Kennedy's Life Stories: Formerly homeless Rossville couple offers thanks for gifts

Tammy Harris and Justin Carroll stand outside their rental house in Rossville.

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A formerly homeless Rossville, Ga., couple say they want to thank Times Free Press readers and others who donated money after their home burned in May.

When a column about Justin Carroll and Tammy Harris published in this space in June, the pair were camping in their car in East Ridge and selling scrap metal some days to get a few dollars for food.

Now, they have a modest rental house in Rossville and have found part-time work cleaning houses and doing odd jobs they find on Craigslist, they said.

Still, it's hard.

"We live day to day, but at least we know we've got a roof over our head," Tammy said.

"Some people might think our house ain't much, but it's more than enough for us," said Justin.

Meanwhile, three of Tammy's four children from a previous relationship romp through the house. The place is filled with a chorus of little voices and the clippity-clop of tiny cowboy boots.

The house on Beech Street is filled with donated goods: living room furnishings from a cousin, tables from an employer, a clock from Justin's mother.

There's a set of bunk beds in one bedroom that Justin said he made from a $5 pallet of scrap wood he bought at Lowe's. They pulled up a worn rug and painted the living room floor dark brown. The children have decorated a front window with Halloween stickers.

There are framed family photos on the wall salvaged from a storage shed near the destroyed home, and the couple painted some bottles they found to liven up the place.

On May 3, a fire apparently originating in a clothes washer destroyed Tammy's double-wide trailer home in another part of Rossville. Justin, 30, was between jobs at the time, and Tammy, 29, had to pull out of Georgia Northwestern Technical College in Rome, Ga., where she was studying criminal justice.

The fire destroyed the uninsured trailer and threw the couple into a financial tailspin. For months, they camped or stayed in an extended-stay hotel that cost $275 a week.

After a column about their plight was published in the newspaper in early June, the couple received several thousand dollars in donations through a crowd-sourcing page: www.gofundme.com/whenhopegoesupinsm. Some people mailed donations.

"There were literally people who were sending a dollar or two in an envelope," Justin said. "We just want to tell them thanks. And we also want to thank the people that just shared our story."

Still, without full-time employment they struggle. Most of the donated money went to pay motels for several months and to repair a house that didn't pan out.

Justin said he sometimes finds construction work that lasts a day or two. Other times, he sells Tennessee flags in the parking lot of a local discount store.

Once, he took a job for $35 hauling brush. He said the customer seemed perplexed when he showed up in a sedan.

"I was like, 'Hey man, you gotta do what you gotta do,'" Justin said. "When it's a matter of eating and keeping the lights on, $35 is a lot of money."

Job searching can be stressful. Justin said he has applied for 60 positions.

"Once, I was excited for an interview. I got dressed up in nice clothes and looked good," he recalled. "I was getting ready to leave [the house] and they literally called to say they had found somebody else."

Both Justin and Tammy said their experiences of the last few months have given them a deeper appreciation of homelessness. Millions of Americans are just one house fire, or accident, or job loss removed from the streets, they now know.

"This has made me realize why people are homeless," Tammy said.

"Stereotypically, I used to think, 'How bad does a person have to be to be homeless?'" Justin said. "Now, any time we pass a homeless person we try to give them something.'"

Just recently, Tammy recalled, the pair gave a homeless person their last $5.

They cling to the Bible story of the "widow's mite," in which it is said that a small donation from a poor person is considered highly virtuous by God.

The day after they gave away $5, Justin and Tammy got a $500 donation online.

Contact Mark Kennedy at [email protected] or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at www.facebook.com/mkennedycolumnist.