It’s well below freezing, but Jackie Peden starts the morning of Feb. 10 like she does every day: opening the front door of her Garden Square apartment to signal to the children they can come and go as they please.
A boy in first grade steps into her kitchen at about 8:15 a.m. that snowy Wednesday. She has the oven on and open to pump more heat into the room for the children trying to escape the cold. The boy admires the many magnets on Peden’s fridge and asks if he can have one that’s half of a Hot Wheels van. She asks him what happened to the one he took the day before, and then concedes to his request.
“There’s no cookies?” the boy asks.
Peden – who everybody in Garden Square knows as Ms. Jackie – stands from her wheelchair and retrieves a box of Thin Mint cookies from her freezer. She’s going through Girl Scout cookies fast these days, and in the summer she starts stocking popsicles. Peden has an obvious soft spot for children, offset by her role as firm disciplinarian and “playground monitor,” as she calls herself. She hands out treats but also keeps a wooden paddle she calls “Oscar” tucked in the back pocket of her wheelchair.
“Don’t be bouncing off the walls when you go to school,” Peden, 61, admonishes the boy, handing him some cookies. The storm door bangs as four older children step into Peden’s apartment, filling her kitchen, and she doles out three cookies to each of them as well.
At about 8:30 a.m., a yellow school bus comes to a stop at the corner and the children rush out the door, leaving behind puddles of mud where the snow had melted from their shoes.
“Bye, you all have a good day,” Peden calls after them.
“This is how my day starts,” she says, alone now in her kitchen. “I love it, yes I do.”
Peden’s special attention to her young neighbors is echoed again and again throughout the public housing complex – by other Garden Square residents, by the Kokomo Housing Authority, by Kokomo Urban Outreach just across South Locke Street and by numerous other community groups.
They want the next generation to grow up with the hope of something more.
Debra Cook, executive director of the Kokomo Housing Authority, has a passion for helping children break the cycle of poverty, as well.
“We have to change the culture. In order to do that, I put a lot of resources into working with kids,” she said, noting KHA’s recent investments in social services for its residents. “While we are a housing authority and we do provide housing, we have to think about the long-term success of our residents and how they fit in the community. The best way to serve them and make their lives better is to also work on the social side of things.”
Some Garden Square residents – like Peden – have elected to live there for decades. A woman who lives in the next row over from her has a couple nieces who also reside in the complex. Two sisters who grew up visiting their grandmother in Garden Square now live in opposite corners of the complex, each raising their own children there now.
Whether residents see it as a stepping stone or a long-term residence, for at least the immediate future, Garden Square is home.
Previously called Gateway Garden, the public housing complex is often labeled as a hub for drug activity and associated with violence, a somehow second-rate place to live, thereby making the people who live there second-rate citizens.
The people who live in Garden Square are aware of its reputation in the broader community.
The people who live there would like that perception to change.
“Yes, it’s low-income, but that don’t mean that we’re low-minded people,” said Angela Small, 49, who has lived in Garden Square for about two-and-a-half years. She still has her mail sent to her mother’s address when possible because she doesn’t see the apartment complex as her permanent residence. “These are family-oriented people up in here. These people look out for their kids and other kids up in here.”
Some people say the drug activity in Garden Square has been cleaned up in recent years; their neighbors say it’s worse than it used to be. Drug- and alcohol-related arrests in the complex peaked in 2007, but many residents also say it’s unlikely they will call the police about drug activity – out of fear of retaliation, or thinking it won’t make a difference. The smell of marijuana drifts through the complex when the wind is just right, and some residents have heard teenagers have been smoking spice there lately.
Most residents say the violence isn’t bad, but they try to be careful and keep to themselves. Children talk about fights they’ve seen in the complex, and they fight with each other.
There’s good and bad in every neighborhood.
Inside Garden Square
Kokomo Housing Authority provides the safety net for city residents whose financial situation gives them few options. Divorce, medical conditions, lay-offs, underemployment and addiction are common paths to poverty. For many, it becomes incredibly difficult to make a change once they are focused on surviving day-to-day rather than planning long-term.
Some residents of Garden Square would like to own their own homes or dream of having a kitchen large enough for a dining room table and chairs. They would prefer for their grandchildren to play on soft carpet in their living rooms rather than hard tile floors.
The 76-year-old complex consists of 176 units divided into six rows of four buildings at 800 E. Hoffer St. in Kokomo. Sidewalks connect the rows of tan buildings, with white trim and black roofs, which were remodeled in 2000. Children often gather in the complex’s four courtyards to play on the three playgrounds and basketball court. A community building at the north end of the complex houses offices, activities for residents and a daily after-school Homework Club for children of all ages.
Families pay roughly 30 percent of their monthly income in rent, which includes all utilities and Wi-Fi in Garden Square. There’s about a year-long waiting list to move in, and roughly 528 people live there when it’s at capacity.
“Do I like being in the situation I’m in? No. Is [Garden Square] a blessing to me? Yes. I could not have asked for a better place to live,” said Melissa Sterner, 46, who goes by Missy and has lived in Garden Square three different times throughout her life, most recently since 2008. “This place is basically like home. If we could make the inside look as good as the outside, people would probably take better care of it.”
Cook knows concentrated poverty is not ideal. In addition to the five public housing properties KHA manages, the housing authority also oversees about 700 single-family homes scattered throughout the city. Cook and her staff of 40 people have expanded KHA’s role beyond simply providing housing to address residents’ other needs as they work toward being self-sufficient.
“We want families to have the opportunities to live in mixed income areas. It’s not good to cluster,” Cook said. “[Mixed income neighborhoods] expose the families to different levels of income and the amenities that might be in one income level versus another.”
Sarah Birden never wanted to live in a place like Garden Square.
“I wouldn’t raise my dog out here,” Birden said, often speaking softly and slowly, like she’s almost too tired to form the words. “I worked very, very hard to make sure that my children never had to experience something like this.”
Birden, 32, a Kokomo native, and her husband previously owned a house near Pettit Park, both bringing in an income to support their five children, now ages 7 to 17. In 2007, Birden was diagnosed with cancer and continues to struggle with several other serious medical issues, too.
Separated from her husband and no longer able to hold down her factory job due to her health, Birden lost her house. She and her children moved into Garden Square in 2013, living on child support from her husband and food stamps.
Birden sat crying on the cement step out the back door of her apartment one sunny October afternoon, the wind whipping her long, dark hair. She was simply overwhelmed.
Birden worries about her children growing up around negative influences.
“It’s like beating it off with a stick. You have to fight 10 times harder to keep your kid from falling down that path [of drugs, gang affiliations and violence],” she said.
But Birden also doesn’t want her children to look down on their neighbors, so she tries to explain the differences in where they live now and their old neighborhood.
“The easiest thing I’ve found to be able to get through to most of them is that every person is raised differently and they see different things from different places that they come from,” she said. “Some people don’t have the pleasure of good parenting from the beginning, and you just fall down a path that’s easy to follow. I’ve tried to instill that in them so that they see they’re very lucky compared to a lot of kids out here. They’ve had a full-time parent who’s been there to give them the right direction, to give them the right help, to keep them away from those things. Not everybody does.”
Michelle Jackson and Danielle Watts are thrilled to be raising their children in Garden Square.
They both moved to Kokomo from public housing in Chicago, seeking a more peaceful environment. They found it.
“There’s not a lot of fighting and guns,” said Jackson, 35, who applied online to be transferred to another public housing complex outside Chicago. Kokomo was the first place that had a spot for her, and she moved in August 2015. “I really, really like the Homework Club. I like that they really pay attention to the kids and try to keep them out of trouble.”
Jackson has a 12-year-old son and a 5-year-old daughter. The teenage girl who lives next door often babysits them. In addition to attending the KHA’s nightly Homework Club, Jackson’s daughter also joined a Girl Scout troop organized by Kokomo Urban Outreach. Her son participates in Wednesday night youth group at Greater Life Church in Greentown. People from the church provide transportation for children who live in Garden Square who want to attend.
Watts, 24, has had a similarly positive experience for herself and her 8-year-old daughter since they moved to Garden Square in February 2015. Watts didn’t know anyone in the area when they came to Kokomo; she was simply looking to get out of Chicago.
“With all the violence that was going on in Chicago, I did some research on the Internet and there were three different cities I wanted to go to. Kokomo was one of them,” she said, adding that she got in to Garden Square within a couple months of applying. “I think people look at me kind of weird. I don’t know if it’s because I’m African American or because I’ve got [purple] colored hair, I don’t know. But I just like it because it’s like peaceful, you know. You don’t have to deal with a whole bunch of nonsense all day, every day, like violence or cursing.”
Watts carried an umbrella to keep the rain off her as she crossed the complex to check her mail on a cool day in October. She still wore her ID badge from the Excel Center, a charter school in Kokomo for adults who want to earn their high school diplomas. When she’s not in class, Watts appreciates the chance to keep busy with the eight hours of community service work KHA requires residents to complete each month, unless they meet certain federal requirements to be exempted.
“It’s crazy, people call this the projects and I’m like this ain’t nothing,” Watts said.
Stephanie Reed says her children know more people in the neighborhood than she does.
That’s typical for many families in Garden Square. The vast majority of public housing residents on Kokomo’s south side are women and children, so when mom’s at work, the children entertain themselves.
Minority women, especially, are more likely to be victims of crime, said Gregory “Fritz” Umbach, an expert on public housing and an assistant professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York. Unsupervised children are another factor in that equation, he added.
“If you have a large number of children with less adult supervision, that can be a predictor of crime,” Umbach said.
Reed, 34, a Kokomo native, was bumped up to full-time at the restaurant she works at about a year ago, and in December she was promoted to manager. When she’s not at work, she stays in her apartment trying to avoid the “drama” that goes on in the complex.
“Come summer time, all you got to do is pop a bag of popcorn, sit right there on the porch and see all the action,” she said, standing in her kitchen on New Year’s Eve as her teenage children come and go through the room.
Reed estimates she and two of her children have lived in Garden Square for three years, aside from the few months last year they were evicted because her son was playing with a knife outside in one of the courtyards. She is glad they got the chance to move back, but at the end of February they were planning to move out.
Reed felt like she didn’t have much privacy with housing authority staff coming in to inspect the apartment whenever they wanted. Cook says staff give residents 24 hours notice before they enter an apartment to complete routine inspections, but a few residents said they aren’t given warning. Reed also was tired of worrying about getting evicted. She hadn’t kept up with her community service hours and hadn’t gotten a permit to have her chihuahua live with her. The bed bugs were an issue too.
Women head 61 percent of households in public housing on Kokomo’s south side, and at least 76 percent of those public housing residents are women and children, according to the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development’s 2015 resident characteristic report. HUD keeps records by zip code, so the 119 units at Pine Valley Apartments are included with statistics on Garden Square.
Children account for 50 percent of public housing residents in Kokomo’s 46902 zip code. Men are not very visible in the community.
Reed’s fiance is a truck driver and can be on the road for months at a time, but he stays with Reed for the few days he’s in town. With him on the road and her work schedule constantly changing, Reed’s children – who are 14 and 15 – are home by themselves four or five evenings a week. Their 19-year-old sister moved in with them in January, so she provided more supervision while Reed is at work.
Reed considers herself a “strict mom,” and she’s taught her children to be independent. She’s grateful for the Homework Club and the summer camp put on by KHA to keep her children occupied and “out of trouble” when she’s not around.
“They know to be in this house after that Homework Club, [which used to end at 9 p.m.] They know they have to have their showers and to be in bed for school by 11 o’clock if I’m not home,” she said, adding she keeps her cupboards stocked with food her children can make on their own, like chicken strips, French fries and macaroni and cheese.
On an unseasonably warm December day after school had let out for winter break, Reed’s 15-year-old daughter sat on a mesh metal bench near a corner of the complex’s basketball court with her 5-year-old neighbor – Jackson’s daughter – and that girl’s 7-year-old cousin, who was visiting for the holidays.
The girls watched a rotating group of six to nine boys of all ages play basketball on the blacktop court with chipping white lines. Punctuated by the thump of the ball on the concrete, the girls talked about how the boys at school tease them, how some guys are OK and some even have nice eyes, but they wondered why the boys have to curse so much when they play basketball. Reed’s daughter calls out to her crush on the basketball court, and then she shows the younger girls her belly button ring – she took Jackson’s daughter with her when she got her belly button pierced one day while she was babysitting.
The 7-year-old needs her pink winter coat zipped up, and the youngest girl climbs on and off Reed’s daughter’s lap while they talk. The oldest girl jokes that she’s “off duty,” so why is Jackson’s daughter hanging on her? The younger girls’ parents aren’t outside.
A few weeks prior, around Thanksgiving, Reed’s daughter got into a fight with some other girls in the complex, and the 15 year old says she won’t go anywhere in the complex by herself anymore, adding that the girls have since made up. Reed was working when her daughter “got jumped.”
Samuel Collins, 42, fondly recalls spending his teen years in Garden Square, his smile widening as he talks about break dance battles he and his friends had. But now he’d rather not raise his 14-year-old son there, after seeing teens fighting frequently in the complex and worrying about other negative influences.
“The kids are different than how we were back then,” Collins said, adding overall he appreciates having a place at Garden Square and thinks, for the most part, it’s a nice place to live. “I can’t watch him and know what he’s doing all the time. He’s a good kid, but it’s the people he hangs around with, and I can’t watch him 24/7.”
Missy Sterner lived in Garden Square years ago while two of her three children were teenagers, and she sees the teens who live there today causing more problems and trying to intimidate people. With her own past as a juvenile delinquent, Sterner views the teens’ behavior as a cry for attention rather than a reason to be afraid of them.
“They just want to be noticed,” she said, sitting on the couch in her dim living room, her grandchild’s scribbles adorning the wall behind her. “Back when I lived here with my boys, when they were teenagers, we didn’t have a lot of fighting and stuff amongst the kids. They got along. [Now] you’ve got some kids out here who are bullies and think they can run the show. … And it’s because the parents ain’t paying that much of attention.
“When the parents pay attention to the kids, they do accomplish something,” Sterner added. “The Homework Club is there for the parents [working who don’t] have time. They’re awesome down there.”
Sterner is active within the Garden Square community. She would like to see more constructive activities available for teens, and she wants to start a resident council within the complex to formally recognize issues affecting residents.
“I’ve gotten to know a lot of the teenagers out here,” she said, adding she’ll sit outside and talk with them. “Some of these kids don’t have that with their parents. Their parents are working. They have to. But to have the interaction of an adult to actually listen, it helps some of the kids.”
This is the first installment in a series that took first place for best community service in the 2016 Hoosier State Press Association and received Community Newspaper Holdings, Inc.’s best public service award of 2016.
More on this reporting here: Changing the Conversation: About this series (Kokomo Tribune)