‘Us against the world’: couple endures homelessness amid COVID-19

By Jake Schmitz

At 7:30 a.m., Tony and Davina Edmonds wake up in the tent serving as their home, located deep in the bamboo woods surrounding Interstate 40. It’s raining, which usually means this will be a “low” day for them. They carefully step around the booby traps Tony has rigged using skills he learned during 13 years in the Army. Then they eat breakfast and pray before doing what they’ve done for most of the past month – panhandling.

Tony and Davina stay on opposite sides of U.S. Route 501, known as 15-501, and panhandle there for roughly 12 hours daily. They’ve chosen this strategy so they can interact with people coming from both sides of I-40. They also have a constant view of each other, helping them ensure mutual safety from drivers – and other panhandlers.

“Because there are some shady people out there, I want to keep my eyes on her and make sure she’s okay,” Tony says.

A “good day,” which they attribute to drivers’ benevolent moods, means the Edmonds make between $200 to $300. They then use this to rent a motel room off of the highway. They wash their clothes, shower, sleep in a bed and enjoy other everyday comforts that have become luxuries.

On a “low day,” as Tony calls it, they’ll make between $10 to $20. On these days, they grab dinner and return to their tent, which they call “The Shire,” a reference to Lord of the Rings. Regardless of how bad they’re feeling, they never take a day off.

“If you’re in a bad mood you just don’t make as much money,” Davina says. “It doesn’t do any good just sitting around and sulking like, ‘Why me? Why me?’”

‘You don’t look homeless’: harmful stereotypes

At four p.m., Tony, clad in a neon construction vest, has made about $30. Davina, on the other hand, has hit her “little goal” of roughly $80 for the day, so she’s checking on her husband before they get dinner. The couple’s three-year anniversary is on Oct. 31, and their life together has never looked like this.

Tony is an Army veteran with a degree in marine biology, and Davina is a professional hairdresser. When the pandemic hit, Davina’s hair salon closed. Tony never received his veteran benefits, which can take anywhere from three to five years to deposit, so the couple was forced out of their home. It’s been hard for them to grapple with their homelessness considering their job credentials and experience.

“A lot of people tell me, ‘You don’t look homeless,’ and I thank them,” Davina laughs. “A lady asked me the other day about my nice Ugg boots, and I was like, ‘Yeah, I bought them six years ago. Six years ago, I had money. What do you know?’”

Tony says a few of his Army friends have also recently become homeless, but it’s still been hard for the Edmonds to come to grips with their new life. It’s been especially difficult dealing with negative stereotypes cast upon panhandlers, like assumptions of widespread drug and alcohol use. The Edmonds say they keep to themselves and try to maintain a distance from the other panhandlers scattered up and down 15-501. They often refer to them as “these people.”

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, ‘Are you going to go buy drugs?’” says Tony. “A lot of these people use drugs and stuff, but we’re just using it to feed ourselves and just live,” Davina adds.

‘God’s got our back’: faith and love provide strength to carry on

Despite all of this, Tony and Davina agree that their relationship has never been stronger, and they depend on each other’s support more than ever. They spend their entire day in the same place, always keeping an eye on one another. They also take breaks for meals together every day.

“If we can get through this, we can get through anything,” Davina says. “We rely on each other, and it really is us against the world. And, of course, God’s got our back.”

They cite their faith as a major reason why they’ve been able to endure homelessness. Tony’s handmade sign reads in bright orange and blue text, “ARMY VET Looking for work Anything Helps may God Bless everyone.” They trust in God to provide for them and firmly believe that he will deliver them from this eventually.

“We’re very, very grateful for all the blessings we receive,” Davina says. “God will provide,” Tony chimes in.

For the Edmonds, this is a temporary gig, and they’re treating it like any other job they’ve had. They wake up early even if they’re feeling bad, eat three meals daily, avoid distractions and spend their money wisely. Because of this structure, their relationship and their faith, they’re hopeful – at least for now.

“If you come and see me six months from now and I’m still here, I might say different,” Tony says. “But, I’m pretty sure we’re going to figure something out,” Davina adds.

Edited by Ellie Heffernan