‘I got to be on my feet, working so I can live’

Michael “Mississippi” Smith poses with a bowl of soup at the food kitchen Elijah’s Promise in New Brunswick, NJ

Michael “Mississippi” Smith is a resident of New Brunswick, New Jersey. He faces daily difficulties paying rent and covering the cost of living expenses. Michael grew up in a small town in Mississippi before moving to New Jersey in the 1990's where he inherited the nickname “Mississippi” from co-workers.

This profile is part of the series, “The New Jersey 37,” which focuses on residents making up the 37 percent of households in state that cannot afford basic needs such as health care, housing, food, child care, and transportation.

Louis Harned: Where do you currently work? How many days a week are you there?

Michael Smith: I’m working anywhere from four to five days a week at a hot dog joint in Mercer County, called Tower Dogs. I’ve been there for a little over a year and enjoy the job I guess.

LH: How do you get to your job?

MS: I rely on my girl most of the time to get me there and back. I haven’t driven a car in nearly 15 years. She gets that I need this job and she helps me out a lot. She’s got a job of her own for the county and can’t always take me in or pick me up because my hours can be off-balanced with hers. So sometimes I have to rely on public transportation which is not fun, because I have to leave almost two hours before my shift to catch a train, then a bus, and then walk another 10 minutes. Most of the time I’m just getting in before my shift starts, but they know my situation. They work with me.

LH: You said your girlfriend knows you “need” this job. Why do you need this job?

MS: I got bills to pay, son. I got rent. I got a girl. I got to eat. I need a job to live. I can’t just sit inside all day, like I should be. I got to be on my feet working, so I can live. Not live comfortably, but at least live with some things to my name.

LH: Were you ever homeless?

MS: Yeah, I was homeless I don’t have anything to hide. I’m not ashamed of it.

LH: Can you talk a little more about that? How long were you homeless?

MS: I was homeless for six months but was staying at Catholic Charities. They took me in and gave me somewhere to stay. It was hard, accepting that I had nothing and needed other people’s help. But it was either swallow my pride and except help, or freeze my butt off in the cold. Guess which one I picked?

LH: Where are you currently living? How much do you spend on rent?

MS: I’m living in a little place on Suydam Street near the Flower Corner. It’s not much, but I got a roof over my head. I’ve had less before, believe me. Tower Dogs pays me enough to cover rent and take my lady out once in a little while. She deserves it. She does a lot for me. She’s a good girl and deserves to be appreciated.

LH: Can you talk about a little more about your cost of living? How much does rent eat up monthly?

MS: Most of it. I have to be careful with my money because money is tight for me. If I need new clothes, and at the same time I need light bulbs for the house or food or anything, I have to compromise and hold out. I’ll be like “Okay I have this much money to spend before I’m in trouble.” So what I do is, if I need that new shirt, I buy it but everything else gets put on hold, until I have some more money. When I got some more then I’ll get that light bulb fixed and maybe get another shirt or pants or something. I live on patience. If I need something, I wait until I really need it to go ahead and get it. You adapt pretty quick when you have no other choice.

LH: What about food? What do you do for it?

MS: Depends. Sometimes I buy some food at the food store. Sometimes my girl feeds me, and sometimes I come down to Elijah’s Promise and see what they got cooking up. They always feed me, so if I’m hungry I know I can come here and get something to eat.

LH: Do you see yourself as a surviving or thriving?

MS: Son, I’ve been through it all. I’ve been to jail. I’ve been homeless. I’ve got medical conditions that I can’t even pronounce, but you know what? I’m still here, aren’t I? I’ve never felt sorry for myself. I’ve fought back and kept my feet on-moving. It’s not easy; I’m not pretending it is, but I believe I’ve got God on my side and a girl that loves me and a place to sleep at night. Ten years ago I didn’t have any of that. Yeah, I’m doing alright I know that.