Niki Gore holds her grandson, B.J., while the baby's father and her third oldest child, Nate Jr., tickles his feet on the family's porch in May. All of Niki's five children were unplanned, a fact that stretched the family's limited resources but also brought joy, comfort and much needed daily support. For almost all of Niki's adult life, she and her children have lived below the federal poverty line. While she had hoped her children would wait until marriage to have children, two of her sons already had infants. The family, which squeezed into a house in East Lake, could rarely make ends meet, despite the fact that that three of her children worked to pitch in.
Jaylin, Niki's fifth and youngest child, plays basketball with a cousin during a Mother's Day celebration with the extended family in a cousin's backyard in May. Jaylin and Nikki are especially close because he is the baby. For years Niki struggled with depression and drug addiction before reaching stability and finding housing in East Lake with a federal housing voucher. While she had worked off and on over the years, there are times when the family was homeless and everyone carried scars from their experiences in poverty. Still, the challenges had knit them together, as well.
It's typical to see four generations in the tight-knit Gore home. Niki's mother, Brenda, holds the son of Niki's oldest child, Dee, while Niki's fourth child, D.J., and she look out the living room window in April. Brenda played an important and stabilizing role in the family. While her only daughter Niki had struggled most of her adult life, Brenda, who raised Niki as a single mother, held an associate degree in business and had worked her way into the middle class. She owned her own home in Brainerd and often swooped in to help when Niki and her children lacked food or transportation.
When Dee became a father, the newborn they named Baby Dee and called Daddy Man became the center of the house and the family.
Niki breaks her focus on baby Dee while her husband, Nate, watches her from across the room in April. Niki was often overwhelmed by the daily chaos and stress the family experienced because they lacked resources, transportation and support. Months before, doctors brought more heartache when they told Niki she had stage four cancer growing in her stomach. When she got the news, she had been on a good trajectory for the first time in her life, she said. She had a job at the YMCA and her husband, Nate, had work as well. Both were forced to stop working, however, as the cancer advanced. The disability check she received for around $800 a month didn't come close to meeting the familys' needs. She said there was never a month when all the bill could be paid. So whichever utility was closest to getting switched was made the top priority.
Brenda, right, and Jaylin look over Niki and Daddy Man during one of her hospital visits at Memorial in June. Complications and pain from Niki's cancer meant she often had to return to the hospital for pain treatments and family visits helped the time pass. She also took the time to pray. While her diagnosis was grim, she maintained faith that God would heal her so she could be there to help her children and grandchildren reach a level of success she had been unable to achieve. Her children tried to be strong when she told them about her diagnosis, but couldn't imagine a world without their mother.
Niki shares a moment with Jaylin during one of her hospital visits at Memorial in June. She says Jaylin is her softest, sweetest child and that he comforts her as much as she cares for him. Niki held regrets about her past and feared her poverty, depression and past addiction had hurt her children and kept them from believing they could move forward in life. But Jaylin promised he would stay on track. As a sophomore at Ivy Academy in Ooltewah, though, he often had to miss school or homework assignments due to family emergencies or transportation issues getting to school. His family's limited financial resources impacted his education, and Niki often worried about his grades and future.
Niki gets a shot for her condition from Nate, her husband and the father of her three youngest children. Nate had struggled with depression and addiction for years, just like Niki. Both were victimized by adults as children and said that hurt was hard to shake. Niki and Nate were together for years before they married. Even when the family went without housing, Nate would sleep outside the homeless shelters where Niki and his children slept just to be nearby. Niki had been involved with a women's group at a local church and decided it was time to make their love and commitment official. She wanted her two sons to make commitments to the mothers of their children, as well. She worried about leaving her grandchildren in fragile families.
Niki liked her children to be where she could see them. She told her boys they had to hang out with their friends at her home where she could keep an eye on them. They went along, and Niki's house became a safe hangout for other children whose parents were often not at home when they finished school because of odd work hours. The open door policy wore on Niki, though, especially after the cancer diagnosis and the deeper poverty it brought with it.
Jaylin peeked out the front window of the family's home. During the spring and summer a rash of shootings triggered by gang warfare had begun to concern families in East Lake. Children and adults were often on edge, listening for odd noises and looking out their windows for strange cars. Niki was desperate to leave East Lake, but didn't have money to move.
In August, a young gunman in a car full of boys drove by Niki's home and peppered her house with gunfire. It was a Sunday afternoon and the family had been sitting together in the living room when they heard the shots and dropped to the floor. Jaylin was hit four times, but the bullets didn't hit any organs so he was discharged from the hospital quickly. Here Niki cries about Jaylin's close call while holding his hand, his hospital bracelet still on his wrist.
The incident rattled Niki who decided she had to uproot her family for East Lake, even it seemed an impossible task. Niki said the drive-by occurred because the boys who shot at her house were looking to hurt a boy she had let come inside to take a nap that day. The boy begged Niki to let him inside because he said his mother had kicked him out. She didn't know he was running from other gang members.
Brenda, Alexis, Niki's second oldest child and only daughter, and Niki talk about the shooting at Brenda's home in Brainerd. Baby Dee toddles around on the rug. Police had come to the house to ask about the shooting and if Niki's children were involved in gangs. Like many parents in the inner city, she feared talking with police because because of the neighborhood no-snitch culture, but she also wanted someone to be held responsible for the shooting. Months later the family would go to court and testify about what they saw that day.
Jaylin comforts Niki with bandages over his gunshot wounds. For months after the shooting, Niki worked to find new housing for her family. Almost every day she and Brenda drove around neighborhoods like Red Bank, East Brainerd, Hixson and North Chattanooga hoping to find safe and affordable housing. She had a federal housing voucher that paid almost $1,000 in rent, but she couldn't find anyone in the mostly middle class neighborhoods willing to rent to her.
Nate spends time with Niki on the porch during a very stressful day in April. The principal at Jaylin's school called to tell Niki that Jaylin was falling behind and needed to improve his performance at school in order to graduate on time. To encourage his wife, Nate enrolled in a class at the nonprofit First Things First that helped fathers who were behind in child support find work and get out from under debt. The class had given Nate a lot of confidence and relationship skills and Niki was thankful he was growing as a husband and a father.
Every day Niki prayed that Baby Dee would be okay and that God would allow her to stay around long enough to see him and his cousin, B.J., grow up. She prays the boys will have lives different than hers. But although Niki's five unplanned pregnancies in many ways kept her from reaching her goals in education and work, she says it's hard to imagine her life any other way. And although she encourages her children to consider family planning, for every obstacle Niki faced in poverty, she saw a purpose in her children.