of technology with his sons and often takes apart his computer just to watch his seven- year-old boy, Isaiah, put it back together.
Last year he had just worked his way into a managerial position for a janitorial company when the company started losing contracts. His hours were cut more and more until finally he was jobless. Landing at Our House has allowed him time to regroup. Awash in his hometown, with no acquaintance or family member to call on, safe harbor was Our House’s old brick buildings and chain- linked grounds here in the shadow of an abandoned hospital. His four children have been happy to take part in the shelter’s summer kids’ programs, and his new wife, Krystal, has been using her job as a manager at Church’s Chicken to help the family save for a better home.
Barnum, 32, is at that threshold of age where youth and middle age begin to blur. He plays in a sports league, makes digital drumbeats and dreams of owning a music studio. And now his oldest child is standing at the threshold of manhood. Dante is 13, and Barnum looks at him with both admiration and trepidation. The kid is bright—he has always made honor roll—and well liked. He dreams of owning an investment company. But his school is rough. When Barnum visited it he was disgusted with the condition of the bathrooms, and so he asked for a job as a janitor, partly for sanitary reasons, but mostly out of a paternal instinct to look
after his boy.
“I guess there’s opportunity wherever you make it,” the father reckons. “But I don’t know, man, it’s pretty rough out there. There’s a lot of gangs and there’s a lot of violence. It’s pretty scary. I know he’ll make some good decisions and some bad ones. I just gotta be there for him.”
He says his south Little Rock neighborhood is slipping back into what it was in the early 90’s, back when an HBO documentary, Gang Wars: Banging in Little Rock, both cemented the city in the nation’s imagination as a frightful, desperate place, and elicited a community effort to clean up the streets that, until recently, seemed to be working. “It seems like the gangs are taking over again,” Barnum says, although he is not the kind to blame his surroundings for his struggles. Even in regard to violence and drugs, his elaboration stops at this: “There’s just a lot of knuckleheads out there.”
It is as if, for him, thoughts of community decay are as dangerous as the agents that bring it about.
Barnum remembers his army training and, like any soldier, is slow to make excuses. He will not say that being an African American male in the South puts him at a disadvantage. He will not muse about the better school districts to which he will probably never send his kids. He is slow to complain about the lack of afterschool programs for his teenage son. There is not time for that. Today he has a job interview for a position as a crossing guard at a school. It’s part-time, but it’s a step towards getting his family into a home of their own.
He says unemployment and homelessness have not stripped him of his role as provider. “I may not be financially in the best position, but I still take responsibility,” he says.