Jessie often walks into The Contributor office with a grin and an enthusiastic, “Bailey!” Her arms are spread open, and high energy and positive vibrations spill all over the office. We talk about her poetry and our lives, and we almost always bring up Texas.
I first met Jessie at a paper release meeting about two years ago. We were making small talk and realized we were both from small Texas towns only 20 minutes apart. It was an instant connection and, for me, feels like having a family member close by.
Last week’s issue was about the right to vote. I remember our conversation about you not being able to vote. Can you explain that again?
My number is 656684. That’s from the Texas Department of Corrections. I did 10 years for aggravated assault on two police officers. You hear all the time that if you get in trouble then you need to pay the penalty. I pay taxes. I’m everything American except I can’t vote. I can’t even protect myself. That’s a profound thing to do to someone, to take away their right to say who they want to serve them in office. But I don’t think that’s something they’re going to fix any time soon.
I think society really needs to know that there’s a little more to “do the crime do the time.” Mine’s never going to go away. It’s funny because when I talk to police officers now, I say, “Please be safe because we need you. And by the way, I just want to let you know this is from a woman who did 10 years for two counts of aggravated assault on police officers.”
What’s it like to get out of prison after 10 years?
Color. Because everything you wear and see is white. [There’s] getting in a vehicle, going more than 30 miles per hour, people surrounding you. But unfortunately with all the hostility out here, I felt safer in prison. Because the hostility here has gotten so massive. You don’t even know. Being in prison, it saved my life. I got my GED while I was there. I got my associates degree while I was there. I got three vocations while I was there. I left there from trustee camp. Part of the reason I got in trouble was because I had such an attitude and I thought everyone owed me something. And I had a real big chip on my shoulder and I didn’t know how to let go of it.
What do you think helped you adjust once you got out?
I don’t really know because I didn’t have any family support at all. Just because I got out, didn’t mean I had anywhere to turn. They have a project in Texas called Project Rio, but that program is set up to fail you. The first rule is you’re not supposed to hang out with any other ex offenders, and the crime rate is so big that you’re almost sure to break that rule.
Were you homeless when you got moved to Tennessee?
Yes, but that wasn’t my first time. The first time was when I was in my teens. I had some mental issues and was in a mental institution. That’s when I first found out what emancipation was from my mother. I had never even heard the word, and my mom had gone down to the courts and had me emancipated. That’s when I found out that I was in charge of myself starting at 16. I was homeless from there, and I thought goodhearted men were good-hearted and then I found out they’re not so goodhearted and that’s another road to go down. But I’ve been homeless since about 18. Being homeless, even in a small town, is hard. I’d never had an apartment before or anything to fall back on. It’s not a pretty rainbow. It’s not at all. It’s a mess.
You’re in housing now, right?
Yes. I have got to give a shout out to the Park Center. Those are my buddies, thank you. They’re true to their word. Be patient with them. They’re dealing with thousands of homeless people. That’s a wonderful crew down there. If you show them that you’re willing to do something, they’ll bend over backwards for you.
What’s it like to experience homelessness as a woman?Z
You never know if a man is going to come up to you saying they’re going to help you out and then end up wanting something in return. Being homeless is not a good thing. And being a woman and homeless is even worse.
Let’s talk about your poetry. I know you’ve been writing for The Contributor for years and even read at our poetry event at Third Man Records.
I like to say what’s happening in the world. This country is in absolute turmoil. Sometimes I want to stretch my First Amendment rights, but I never want to offend a reader of this paper because this paper has saved my life. It really has. I see something and I get something in my head and I just start writing. I choose to write things about what people are afraid to write about. I think its great that people write positive poetry, but I think people need to know the negative sides too. I write what I see.
What would you like to say to your customers?
I have to give a shout out to the women at the McDonald’s down in the Metropolitan Center. To the police officers — they’re wonderful. Our bus drivers on the 42, and on the 9 Metro Center, they are so good to us. And to my customers, thank you so much. You may not know where this money is going, but thanks to them, for a whole year I haven’t had to sleep outside.