Frank Ewing only ever lets me into his place because he has to. It’s right there in the lease.
“I ain’t ever signed off on that,” he tells me through the crack of his door the first time I knock. “You show me where it say that.”
I pass a copy across the threshold and point to where the Housing Authority mandates monthly visits from me, his new case manager.
He looks at the paper for a long time. In a few months, he’ll start to let me help him with his mail, and I’ll come to understand he can’t read.
“Boy they kill you with the small print,” is all he says about the lease.
He never learned how.
He is seventy five and has a long enough history of homelessness that the city pays me to provide whatever support he needs to stay housed, now that he’s finally housed.
“It’s not like an inspection or anything,” I add. “I’m not here to get you in trouble.”
He opens the door and lets me in. The place is always the same: clean enough, with some cowboy show on the TV, mattress on the floor, unopened condoms on the windowsill, and nothing in the fridge.
“Want some help with food?” I ask. “There are some places I know about that could help you out a little.”
“Don’t need no help. See you next month. Seventeenth, right?”
On the seventeenth, I bring back a loaf of bread. One of the pieces of mail I help Frank review is from the Housing Authority, threatening eviction. He hasn’t paid his rent once in the six months he’s lived there. I ask why not.
“How much I owe?” he says. “I’ll pay them next month.”
He doesn’t. I explain the situation to my supervisor, and at first, she assumes Frank’s using, but then when I mention the condoms, the pieces fall into place for her.
“So, he’s tricking, too.”
Next time I see Frank the lights don’t work. He lets me call PECO to work out a payment plan, but the thing about it is he has to actually pay. Both the rent and electric payments are so small it’s like they’re symbolic. It’s like:
You want this place? Give up something for it. We know your pension is modest, we understand things are hard. We’re not asking for much, just give us something.
He doesn’t give them anything. Maybe it’s symbolic for him, too.
On the day I visit Frank to tell him he’s being evicted, I meet the woman he’s been spending all his money on. She’s leaving just as I get there, and in lots of ways, she’s not what I expected: she’s older, in her sixties maybe, and beautiful in the way that mothers and grandmothers are, wholesome. Her hair’s done up, she’s wearing scrubs, she’s off to work, she tells me. We talk for a minute, and she calls me baby in that way that older women sometimes do that I love. Her name is Prudie.
“So that’s her,” I say to Frank once she’s gone. I’ve been coming to see him for almost a year at this point, so I should know better. It’s the wrong thing to say. He darkens, says it’s none of my damn business, and points to the door. I show him the notice to vacate.
At eviction court, the lawyers compel Frank to either submit to a representative payee—someone to handle his finances, pay his rent, budget his spending—or vacate the unit in thirty days.
“Please,” the lawyers appeal to me in private. “Try and talk some sense into him. You know how many people would kill to have what he’s about to throw away?”
I do. I get it, but for the whole meeting, all I can think about is Prudie in her powder pink scrubs, and I don’t try and convince him one way or the other.
After he’s evicted, I go and see him in the shelter, see what he’s paid back this month. When the balance is zero, he will be awarded a new Section 8 voucher, judge’s ruling. He hasn’t paid a cent, and the staff at the shelter are frustrated with him.
“Every month it’s the same thing. He leaves out the first—payday—and comes back on the fifth, broke as a joke. It’s been four months, and he hasn’t paid back a dime towards his balance. It’s like he doesn’t even care about getting back home. And it’s not like he’s even getting high—we’ve tested him. Addiction we can at least try to treat. There’s funding for that. But this? And don’t think we don’t know exactly where his money’s going.”
“To love,” I say, and it helps, they laugh. I’ll never tell them about Prudie, and Frank will never give her up. I try and press him a little, though. The shelter is a hell of a place to be seventy-five years old.
“Just give them a little bit. I mean don’t you want to get the hell out of here?”
He laughs. “I sure do get the hell on out, every first of the month, don’t I?”
I don’t know where it is he meets Prudie every month for those few days, and I know better than to ask. I get it. Wherever it is, it’s the one place none of us can touch.
Before I leave we play a game of chess in the day room. I’ve never played anyone as good as Frank. He seems to wake up when we play, like he’s thirty years younger, moving quickly and slamming the pieces down, “There.” He talks smack, he laughs at most of my moves, and he uses his queen in ways that would make me nervous.
“You putting her on that pedestal ain’t doing you any good, neither,” he tells me.
I laugh, he’s right. “I’d just be scared of losing her.”
“Shit,” says Frank, and he darkens like he does. “That ain’t love.”
Patrick McNeil has worked in Philadelphia’s homeless sector since 2011. His work has appeared in Eclectica Magazine, Apiary Magazine, and elsewhere. He is the organizer of Philly’s own Backyard Writer’s Workshop, and founder of the Writers Residency in Tufo, Italy.