We believe in the power of storytelling and the importance of investing in the future by sharing those stories – whether they are stories of successful community ventures or lessons learned from stories of things you wish happened just a little bit differently. These are the stories of communities working together for the common good. This article is part of “We Are Here: Housing Insecurity in Cincinnati,” a series produced by Women of Cincy and originally published at womenofcincy.org/housing.
Written by Lauren Lewis with additional reporting by Kiersten Feuchter, Angie Lipscomb, and Chelsie Walter. Photography by Angie Lipscomb. | A few days a week, Weightless Anchor opens its doors to offer free food, laundry, showers, clothes, and friendships to the women of East Price Hill. On a hot day in July, they also opened their doors to us.
While we wait outside, members of the community amble past and glance from us to the Weightless Anchor house, and I wonder if they think of us as newcomers infringing on their community. Standing there, I feel anything but weightless; our time is weighted as we hope to grasp the stories of the women here in just three short hours.
With her hair thrown up into a bun, Cassy, the director, greets us. As she unlocks the door and we help unload boxes of clothes from her car, she shares the story of Weightless Anchor.
The house is a kaleidoscope of calming colors: taupes, cool aquas, grays, and dark wood. Popular movies adorn the fireplace mantle, but I’m drawn to a frame on the wall filled with Polaroids of women in Halloween costumes and pennants saying, “You are loved.”
We settle around the wooden table, and at noon the first woman strolls in wearing a black tank top with her hair in a pile of auburn curls. After we introduce ourselves and state what we’re there for, she picks out a movie – “The Mountain Between Us” – and relaxes into the couch. Her name is Steph, and she seems mostly content to bask in the silence between conversations, but we chat for a few minutes.
Soon, two blonde women stroll in, Mercedes and Kay, and join us at the table. What follows is a three-hour conversation interwoven with the best places to find margaritas, interactions with animals, and memories that make us laugh, cry, and cringe.
Kay and Mercedes have known each other for eight years, when Mercedes started dating Kay’s oldest son, Allen. With this knowledge on the table, it becomes clear that Kay and Mercedes’s ability to finish each other’s sentences is second nature.
Mercedes describes meeting Allen: “We were in school. We met when we were 11, but I didn’t start dating him until we were older. I was always interested in him, but at first I thought he was a weirdo,” she laughs. “He came up to me when I was walking to school and was like, ‘You wanna see something that’s really cool?’ And I’m like, ‘Sure, why not, man?’ And he comes over and he flips open his phone, and there’s a naked chick on his front screen. I’m like, ‘Yeah, that’s just so awesome.’”
“Yep,” Kay chuckles, “that was Allen.”
Now, Mercedes and Allen have a two-year-old son named Hesher. Together, they live with Kay and Allen’s best friend in an apartment. But before they had an apartment together, both Kay and Mercedes faced homelessness, and even now, it’s close quarters.
“I know the struggle,” Kay shares with us: “how hard it is to try and find housing, and it’s like, people, you know, they want to run your background. I don’t have a good background. I’ve had my mistakes in life, you know? And landlords – they want to do background checks and everything like that – and they just kind of frown upon me. But I’ve looked over here in Ohio; I’ve looked in Kentucky, and they want all these different things. They want 10 years of your residence. And you’re not allowed to have no evictions or nothing like that, and it’s like – no wonder there’s so many homeless people. For real, there’s no reason.”
“I was downtown sometime,” Mercedes tells us, “and I needed a quarter to get on the bus. I asked every business person I could – because I knew one of ’em must have a quarter, right? All of them said no! I walked by this homeless guy; he’s like, ‘You’re trying to get on the bus? You need a quarter?’ I was like, ‘Yeah.’ He’s like, ‘Here. I have a quarter.’ I’m like, ‘I don’t want to take from the homeless guy! I can’t take his quarter. I can’t do that.’” She pauses. “But he ended up helping me get home.”
I think about all the people who have come up to me on the streets asking for a quarter to get on the bus: Would I have given Mercedes a quarter if she had come up and asked me?
I hate it, but it’s the truth. And it’s something I’ll think about later, when someone else comes up and asks me the same thing. I like to think I’ve changed.
We don’t know what led Kay to live a portion of her life without a home; she’s battled cancer again and again since 2005, has been in an abusive relationship, and has spent time in jail for domestic violence.
When Kay mentions she’s currently battling cancer for the fourth time, Mercedes says, “Every time she gets rid of it, it comes right back. You’d think they’d come up with a cure already.”
“You’d think they’d just take my boobs,” Kay amends.
“That would be easier,” Mercedes agrees.
Kay looks around the table at us. “They said that I’m not mentally stable enough and it was like, how do you know what I am and what I’m not?” Kay takes medication for ADD and bipolar disorder. “And they’re like, ‘Well you take all these medications.’ It don’t give a rat’s ass what medicines I take, you know? I’m tired of going through this. Take them; I don’t need ’em! My kids are grown; I ain’t gotta feed no babies no more. Take ’em! … Then I can just get me a big chest tattoo.”
When her two sons, Allen and J.J., were in school and she was battling cancer, both of them dyed their hair pink. At the memory of seeing Allen with pink hair for the first time, Mercedes laughs. “He had shaved his head and left a little strand of hair on the back of his head. It was pink, so I called it a rattail.”
Mercedes bounces between the memories of being a child and raising one. It seems she had the same honest, natural humor growing up as she does now.
“When we would lose our houses, we would go to Red River Gorge and we’d live there, basically, so you’d have to pee outside. So I’m not really ashamed to pee outside anymore. But thankfully, you know, I carry around wipes ’cause I have a son,” she jokes.
Red River Gorge seems like a place full of fond memories, and Mercedes dives into comedic experiences with dogs, bears, turtles, and deer. One of the best memories she shares with us involves a prank during monarch butterfly mating season when Mercedes and her brother Kyle scooped up a bunch of the monarchs and put them inside their tent: “So when my mom opened the tent, she got swarmed by these butterflies. And this butterfly didn’t leave: It lived on my brother’s face for three days. It was the coolest thing ever. He’d put the butterfly down and get in the water and swim and get out, and the butterfly would fly right back onto his face.” With her fondness for animals, it’s no surprise when Mercedes tells us she wants to be a dog trainer.
During those teenage years, when Mercedes found friends in butterflies, turtles, and dogs, her relationship with her mother wasn’t the best. She tells us she hasn’t seen her in more than a year. “She became obsessed with technology: She’d be on the computer every day. So now I try to avoid computers and stuff ’cause I don’t wanna be like that. I’m never gonna be like that. She just liked to play on them, and then after they came out – she started ignoring us way before – but when she didn’t have a computer, she would disappear. One time she just disappeared for two months, and we didn’t know where she went. She said she went to Michigan or something like that. It was terrible. That was like, the worse time of my life.” Mercedes pauses, and with a confessing laugh says, “I stole so much beef jerky from UDF.”
Despite everything, Mercedes still holds onto a love for imaginative creatures her mom fostered in her; she says loves drawing dragons and unicorns. The more they share about their lives, the more I realize these women are looking for the same thing every woman looks for: people who will offer not judgment for the past, but hope for the future. As we say goodbye, I glance at the picture frame with dangling polaroids of smiling women. At Weightless Anchor, it seems they are given just that: hope during both the mundane and the miraculous.