This article is from the March 2017 issue of The Lookout newspaper. The Lookout is a social justice street newspaper published by the Mercy Junction Justice and Peace Center. It is available throughout Chattanooga from distributors who are, who have been or who are at risk of experiencing homelessness. A suggested donation of $1 per copy stays with the distributor. You can also pick up a copy at the Mercy Junction Justice and Peace Center, 1918 Union Ave., Chattanooga TN 37404, or you can get a year’s subscription to the monthly newspaper for $24 by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Lillie Stubsten
On Tuesday, Feb. 14, police arrived at a home on Milne Street where they encountered 24-year-old Dominique Cortez Burney, 26-year-old Samantha Elbonie Caslin-Key and their two young children. The home had no running water, no food and no appliances.
There was an extension cord hanging from a hole in the ceiling, connecting the house to an adjacent apartment and providing the family with some meager power. The couple claims that they have been staying at the residence since December.
Police quickly arrested Burney and Caslin-Key and placed the children in protective custody. The couple now face child neglect charges.
Margaret Thatcher famously said there is no such thing as society, only individual men, women and their families. It is through this school of thought that we arrived at the cultural place we are today. It is a place where we hate and belittle the poor. It is a place where we all collectively ignore the systematic oppression that keeps individuals and families poor. And it is a place where we criminalize the very existence of those in poverty.
In reality, the poor are not to blame for the material conditions of their lives. I am inclined to believe that no one has ever woken up and decided that they wanted to squat in a house with no heat, water or food but instead found themselves there through a series of political, social, and economic forces.
Chattanooga is a perfect petri dish to study these forces, as they seem to be intensely magnified for such a small area.
To begin with, Chattanooga is a city overrun with generational poverty. This poverty is orchestrated by those in power to assure their places of privilege. This is evidenced by the fact that, according to Chattanooga Organized for Action’s website, over half of all income earned the city of Chattanooga was earned by the 20 percent of household earners. A New York Times article published in march of 2016 found that 27 percent of the city’s residents live below the poverty line, which is almost double the national average. These disparities also reflect the city’s history of racial injustice, as it was found that 60 percent of black children live in poverty, as compared to 16.5 percent of white children.
In addition, Chattanooga is facing an enormous housing crisis. Over the past decade, Chattanooga has demolished six of its public housing complexes and extended stay hotels, including Harriet Tubman House and Superior Creek Lodge, displacing thousands of people in the process. Beyond these public housing communities, there are very few options for everyday Chattanoogans. There are luxury lofts and condos being built every day in the trendy parts of town, that over three fourths of the folks living in the urban core cannot afford. Chattanooga also has the seventh highest rising rents in the nation and one of the top 15 most gentrified zip codes. To top all of that off, local banks practice extremely discriminatory lending. Mortgage lending is much higher within white and wealthy neighborhoods then it is in predominantly black neighborhoods. Often, the literal branches of banks are not easily accessible in black and poor neighborhoods.
This is all to say that, though we do not know the exact circumstances of this family, we can assume there were backed into a corner. Those of us in privilege must understand that there are barriers to financial success that may appear invisible to us due to our socioeconomic status and skin color. We must begin to address the root causes of poverty in our community. Causes like capitalism, white supremacy and patriarchy. Because, at this very moment, we have not done right by Dominique Cortez Burney, Samantha Elbonie Caslin-Key, or their children. All we have done is ruined a few lives, dismembered a family and continued to ignore the massive systematic oppression which govern the lives of the everyday folks of Chattanooga.
Data and statistics for this article were gathered from the Chattanooga Organized for Action website. Read more at chattaction.org .