here. And so all those connections having to start over again for him, we knew we didn’t want what was going on at home to disrupt that. So that had a big part in helping him to adjust to all this and be OK during all this stuff.

CALDWELL: My son … he’s a freshman. So last year he graduated the eighth grade, graduated middle school, is going to high school. And they had an award and they pick a student who has shown exemplary character, right? Like, it’s about how you are with people and who he is. With everything that was going on, he could’ve easily been understood … to have backlash, or to be angry or act out in any way. But for him to not only come through that as an example, as someone who has great character. And I was in tears. Like happy, happy tears.

CHAKRABARTI: Tiana points to another pillar of strength in her life. Her work with KC Tenants, a housing advocacy group led by poor and working class tenants in Kansas City. That’s how we found her for that first show we did about evictions in 2020. Now Tiana is KC Tenants’ board president.

CALDWELL: This was my way out. KC Tenants, organizing, being that activist, standing up for … the rights of myself and others has been a way out for me. Because when I didn’t know what I was going to do, or felt like I had no hope or no options, I felt like I was literally sitting there, wasting away. It made me feel like I was nothing, and that I was powerless.

CALDWELL: Being an activist, standing up there, win or lose, I stood up for myself and so many others. I fought, I didn’t just lay down. It makes you feel like you are not powerless. It gives you something to feel good about, even when things are the darkest they’ve been. And I think it’s had a lot to do with my recovery, so it’s literally saved my life.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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