NO SHELTER is a regular series from MLK50 housing reporter Jacob Steimer, interviewing Memphians who are unhoused. Although the numbers are difficult to track, the Community Alliance for the Homeless estimates that on a given night in 2021, about 200 people were unsheltered in Memphis/Shelby County. The regular Q&As will introduce readers to neighbors they may not talk to otherwise and, perhaps, create a path to improving the way the city cares for these vulnerable people. They are written with the belief that all people are created equal — whether or not they’re treated that way.
Barbara Noble has applied to many jobs in recent years, but the fact her legs may give out at any moment usually scares employers away.
Living with a roommate, her disability checks allowed her to pay her half of the rent. But, with a widening gap between local rental rates and what people on fixed incomes can afford, she often needed a nonprofit’s help to pay Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division. She was barely holding on.
Then, when her roommate met a man online and moved out, she had to let go.
She tried applying to affordable senior living complexes, but they required a copy of her birth certificate, which she didn’t have and couldn’t quickly secure. So, she turned to The Hospitality Hub’s “hotel,” an emergency shelter for women.
“It’s a beautiful place,” Noble said. “And the people who are running it get the utmost respect from me. Without it, I’d probably be on the street right now.”
Soon after arriving at the hotel, Jacqueline Batts showed up. Noble and Batts had become friends eight years ago — the last time Noble experienced homelessness. They picked up their friendship where they had left it off and decided to room together at the shelter.
Batts, who works a pair of security jobs, had been living at a Motel 6. But seven months ago, her cancer returned from remission, and she decided the Hub — with its newer facilities and supportive staff — would be a better place to stay.
The shelter’s new building, which opened earlier this year, was originally designed to hold mostly single rooms — based on research that showed benefits of high-end personal space, according to Jarad Bingham, principal at Dragonfly, which manages strategic development at the Hospitality Hub. But, when speaking with local women experiencing homelessness, Bingham and his team realized most preferred roommates.
“Roommates are hard because there’s also a lot more conflict,” Bingham said. “But we learned there’s a net gain from people being able to share a journey.”
Noble and Batts are pretty inseparable these days.
“We’re like two peas in a pod. Just two peas in a pod. They call us Thelma and Louise,” Batts said.
Noble is the only one who can calm Batts down when she inevitably gets riled up about something. And Batts loves teasing Noble, whether about her slow texting or her scratch-off tickets.
The two are starting to look for a home they can rent together.
MLK50: How did you two meet?
Noble: Believe it or not, at another shelter, in 2014. I saw her in an argument with some people. She was little, and they were much bigger. I said, “That little white woman can get down!” So I got to talking with her.
She’s got a good heart. For my birthday, she got me a dozen roses, a card and balloons.
Jacqueline, what makes Barbara special?
Batts: She’s more level-headed than me. I’m like the Tasmanian devil. I used to snap off a whole lot. Now, they just call her.
How are your cancer treatments going?
Batts: I have good days, and I have bad days. I did a pre-test last week, and I was so loopy I don’t even remember coming in. And staff was awesome. They said I was bumping into walls and everything. I was at the staff’s mercy, and they were great.
What do you think about the City of Memphis’ efforts to help people experiencing homelessness in general?
Noble: I just feel like with Memphis being as big as it is, they should have more things going for the homeless than they do. You have all these empty buildings in town. Why not open some of them and let these people stay there until they can do better?
I know you’d have to have a staff and all that, but I’m pretty sure you could get people to volunteer.
How else could we as a society treat people experiencing homelessness better?
Noble: Tennessee passed a law wanting to fine homeless people for sleeping on the street. But how are you going to fine them if they don’t have the money to pay you? That’s just common sense.
Give people a chance. Everybody’s going through something. You’re entitled to make mistakes. None of us is perfect because God is the only person that is perfect.
Batts: Many of the homeless are mentally ill. It would be great if you had a company or case workers overseeing their disability checks. If you’re not mentally able to pay your bills, it’d be nice to know somebody is doing it for you. And then if you have an addiction to alcohol or drugs, you know you still have a home to come home to because your bills are being paid.