The black chair Melissa Davis sat in looked like what it was: a basic salon chair placed oddly in the center of a small living room. Despite its simplicity, it stood out like a shiny piece of metal against the other discolored furniture that occupied the tiny room. To Davis it was more than just a chair. It provided a glimpse into a better life for her and her family.
“My daughter’s father bought her this chair for Christmas so that she could do hair. She wants to be an entrepreneur,” Davis explained proudly. “I want my kids to go far, much farther than I did.”
The single mother of six said she has one mission, and that’s for her children to grow up and create better lives than the one she’s been able to give them since losing her job three years ago.
“It’s been hard. I’m used to working and providing for my family. And now I can’t do that.”
After giving birth to her twin boys nine years ago, Davis’ health began to fail. She would go on to have three major surgeries, causing her to miss work for extended periods of time. The self-proclaimed hard worker, would eventually have to leave her customer service job, resulting in a downward spiral of financial hardships.
Due to her medical problems, a doctor recommended that she apply for disability.
“I need support to walk,” she said. “I have bad swelling in my back and legs due to arthritis.”
Additionally, she suffers from shortness of breath and extreme fatigue as a result of congestive heart failure. Despite her medical woes, three years later Davis has yet to be approved.
“I wish I could just get my health and my life back on track so that I could work instead of applying for disability,” she said. “I would rather be able to take care of my family.”
Unfortunately Davis’ situation isn’t unfamiliar. She and her family are part of the large number of Memphians living in poverty. A recent report released by University of Memphis researcher Elena Delavega in conjunction with the National Civil Rights Museum, tracked the city’s progress since the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.
The report showed little improvement in poverty rates within the last 50 years. Twenty-one percent of people in Memphis are living below the poverty level. That’s higher than the national average that stands at 14 percent.
The report also found that for African-Americans in the city, the numbers are even higher. Close to 30 percent are living below poverty. Possibly most disappointing is that close to half of all black children in the city are living in poverty-stricken homes.
Davis said there are a lot of misconceptions about people experiencing financial hardships.
“You’re judged unfairly if you live in what they consider the ‘hood,’ ” she said, emphasizing the last word. “But there are good people over here who are struggling like me because we just fell on hard times.”
After losing her job, Davis’ four-bedroom apartment followed. She was forced to move her family into a homeless shelter. But even that came to an end, after maxing out their allotted occupancy time. Luckily they were able to move in with a relative until they could save up enough money to get the apartment they now call home.
The modest Orange Mound abode consists of only two small bedrooms, very little space for her growing 9-year-old twins, teenage daughters, and one-year-old grandson. Her two adult children live nearby.
Davis said they make it work. Most nights her sons sleep in the room with her, while her daughters and grandson occupy the other bedroom and the couch.
“I wish I had my own room,” one of twins said as his mother explained their less-than-ideal sleeping arrangements. His brother nodded in agreement.
Despite the subpar living conditions inside their apartment, Davis said it’s a safe haven compared to the neighborhood. A large blue sheet covers the window in the living room, serving as a makeshift shield from the outside world.
“My boys don’t get to do things that most boys get to do because of our neighborhood,” she said. “I don’t let them go outside alone or at night because our young boys are dying at large rates.”
The family lives near the Memphis Police Department Airways Precinct. Last year a report released by the MPD showed the area as being one of the most dangerous in the city.
“Poverty makes people angry,” Davis said as the tears that had been forming in the corners of her eyes finally made their way down her face. “People are poor and so they don’t have any hope.”
Davis said she wished city leaders could do more, admitting that she has little confidence in the future of Memphis.
“You’re our leaders and you’re allowing us to live like this,” her voice cracked with emotion. “Torn down fences, rats, and other rodents. No one should live like this.”
Brad Watkins, executive director of the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center, works closely with homeless families and those living in poverty. He urged the city to create more local programs to help residents navigate the system before they hit rock bottom.
“There should be more local assistance and not the kind that’s coming from government funds,” Watkins said.
After the poverty report was released in February, Mayor Jim Strickland issued a statement admitting that one of the reasons he ran for office was to help reduce poverty. He mentioned systems that the city has put into place to move Memphis in the right direction, including more contracts with minority-own businesses and universal Pre-K funding.
Watkins said more could be done.
“Poverty is a constant pressure cooker where people are waking up every day trying to figure out how to navigate this inadequate bus system, how to get their kids to school, or how to deal with leaks and mold, and safety,” he said. “Everyone is one hiccup from dropping down a level in Memphis. And it doesn’t seem to be a ladder for people to get out.”
Davis admitted that she feels stuck and has suffered bouts of depression as a result of her financial hardships.
“When you’re used to taking care of your family and then you can’t, you get really down on yourself,” she said. “A lot of people tell me I’m strong but sometimes I need a shoulder to cry on.”
Davis said she’s not giving up hope and finds solace in prayer; and as for the future of her children, Davis said she will continue to invest in their dreams as best as she can.
“I tell them to graduate, explore the world, or be an entrepreneur like my daughter wants to be,” she said, looking down at the oversized black chair as if it were a reminder of her children’s potential.
“It hurts that I can’t give them the kind of life they should have,” she said, holding back tears. “But I tell them not to let where you’re from define who you are.”