Demolition continues this week on a building that once was a haven for downtown Cleveland's homeless. The abandoned Ward Bakery near East 55th and Chester was slated for redevelopment by the city last summer. But that redevelopment project became a battle for squatters' rights last August, when about a dozen squatters refused city orders to leave the crumbling building, which they affectionately called Camelot. The group including two very passionate activists named Eduardo Lauriano and Pamela Wagner.
Eduardo Lauriano- Where we gonna go? I dunno where we're gonna go. Maybe we'll go to the police station, sleep at their home! Maybe we'll go to the mayor's house! How do you like that?
Pamela Wagner- There needs to be more space for mothers and children in the shelters. I just spent the past month in Akron, because there was not enough room for mothers in the shelter!
Eduardo and Pamela's story brought issues of homelessness and poverty to light in a way that was hard to ignore. With two children, sub-standard job skills, and limited financial prospects, they represent the lifestyle of over 40% of the population of Cleveland, according to statistical reports gathered last year by the Federation for Community Planning.
While the legal case over squatters' rights hasn't come to fruition, their struggle goes on. 90.3 WCPN's April Baer recently caught up with Pamela and Eduardo, to see how their lives have changed.
April Baer- By some standards, Pamela Wagner and Eduardo Lauriano's lives are infinitely different today than last year.
Every two weeks, Pam walks past the aging churches along St. Clair Avenue to Shelliga's drug store.
Pamela Wagner- I have to take buses to get here - it usually takes about 45 minutes.
AB- She's found work as a tele-marketer. For the first time in years, she's supporting her family.
PW- Hopefully there's nobody in line...
AB- Today's pay day, and Pamela is cashing her check. But rather than being the happy end of the story, this is only a beginning. While Pam is rediscovering the pleasures of a paycheck, she's also tangling with tough new decisions - like when four year old Eddie finds a toy plane he can't seem to put down.
Eddie Wagner- Mom, mom, look!
PW- PW: What is it? Let's see how much it is first. No baby, that's $14, that's way too much.
AB- While she knows there's a hundred things $14 could be spent on, Pam makes her decision.
PW- You want it? Ok, I'm gonna get it for ya. I do get little stuff for the kids - clothes and toys. It's expensive, but they need it, you know?
AB- Walk into Pam and Eduardo's apartment in Slavic Village and you'll see four small, tidy rooms, more than a bit worn, and sparsely furnished with hand-me down furniture. What you don't see is the struggle it took to get here. When the family was kicked out of Camelot last August, it seemed at first things were looking up. An anonymous philanthropist, moved by the sight of a very pregnant Pamela living in the rough offered them a thousand dollars to pay for an apartment. But just a few months after they moved in, an electrical fire broke out. The city condemned their building, and the family was back on the street again. Dan Kerr is with the homeless advocacy group Food Not Bombs and a friend of the family. He calls the story very typical.
Dan Kerr- They're really relying on the bottom of the housing market. Right now there's not a real stable affordable housing stock - people pull themselves up, end up in a house, and landlord may not be paying taxes or whatever, and they end up back on the street. It's not certain at this point we can say Pam And Ed are in the clear. I would hope that's the case, but they're one check away from being homeless.
AB- Last winter Pam and Eduardo, 4-year-old Eddie and the new baby, Ferron, shuffled around from relatives to friends to shelters - seldom able to find a place willing to let the four of them stay together. As their situation grew more desperate, Pam and Eduardo started having serious fights - fights which sometimes came to blows. Eduardo says it was during this period he resumed an old battle with drugs and alcohol.
Eduardo Lauriano- She said I'm not ready to move back in with you, she said she had a job and stuff, the kids were fine - to tell the truth, I was trying to kill myself.
AB- Five years of living on the street, struggling with drugs and alcohol, have left this 31-year-old with the heart of man twice his age. Since February, Eduardo's been hospitalized repeatedly for pneumonia, a collapsed lung, and various conditions related to his grossly enlarged heart. He may be off the street, but his doctors say he'll be dead by the end of the year if he doesn't get a heart transplant. On learning of Eduardo's condition, Pam decided it was time to give it one more try. In May they started over together in the apartment where they now live.
Because he's liable to have a major heart attack at any time, Eduardo isn't allowed to watch the kids by himself. He helps out as much as he can, cooking meals and packing their bags for day care.
During the day, Eduardo moves quietly around the apartment talking to neighbors, listening to music. But the days are slow. Eduardo says there are things he misses about living at Camelot.
EL- I miss the people! I miss the building.
AB- What's been even tougher to deal with is the transition from street-dweller to house-husband.
EL- It was really hard for me to adjust because I always wanted to be out on the streets, and we got into a lot of arguments because I wanted to be out on the street. I said "There's a home for you, I'm made for the streets." It's just a different experience to be in an enclosed environment, when you've spent so many years in an open environment, with the rain the snow. When we first moved in, Pam and me, I couldn't sleep on a bed, I had to sleep on the floor, 'cause that's what I was used to, couldn't get used to sleeping on a bed.
AB- Eduardo says he knows he doesn't have much time left, but he wants to spend as much of it as possible doing what he can for Pam and the boys. Tomorrow at this time, our story will continue. We'll hear more about the support Pam needs, in her newfound role as breadwinner. In Cleveland, April Baer, 90.3 WCPN News.
Dan Kerr is with the local activist group, Food Not Bombs, which advocates for homeless and low income families struggling to make ends meet. He's also a friend of Educardo Lauriano and Pamela Wagner, and has had the chance to observe their situation first hand. Click here for the interview.