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Occupy Y'All Street: Three Generations Try To Escape Poverty Through Occupy Columbia

First Posted: 12/22/11 09:17 AM ET Updated: 12/22/11 04:06 PM ET

This is the third in a series of stories and short films on under-publicized Occupy sites. The first is here. The second is here. Stay tuned in the coming days for more from our road trip through the South.

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- In the early morning of Oct. 15, Jessica Smith, 29, packed up her mother's late '90s Crown Victoria and said goodbye to her mobile home, located on a half-acre off a dirt road. She woke up her 12-year-old son, Dakota, whom she home-schools, for the 20-minute ride northeast to Columbia. She had decided that they needed to join the Occupy group assembling there that morning. Smith wasn't planning on coming back anytime soon.

Smith's mother dropped her and her son off at the state capitol. It was 8:45 a.m. The grounds were quiet and empty. A few cops silently walked through the area. The last steady work Smith had was inside the capitol. She had joined on with a small furniture company that repaired antiques and had refinished every desk inside the statehouse. The job ended when they ran out of desks. That was two years ago.

Smith realized that she was the first would-be Occupier on the site. "God I hope I'm not the only one who shows up," she recalls thinking. "I was hoping to walk up and see hundreds of people."

Smith had brought blankets, a pillow, a sleeping bag, several changes of clothes, a pre-paid Walmart cellphone, school supplies for her son and hundreds of pieces of poster board and markers for her fellow Occupiers. As she waited for the others, she sat with her blank posters and let Dakota climb trees and run around the statehouse grounds.

At 9 a.m., Smith set up the first table of the Occupation and got to work making protest signs. Many of her posters addressed getting money out of politics. Others took swipes at Republican Gov. Nikki Haley. Her favorite was one she made for herself to hold. It asked simply: "Who owns you?"

Eventually, people started coming from different sides of the capitol grounds and up to Smith's table. "Is this the Occupy place?" she recalls them asking. "Are you with Occupy? What are you up here for?" More and more started to join Smith. It felt surreal, she says. It felt like the beginning of something.

Smith had never been to a protest. Later that day, her mother would rejoin her and her son. "I never felt so important before," Smith says.

Smith grew up in poverty and hadn't managed to lift herself out of the temp work, food-service uniforms and double shifts that have become emblems of the anonymous, working poor. At the mobile home, Smith relied on a well for water. She couldn't remember a time when she didn't worry about paying the electricity bill.

"When you have to decide whether you eat or pay your light bill, sometimes you have to eat," she says.

In the previous installments of our Occupy Y'All Street series, The Huffington Post chronicled how the Occupy movement has drawn membership from victims of the Great Recession. We followed a recently laid-off painter and struggling restaurant owner in Gainesville, Florida, and a family whose home had been foreclosed on in the suburbs of Atlanta.

Smith didn't become another statistic during the Great Recession, however. She had already fallen through the safety net. Before she set up camp on the South Carolina capitol grounds, Smith was just poor.

* * * * *

First came fear. Before Jessica was born, her mother, Gwyndolyn Garner, spent much of the pregnancy at a Columbia homeless shelter. "It was fear every day," Garner says of her shelter stint. The shelter didn't look kindly at her, she says, nor did they want her around for so long.

"Any day they could throw you out," Garner, 56, remembers. "It was run by Catholic sisters. Sometimes they threw people out just because. I tried to be good. I tried to do all the work. They started coming down saying I had been there too long. ... I think I lost 12 pounds during that pregnancy."

Her pregnancy got her fired from a burger and ice cream franchise where she waitressed. Just as the homeless shelter was threatening to kick her out, Garner started receiving unemployment benefits and was able to move in with some friends who had a house behind a chicken plant. She took a job cleaning a big house once a week, but it hardly covered expenses. She worked as a landscaper. She walked everywhere. She searched constantly for jobs. Opportunity didn't knock.

"I've been in a recession all my life," she says.

Garner says she developed survival skills. She supplemented her income by selling plasma twice a week. "I don't have big veins," she says. "I have tiny veins. My whole arm would be black."

After she'd had Jessica, when she didn't have money for baby formula, she made her own homemade version using canned milk, liquefied baby vitamins, corn syrup and water.

A problem with rats led Garner to move to another apartment. This one had no stove, no fridge and no heat. "I went to a thrift store," she recalls, "and got an electric frying pan, toaster oven, a plastic pot that could heat up water, and got a cooler and put ice in it every other day or so."

That first night, she and Smith both woke up screaming, their bodies covered in ants.

"Honestly, God got me through it. I don't know. Just got through it," Garner says. "I don't know how it happened. I don't know how I managed it, but I did. Every single day, I got up and did everything I could."

"I had a child that was dependent on me."

Smith's father had wanted little to do with his family. An iron worker, he could drink heavily and get violent. Garner says he died after accidentally lighting himself on fire when Smith was 16 months old.

Garner took on a job waitressing and another managing a laundromat. She says she lived on sweet tea and Dexedrine. She also found a job as a cab driver. She liked that she could set her own hours, and if her electricity bill needed paying, she could just keep driving until she had enough cash to settle it.

But cab driving could be a seedy business. "You had to learn how to stay alive," she says. "Being a female and people like they are, if you don't have intuition then you probably shouldn't drive a cab. Every little bit of dirt that gets done is done in a cab."

Garner says she drove prostitutes to big houses on Sundays during church services, strippers to work, and at least a few men who tried to get physical with her. The last guy to threaten her, she simply drove the fare to the nearest cop. There was a warrant out for the man for domestic violence and he was arrested on the spot. "He was all over me, putting his arms around me trying to touch me," she says. "I was mad."

In the early '90s, Garner achieved a temporary hold on the first rung into the middle class. She started making payments on a three-bedroom house with a little front porch and a rose-colored den. But an abusive boyfriend shattered the small bit of tranquility they had, she says. Garner had to let the house go.

Garner wanted to flee to Alaska. Instead she and Smith settled in a small town in Montana. She found a job caring for people with mental disabilities at a state-run group home, where she changed adult diapers and kept watch over patients through the night. It was, Garner says, the best job she ever had.

After a year, though, she started to get sick. Doctors weren't sure whether she had heart problems or emphysema. She decided to return to Columbia. She got back in her cab and took a second job at a Kroger grocery store until her knees gave out.

* * * * *

Growing up, Smith rarely saw her mother for any extended period of time. "When I was younger, it was more of, God, passing ships kind of thing. It's always been that way with us," Smith says. "By the time I got home from school, she was napping getting ready to go to work."

Garner says she felt her daughter constantly tearing from her grasp, escaping into mischief. "It was like holding a leash on a really big dog that's been dragging me down the road," she says. "I never could catch up."

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