Jo Ann Gonzalez and her three children live in a common room at a homeless shelter in Ft. Worth, Texas. She was evicted from her home after being unable to find a job for six months. (Photo: Getty Images)
Tearyan Brown became a father when he was 16. He did what a lot of inner-city kids desperate to make money do. He sold drugs. He was arrested and sent to jail three years later for dealing marijuana and PCP on the streets of Trenton, N.J., mostly to white kids driving in from the suburbs. It was a job which saw him robbed at gunpoint and stabbed in the chest. But it made him about $1,400 a week.
Brown, when he got out after three and a half years, was done with street life. He got a job as a security guard and then as a fork lift operator. He eventually made about $30,000 a year. He shepherded his son through high school, then college and a master's degree. His boy, now 24, is a high school teacher in Texas. Brown would not leave the streets of Trenton but his son would. It made him proud. It gave him hope.
And then one morning in 2005 when he was visiting his mother's house the cops showed up. He saw the cruiser and the officers standing on his mother's porch. He hurried down the block toward the home to see what was wrong. What was wrong was him. On the basis of a police photograph, he had been identified by an 82-year-old woman as the man who had robbed her of $9 at gunpoint a few hours earlier. The only other witness to the crime insisted the elderly victim was confused. The witness told the police Brown was innocent. Brown's friends said Brown was with them when the robbery took place.
"Why would I rob a woman for $9" he asks me. "I had been paid the day before. I had not committed a crime in 20 years. It didn't make any sense."
He was again sent to jail. But this time he was charged with armed robbery. If convicted, he would be locked away for many years. His grown son and his three young boys would live, as he had, without the presence of a father. The little ones-11-year-old twins and a 10-year-old-would be adults when he got out. When he met with his state-appointed attorney, the lawyer, like most state-appointed attorneys, pushed for accepting a plea bargain, one that would see him behind bars for at least the next decade. Brown pulled the pictures of his children out of his wallet, laid the pictures carefully on the table in front of the lawyer, looked at the faces of his children and broke down in tears. He shook and sobbed. It was a hard thing to do for a man who stands nearly 6 feet tall and weights 210 pounds and has coped with a lot in his life.
"I didn't do nothing,'" he choked out to the lawyer.
He refused the plea bargain offer. He sat in jail for the next two years before getting a trial. It was a time of deep despair. Jail had changed since he had last been incarcerated. The facilities were overcrowded, with inmates sleeping in corridors and on the floor. The gangs taunted those who, like Brown, were not affiliated with a gang. Gang members knocked trays of food to the floor. They pissed on mattresses. They stole canteen items and commissary orders. And there was nothing the victims could do about it.
"See this," he says to me in a dimly lit coffee shop in downtown Trenton as he rolls up the right sleeve of his T-shirt. "It's the grim reaper. I got it in jail. I was so scared. I was scared I wouldn't get out this time. I was scared I would not see my kids grow up. They make their own tattoo guns in jail with a toothbrush, a staple and the motor of a Walkman. It cost me $15, well, not really dollars. I had to give him about 10 soups and a package of cigarettes. On the street this would be three or four hundred dollars."
Under the tattoo of the scythe-wielding, hooded figure are the words "Death Awaits."
He had a trial after two years in jail and was found not guilty. The sheriff's deputies in the courtroom said as he was walking out that they "had never seen anything like this." He reaches into his baggy jeans and pulls out his thin brown wallet. He opens it to show me a folded piece of paper. The paper says, "Verdict: Defendant found not guilty on all charges." It is dated Jan. 31, 2008.
But innocence and guilt are funny things in America. If you are rich and guilty, if you have defrauded banks and customers and investment firms of billions of dollars, as AIG or Citibank has, if you wear fancy suits and have degrees from elite universities that cost more per year than Brown used to make, you get taxpayer money. You get lots of it. You maintain the lavish lifestyle of jets and spas and million-dollar bonuses. You live a life of unchecked greed and have too much in a world where most have too little. If you are moral scum in America we take care of you. But if you are poor, if you are, say, Tearyan Brown and African-American and 39 years old with four kids and no job and you live in the inner city, you are in trouble. No one comes to help you. You don't get a second chance. This is what being poor means.
Brown found that life had changed when he got out. He had lost his job as a fork lift operator. And there were no new jobs to be found. He had faithfully paid child support until his arrest but, with no income, he could not pay from jail and now he was being hauled into court by the state every few weeks for being in arrears for $13,000. The mother of his three youngest boys goes to court with him. She explains that he paid regularly while he had work. She explains that when she works on the weekends Brown takes the kids. She asks that he be forgiven until he can get a job and begin paying again. But there are no jobs.
"I would not be in arrears in child support if I had not been incarcerated for something I didn't do," he says. "I will never get above ground owing $13,000. How can I pay $120 a week when I don't have a job?"
Brown lives on $200 a month in food stamps and $40 in cash. Welfare will pay his apartment for another four months. He is barely making it. I ask him what he will do when he loses the rent subsidy.
"I'll be homeless," he says.
"My son says come down to Texas," he adds. "Start a new life with me. But what about my three little boys? I can't leave them. I can't leave them in Trenton. They need a father."
Brown works out every day. He does calisthenics. He is a vegetarian. He volunteers at a food pantry. He attends the Jerusalem Baptist Church with his little boys. "They are church kids," he tells me proudly. "They are pretty much raised by the church."
He is trying to keep himself together. But he lives in a world that is falling apart. The gangs on the streets of Trenton carry Glock 9-millimeter pistols and AK-47 assault rifles. When the Trenton police stop a car or raid a house filled with suspected gang members they approach with loaded M-16s. A local newspaper, The Trentonian, reports the daily chronicle of crime, decay and neglect. The lead story in the day's paper, which Brown has with him, is about a young man named James Deonte James, whose street name is "Lurch." James was charged in the death of a 13-year-old girl during a gang shooting. He is reputed to be a "five star general in the Sex Money Murder set of the Bloods street gang." In another story an ex-con and reputed mobster, Michael "Mickey Rome" Dimattia, was arrested in his car after a woman behind the wheel was seen driving erratically. "Mickey Rome," dressed in a black bathrobe with a red scarf around his neck, was found to be wearing a bulletproof vest, with three guns stuck in his waistband, and had a crack pipe, crack cocaine and prescription pills in his pockets. He had been convicted in 1990 of killing a 17-year-old boy with a shotgun blast to the head. He served less than three years for the murder. A feature story on Page 4 of the paper is about a man with AIDS who raped his girlfriend's son 55 times and infected the boy with the virus. The boy was 9 when the rapes took place.
"There are thousands more guns out there than when I was on the street," Brown says. "It is easier to buy a gun than get liquor from a liquor store."
He says he rarely goes out at night, even to the corner store. It is too dangerous.
The desperation is palpable. People don't know where to turn. Benefits are running out. More and more people are out of work.
"You see things getting worse and worse," he says. "You see people who wonder how they are going to eat and take care of themselves and their kids. You see people starting to do anything to get food, to hustle or rob, to go back to doing things they do not want to do. Good people start doin' bad things. People are getting eviler."
"All things are better with God," he says softly, looking down at the tabletop.
He is reading a book about the Bible. It is about Jesus and God. It is about learning to trust in God's help. In America that is about all the poor have left. And when God fails them, they are on their own.