Home free

Sep 2, 2009 at 12:00 am

The old, narrow apartment complex is ravaged. Curtains blow out of broken windows and weeds smother its courtyard. All signs point to its abandonment.

But there's a handful of colorful toys scattered on the porch outside one of the backdoors, which faces a long, empty field. And clothes hang on a line to dry. Amazingly, despite the squalor, someone still lives here.

It's home to the Tipton family — Rick, his partner Jennifer Coombs, and their three daughters. They occupy No. 1909 in the crumbling Spaulding Court apartments on Rosa Parks Boulevard at Spruce.

They live here for free because their landlord abandoned his own building and left the place to the scrappers and vandals who moved in as the tenants moved out. The family, broke and struggling, stayed. 

"If you want to get technical, we're basically squatting," Rick says. "It has helped us out financially, but we can't live like this anymore."

Their apartment has electricity, still, but they had to rig up their own water supply after the building's old pipes were stolen. They don't have jobs. They don't own a vehicle. They do a lot of walking to get around.

Rick, 38, has a wiry build, a shaved head and a nagging criminal record. After years spent on Skid Row and in prison, he's trying to lead a respectable life and be a good family man while stuck in a bad situation. 

It's a summer morning and he's smoking a cigarette in a shaded area near the porch. One of his daughters rides her bike back and forth in the narrow, sunny space where the kids are allowed to play. Jennifer watches from an open window. The girls are never let out of sight except for school, and aren't allowed to talk to the strangers who pass by or cut through here.

"I make sure that my kids have everything they need," Rick says. "My kids don't want for nothing. They're fed every day, they have clean clothes. We make sacrifices to give them that."

Jennifer brings Kyrstyn, 11, from a previous relationship. Rick does likewise with Darian, 8. Little 3-year-old Dallas is theirs. The girls are polite, friendly, quick to smile and well-behaved, a surprise considering how the odds are stacked. The oldest daughter has lived elsewhere and remembers there's a better life out there. For the youngest two, though, this has been home much of their lives. And until they get back on track, back to a normal life, the couple hopes to keep the kids from being ruined by their time here.

"We take them to the water park, they go to the zoo, we treat them like any other children," Rick says. "They're very well-adjusted. They don't realize they're in a situation not like other kids, and I don't want them to ever have to feel like they're any lower than anybody else."

When they moved
in a few years ago, Spaulding Court was a nice place to live, featuring two sleek wings, walls of cut-stone blocks and a courtyard through the middle. Each pair of apartments shared a covered porch capped with a brick archway. They'd been solid for a century. All 20 units were occupied. 

Then the landlord stopped showing up to collect rent or to perform maintenance. A couple years later he returned to serve eviction notices. And then he vanished, again. 

As the place fell apart, its residents left one by one. Empty apartments were ransacked. Windows were shattered. Doors were kicked in. A couple units got torched. 

The family had nowhere to go and no money to get out. For a while they attempted to contact the landlord, first for repairs and then just to learn what happened, but his last known phone number is disconnected, and his last address was a box at the post office. 

Meanwhile, they live in a nearly abandoned building. Scrappers break down the doors to empty units and tear out anything that's metal. Drug dealers moved into the vacant unit across from the family a while back and set up shop until Rick chased them off. Amateur photographers sometimes wander the ruins until they hear him barking at them from a window to get the hell out.

"I don't come to your house with cameras and take pictures of your house," Rick says. "We night not be living in a mansion in Bloomfield Hills, but this is still our home, and don't invade my home."

The apartments are such bleak symbols of decay that when Eminem was shooting a video this summer for "Beautiful," featuring images of the city's abandonment, his crew wandered into this place and put in it a brief shot of Jennifer and Dallas sitting on their back porch, next to a slack utility wire. 

"I'm getting phone calls from everybody I know, saying, 'Your daughter and your wife's in the video!'" Rick says. They like Eminem. They were proud to be featured. Now their time here is immortalized.

Rick's lived a hard
life. He grew up in the Cass Corridor. "My mother was a heroin addict, my dad was a cokehead and my sister was a stripper," he says. "So that was a way of life." He did drugs and sold drugs, used a gun to rob someone and was sent to prison. He got out, assaulted someone and was sent back again. 

He swears he's a new man since his release, but he can't find work because few employers are eager to hire a felon, particularly when the economy has tanked. He is, despite his life in the streets, a trained chef, and worked in a few respectable restaurants around town before being sent away. 

"I've put in applications everywhere I could think of," he says. "Now it's hard for me to get a job in a nice restaurant because of my record, because it's a violent thing. But if somebody would just give me one chance, let me get my foot in the door, I'm not that kid anymore. I was 21 years old. I was crazy. I'm not that person anymore, but they don't see it that way."

He and Jennifer met through friends a few years back. She had come north from a small town in Ohio when her mom remarried and moved here. She and Rick dated, and he moved into the apartment. Then she hurt her back and couldn't work anymore. Surgery didn't help. That left them with state assistance checks, cash from odd jobs and few options as Rick tried to make it the respectable way. It's hard to do, he admits.

"We were talking the other day. I said, 'You know, I can go out here and in a week I can get us out of this situation," he says, referring to old friends still deep in the drug business. "'Get us a nice house, a nice car. Just give me one week,' and she says, 'Hell no.'"

They're an odd pair, opposites who find in each other something they were missing in themselves. She's a polite girl from the country; he's a reformed ex-con from the city streets. She grounds him; he protects her. Right now, all they have is each other, and the kids.

"I'll go do something stupid and she'll say, 'Normal people don't think like that,'" he says. "I get so frustrated, I do slip back into that frame of mind, and then I turn around, I look at her, I look at my girls, and I go, 'What kind of future would they have if I go ahead and do something stupid again?' Not that I probably would do it, but she keeps me in line." The couple plans on marrying in the fall, a gesture toward their ideal of traditional family and a normal life.

The benefits of
living rent-free were long ago outweighed by the building's disrepair. "I hate this place with the biggest passion in the world," Jennifer says. "I cannot stand it." She aspires to one day move someplace downriver, like Melvindale. 

As she talks, Darian rides her bike back to the porch to make her chief complaint about living here. "I don't have a TV in my bedroom," she says. And then she beams, a pure, beautiful smile. If she or her sisters are somehow hardened by their time here, it's not obvious.

Just days later, the pieces come together — Jennifer's disability checks begin arriving, Rick lands just enough odd jobs and an apartment becomes available down the street. It's nothing special, but it's clean and secure, and it's available just before fall. 

It puts them a few weeks closer to surrendering Spaulding Court to the vandals and vagrants. A few weeks closer to a more normal life.

"Our goal is, we want to give them a better shot than we had," Rick says. "Me, growing up, I had to fight and scrape for everything I had. I don't want it to happen to them." 

Detroitblogger John scours Detroit for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]