Two From the Road

After years on the street, the Buckarmas are thrilled to be permanent fixtures in permanent supportive housing

Being able to lock a door behind you. Watch TV. Come home from work and look in the refrigerator.

To the Buckarmas, the little things are not so little.

"When you're at the shelter, you have to think, am I sleeping in such a position that someone can kick me?" says Sue Buckarma. "The children there, and really all of us, are subjected to watching someone do drugs, someone get beat up, always there on the street."

"She found a dead body in Texas," says her husband Shaun.

"That was not fun," she adds.

"After three years with no roots, you're always worried someone's gonna steal what little you do have, knock you off the razor's edge you're living on," says Shaun.

"There's the look on people's faces when they see you with a backpack going to the library, just the look..." says Sue.

Since May 13, the couple sleeps in a bed in a one-bedroom apartment high up in the Love apartments off of Broadway, "permanent supportive housing" managed by KCDC in a placement made through the Volunteer Ministry Center. They have a case worker who's also from VMC. The two, who have been together since 2005, spent around eight months on the Knoxville streets and years on the street in other states. They pay the rent with KCDC Section 8 vouchers. Both see a therapist, Shaun a psychiatrist as well, which helps him control a pronounced nervous tic and other mental ailments. "A lot is from being homeless on the streets," he says.

Both are 40, born 12 days apart. He calls her "Colorado," because that's where they met at a shelter. She calls him "Casper," though she doesn't say why. "When you're homeless, some people take up nicknames so they don't have to be personal," Sue explains. "You tend not to be real clingy with other people."

But when these two use nicknames? "For me, it's almost like being on a team," says Shaun. "I say, ‘Hey, Colorado,' and it's more like an emotional attachment.'

"He's the first person of the opposite gender I've had any closeness to," says Sue. "We're great friends, too." Like 95 percent of homeless women, Sue has suffered significant domestic abuse, in her case both as a child and at the hands of adult males, including two previous husbands. She started drinking at age 13, and quickly moved to popping pills. She's had two bouts of addiction to crystal meth, but has now been clean for almost three years, with "no desire to go back," she says. "When my family... the things they did. I was always the one of us sisters who struggled and fought not to let them tear me apart and dismantle me. I think I did pretty good."

"Before I met her, I was done for, wandering around," says Shaun. He's made quite good money as a machinist, had an apartment, two cars. "I've been dealing with mental problem issues my whole life, I wasn't happy, I drank a lot," he says. "Then both my parents died and my son grew up. I didn't have nobody. I thought my life was over. Killing myself? A situation where I thought I might die? Both. I just felt really lost. But then I met Colorado. I didn't want her to find someone else who would bring her down, and I thought, ‘Even if I can't get out okay, maybe she can get out.'"

Shaun is now the only one of the two who can work outside the home since Sue's degenerative joint disease makes it hard for her to get around or stand for long. He walks everywhere, and would leave home at 4 a.m. for the 45 minute walk to the labor-by-the-day brokers, so if there were any work his would be the first face they'd see. Still, he only made $100 in the whole month of July, mostly by selling his plasma. About that time, he scored ongoing work at SYSCO food services. "I've been working every day and taking it as it comes," he says. "It's going okay. I'm happy with it."

Sometimes Sue feels like she's letting him down. But she's happy to cook for him and run errands on the bus as well as she's able.

They're very protective of their new lives. "What we have, and what we've accomplished, we hold it dear," he says. "We take our lives very seriously. I have to be prepared—we realize that with a snap of a finger, a person's life can change."

There's a Singer all set up in their family room; mostly Sue has worked the sewing machine. Shaun sewed something, too. "You know you're a tramp when..." he jokes as he shows off a pair of brown pants he turned into a duffle bag.

On the back pocket, he's hand embroidered initials from states he and the bag have seen together: CO. TX. LA. TN. NC. IN. "We've got to put Vermont on," says Sue, making a mental note for both of them.

Going to need to add any more states?

"Oh no," says Shaun without hesitation. "This is home now."