Spinning His Wheels

Spinning His Wheels

Lack of capital meant James Darden was stuck scrambling for necessities.

For most of the past two years, James Darden paid his rent each evening and was homeless by the next afternoon. Like many residents of Fairfax, Darden, 54, struggled to accrue the cash and the credit necessary to rent, much less own, his own home. So he lived in a motel, the day-to-day costs of which accrued to about $1,300 a month.

Two years ago, Darden moved to the Mount Vernon area from North Carolina, where he had been a caretaker for his bed-ridden mother for the last six years of her life. Although the cost of living is significantly cheaper in North Carolina than in Northern Virginia, he was drawn here by the strong economy and the prospects of finding a job.

“I ain’t doing no fieldwork,” Darden said, describing some of the typical jobs available to a black man in North Carolina with no high school diploma. “I ain’t picking no beans, no tobacco.”

Darden said the best job prospects in his hometown of Goldsboro were the penitentiary system, Georgia Pacific, Cherry Hospital and Silotex Shingles. “If you work in them places you prosper,” he explained, “But other than that, you’re spinning your wheels … I call it spinning your wheels, you’re making just enough for you to live.”

Darden left North Carolina because he believed that in Northern Virginia he might find the job that would give his life some traction. But for two years, any economic momentum proved elusive. Darden arrived in the area with no job and no savings. Paying a security deposit on top of one month’s rent was impossible.

DARDEN was adamant that he would avoid sleeping in the woods. So he checked himself into a motel. The wheels began spinning; a pattern was set. Darden became homeless at eleven o’clock each morning, check-out time. He would have one day to earn enough money to buy one more night with a roof, a bed, four walls, a kitchenette and a bathroom down the hallway. If he had any money left over, he would buy a meal.

Each morning, Darden would go out and look for work. After four years of trade school in the early 1970’s at Job Corps centers in Goldsboro, Morganfield, KY, and Bristol, Tenn., he is a jack-of-all-trades, a handyman. But from the beginning, he struggled to find regular work because he did not have transportation or much of a resume. If he did not have a job lined up – making a plumbing repair, painting a house, installing sheetrock – he would go door-to-door. “You need me to cut the grass or trim a tree?” he might ask.

Darden said he could earn up to $900 for painting a two-bedroom house, a job that could take him less than two days. But more typical would be a paycheck of about $50 to repair a leaking pipe. Darden could line up jobs nearly every day. He says he has about 25 regular employers. They will pick him up themselves or he will walk to their houses. “When you do good work, the word gets around,” he explained.

Still, there would be days when there was no work. Then, Darden says, he would go to Ace Temporary Services. They would typically pay him fifty or sixty dollars, enough for his motel room. “I’d take the seven or ten dollars I had left and buy something to eat,” Darden said.

DARDEN is single man with simple tastes and, until recently, only ad hoc employment arrangements. It would stand to reason that a person in this situation should economize by living in a small, inexpensive dwelling. Darden’s motel rooms were small, with minimal facilities for cooking and no incentive to acquire anything but the most basic essentials of life - a few pairs of clothes, eating utensils and plates, shoes and a beloved pair of in-line skates. But Darden’s rent was not cheap.

The minimum price for a room at the Southern Motel, where Darden had been staying, is $37, the maximum is $65. Assuming that Darden was able to spend every night in his dwelling, his monthly rent was at minimum almost $1,200. According to the standard calculation of what someone should be paying for their home – 1/3 of their salary – Darden should have been making about $43,000 dollars a year. He was not.

Darden paid out an enormous percentage of his income in order to have a home. Each evening’s sapping of each day’s work meant that he could not hope to save the hundreds of dollars of upfront costs for a security deposit and first month’s rent that it would require for him to move into a cheaper apartment (if he could find one) with a long term lease.

“I coulda went and stayed in the woods for three months,” Darden said, describing the only chance he’d had of saving money for an apartment, “but what good would it do me? I don’t know if I’d have money the next month.”

“ANYBODY in North Carolina tell you,” Darden says. “I’m the workingest man there is.” He describes his way of life as “hustling,” not in the pejorative sense, but stemming from the pressure of having to hit the streets each morning in order to earn enough money to live another day above the threshold not only of what Americans expect from their life, but what humanity has prioritized for 200,000 years: food and shelter.

Every American must learn to keep a budget, but when Darden says, “your money dictates how you live,” he does not mean whether you live with a new car or a used one, private school or public, Starbucks or 7-11, Whole Foods or Shopper’s Food Warehouse. He means whether you can buy a baloney sandwich after you have paid over your day’s wages for a single room with a kitchenette and a shared bathroom in the hall.

Darden has practical skills in plumbing and carpentry that he can deploy in this effort, but his greatest resource is his determination to stay out of the woods. “Dogs and cats sleep outside,” he says. “I would never sleep outside. As long as I got two arms … I don’t give up. [The homeless] give up. I don’t give up.”

ABOUT EIGHTEEN months ago, Darden was on his way to a job when he and a friend walked into Rising Hope United Methodist Mission Church on Russell Road. “I went in there to drink a cup of coffee,” Darden explained, “and there’s something about it when you walk in the door. I been going to Rising Hope ever since.”

Darden’s diverse skills were useful to the church dedicated to fellowship with people who are nibbling out a living at the economic margins of Mount Vernon or going hungry in its woods. When Darden’s skill and reliability became apparent, he was hired part time as a janitor and maintenance man. He earns $10.50 an hour.

“It changed my life, being here, helping people,” Darden says. He works from 2:30 to 6:30 at Rising Hope, a schedule that gives him time in the mornings to continue working odd-jobs. He never misses work. “I’m obligated to myself and God to take care of his house,” he explains.

For two months this winter, from February 1 through March 31, Darden was able to take a break from his routine in motel rooms. Rising Hope was hosting the Hypothermia Project, a partnership between Ventures in Community, New Hope Housing and Fairfax County to give food and shelter for 60 days to about 25 homeless people a night. Darden was enlisted to sleep on a cot in Rising Hope and help the volunteers who came from different churches each night.

As the end of March approached, the irony of Darden’s situation was unavoidable: On April 1, the man who had held the homeless shelter together would become homeless. So the people who had volunteered at the shelter raised a “love offering” of $500 to help Darden pay the upfront costs of his own apartment.

BUT DARDEN’S efforts to move into his own home were limited by more than cash. He had no official identification. His wallet was stolen more than two years ago, and the state’s stringent proof-of-identity requirements prevented him from getting a new identification card or driver’s license. Darden’s only form of identification is a card printed for him as a favor by Top Services, a local cell phone store. He could cash his checks from Rising Hope at a nearby check-cashing business, but only because the manager knew him.

Without identification, Darden’s options for housing were further restricted. He had to seek out sub-letters and individual renters. Any corporation would require identification with his application. In addition, although he had a lump of cash, Darden has no credit. This, explained Laura Derby of Rising Hope, is ultimately even more debilitating for the homeless than a lack of ready-money to put on deposit.

After another stint in a motel, Darden’s luck turned when he met a woman who owned several homes. She offered to let him sleep on the floor of her own home for three weeks while she arranged for him to move into another house that she rented out.

The house she had in mind is located in a quiet neighborhood off Pole Road. It was in disrepair, and Darden worked off part of the $1,200 security deposit by repairing the walls and painting the interior. The rest he earned by working on the woman’s other properties. He paid over his $500 gift and some personal savings for the first month’s rent.

DARDEN HAS had a home for three weeks.

“It feels good man,” he says after unlocking his door with a key he keeps on a lanyard. He grabs a can of beer and sprawls onto his couch, the strain of the day’s work visibly easing out of him. His long arms seem to encompass the room when he spreads them across the back of the couch. “I come in and shut the door and don’t worry about nobody bothering me,” he says. “It’s home. It ain’t the best in the world, but it ain’t the baddest.”

Darden splits the $1,250 rent of his two-bedroom house with a roommate. Darden offered to let the man move in with him. “It’s easy to help somebody,” he explained. “We hit it off. He’s an older guy. He’s 70 or 80 years old … He don’t got to hustle for his money. He gets his [social security] check.”

Darden seems to enjoy the congenially domestic relationship he has with his roommate. They share food bills as well as rent and utilities. “I tell him he needs to eat more,” Darden says. “He gotta keep his health and stuff up.”

Darden describes the pattern of his evenings: getting home and drinking a can of beer, cooking himself a meal, then going out on his in-line skates to spin through his new neighborhood and beyond, back for a shower and then into his own bed with his own sheets pulled tight around him. His own air-conditioning cools the room. And now that Darden wakes up every morning in a home that will remain his no matter if he’s able to replace a pipe that day or mow some lawns, he is able to think about his future. Professionally, Darden hopes to get a driver’s license and even a contractor’s license, something he had for a time in North Carolina.

Being a licensed contractor, he says, would “let me get some extra money. So I can beautify the house a little bit.” He talks about bringing his two teenage daughters to live with him. They both live with different mothers back in Goldsboro. Darden also has two adult sons from a third woman. “I done been through the mill,” Darden says of his relationships with women.

But sitting on his front porch, smoking a cigarette and surveying his neighborhood, Darden appears to be a man whose mill-wheels have stopped spinning aimlessly and begun to grind. With an affordable rent, steady work and the skills to find more, Darden is finally able to begin accruing the pieces of a life that hold it increasingly stable. “I think I come a long way,” he said. “I don’t depend on no one to do nothing for me. I’m a grown up.”

Sitting on his porch, Darden reflects back on the last two years. “Staying in a motel, it’s just like being homeless,” he says, “because really it’s not yours. You don’t pay your money, you’re out of there.”

It is a Friday evening. Cars quietly swoosh down Pole Road. A lawnmower drones faintly from across the street. In a hedge nearby, a bird calls out its intermittent song. “See how quiet it is?” Darden says. “That’s the way it’s staying. It’s always quiet like this.”