Nowhere to go
Rushia Robertson spooned globs of cheesy spaghetti bake onto foam plates and called her kids for dinner. Her children and a few of her neighbors' kids filed into the kitchen and chose their seats. Some climbed onto tall leather chairs, while others pulled out plastic folding ones and scooted up to the brown marble table.
The table is the most valuable item in the modest home, not just because of its monetary worth but because it embodies the past pains, present struggles and worries about the future of the single mother of seven children.
That table is the only thing Robertson kept when she moved on from an abusive relationship and decided she would hold down her family on her own. Moments like dinnertime remind her of why she can never give up on her kids.
But her precious table could soon be thrown out from Gadsden Green public housing if her family is evicted. "I would actually melt," she said. "Not even just for the table, for the trash can, for the broom."
Robertson and her kids, along with four other single mothers and their families, are facing eviction as soon as next month because of armed robbery charges filed against teenage sons from each family.
Gadsden Green is a complex of apartment buildings that houses 262 families near the Crosstown Expressway between Hagood and President streets. The Charleston Housing Authority has strict regulations that say an entire family may be evicted if any individual resident is involved in serious criminal activity.
Tenants sign a lease that includes a zero-tolerance policy for such offenses.
The policy has been controversial in Charleston and elsewhere with similar rules.
Robertson and the other moms are fighting any eviction attempts in the courts because, they say, if they were to just quietly move out, at least two dozen children could be homeless in the largest eviction of its kind in recent memory in the city.
They've rounded up support from neighbors, and at least one elected official has been vocal against the possible eviction. Most recently, the Charleston branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has quietly become involved with the situation, too.
A question of parenting
It was just after dark when Robertson peered out her "alert window." The street lights were on but her 14-year-old son, whose name has been withheld because he is a minor, hadn't returned home.
Robertson sensed something was wrong. Her friend, Jacqueline Clinton, another of the mothers facing eviction, called moments later looking for her two oldest sons. The two women set out to find them, knocking on neighbors' doors as they searched for their missing teens.
They said they feared the worst. When a detective called saying their sons were detained, their fears were confirmed.
"Our hearts just dropped," Robertson recalled.
Their sons and three other juveniles were arrested in October for allegedly confronting two people in separate incidents near the College of Charleston. Police said a pellet gun was used in both cases and that six youths on bicycles were involved.
The teens are charged with robbery and attempted armed robbery but have not been convicted.
Jim Heyward, chief operating officer for the Housing Authority, said the authority must follow federal guidelines because it receives more than $16 million a year from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
"You can't pick and choose," Heyward said. "Who are we to say when someone should or shouldn't be evicted?"
The families' attorney, Skip Martin, has argued that it would be unjust to punish the entire families for acts that none of the women condoned.
Clinton has six children and said she always tells her kids to stay close to the housing complex.
Robertson said her children had never been in any serious trouble at school or with the law.
They both said any criticisms that they are unfit parents are untrue.
"This is a situation where you've got good kids and one parent. That doesn't make us bad people," said Robertson, who is studying to be a nurse. "If we all were being judged for our children's mistakes, where would everybody be?"
Her seven children were fathered by four men. Robertson said two of her children's fathers are still active in their lives. The father of her oldest son, the one charged with the crimes, was shot and killed when the boy was 7.
Clinton is a former waitress who recently changed jobs to become a housekeeper. She works 40 hours each week, she said, adding that she would rather struggle by herself than rely solely on her kids' fathers. "It's frustrating being a single parent, period. But you have to do what you have to do," Clinton said.
The women say they often help each other out with keeping the children.
Robertson said she was excited when she moved into Gadsden Green last summer. She said she had been on the Housing Authority's waiting list for about three years before she was approved. She brought that brown marble kitchen table with her as a keepsake.
Read between the lines
Representatives from the Charleston branch of the NAACP met with Housing Authority officials last week to discuss the terms of the families' lease agreement.
NAACP Charleston branch President Dot Scott said the group wanted to make sure the federal laws back up the lease that was drawn. Specifically, Scott said she was concerned about a clause that says residents aren't allowed to permit criminal activity. The wording is vague, she said.
The women have said they don't condone what their children are charged with doing.
Heyward said that even if there were questions about the lease, they would be clarified during mandatory orientation sessions for new residents, where they are briefed on the rules.
"It's very clear during the orientation process that if a member of your family is charged with a violent crime that the Housing Authority will take action to evict," Heyward said.
Still, Scott said the fine print should be clearer if the leases are expected to hold legally. "Things can't be subject to clarification after the fact," she said.
Robertson and Clinton said they signed their leases with good intentions and vaguely remember attending an orientation class, but they said they never thought their kids would be involved in any crimes.
"Who does?" Robertson said.
Housing Authority officials said last week that they will wait until after the holidays to move forward with the evictions, which will play out in a magistrate's court.
Robertson said she is preparing for the worst. She usually keeps the kitchen cabinets stocked, but lately they've been half-full.
In her living room, a white Christmas tree decorated with shimmery red tinsel and several homemade ornaments has but a handful of gifts beneath it. "Basically what they're telling us is, 'Buy a whole bunch of gifts to put them in storage.' That's crazy," Robertson said.
Heyward said the families' situation is unique because of the number of people affected. "It's very difficult when you have four or five families involved," he said.
Almost 1,400 applicants are awaiting approval for subsidized family apartments, Heyward said.
He said if the women's sons are found not guilty, the authority would probably let the families reapply for housing and not make them wait three years as called for by federal rules for evicted persons.
Clinton has not figured out where her family will go if they are evicted.
Neither has Robertson. "We're trying to save our families," she said. "If they take our homes away from us, what else do we have?"