President Obama says that his economic recovery plan has the potential to create millions of new jobs-a dire need with national unemployment at 8.1 percent, and 13.4 percent for African-Americans. Among the unemployed is Henrietta Hughes, 61, who made national headlines last month when she appealed to President Obama at a televised town hall meeting in her hometown of Fort Myers, Florida.
“I have an urgent need…unemployment and homelessness, a very small vehicle for my family and I to live in,” began the slight, bespectacled woman in a wavering voice. Hughes, a breast cancer survivor, says she lived out of a pick-up truck with her 37-year-old son, Corey Lamont, at the time. While she received disability and Lamont held temporary work over the past several years, Hughes says their situation took a nosedive in 2008, as work dried up and they found themselves homeless.
Following last month’s town hall, Chene Thompson, the wife of Republican Florida Representative Nick Thompson, offered her a house that the family owned, to live in rent-free while she got back on her feet. Hughes and Lamont now live in the three-bedroom home in LaBelle, Florida, with new furniture donated by the furniture company Robb & Stucky. A month after the town hall that cast Hughes in the spotlight, she talked to ESSENCE.com about how she’s doing today.
ESSENCE.COM: How did you get to ask your question at the town hall?
HENRIETTA HUGHES: I went to the front because I’m short (laughs). I just stood there and kept my hand up. Finally, the president pointed to me and said, “This woman has been waiting so patiently.” When I began to speak, I almost broke into tears. He took my hand, and said he’ll send me help for my situation. I was just so grateful. I felt that God had heard me and was answering my prayers through the President.
ESSENCE.COM: What happened afterward?
HUGHES: I wasn’t expecting anything. I’m not used to a lot of attention, especially cameras and news people. But immediately there were cameras flashing, and I wanted to run away. All I wanted was a job and a place to live. It was just a plea for help. After the media was asking me to talk, Chene Thompson came up to me.
ESSENCE.COM: Did President Obama’s staff contact you?
HUGHES: Two of them did speak to me briefly. They gave me the business card for the director of the Fort Myers Housing Authority and said to contact him. I did call them, and I met with the gentleman. There’s a process of filling out the application and running references, and there is always a waiting list. He said he would do everything he possibly could to process my application quickly, but by that time I had decided to accept Mrs. Thompson’s offer. I did not fill out an application.
ESSENCE.COM: Have you heard from anyone at the White House since?
HUGHES: No, ma’am.
ESSENCE.COM: Do people recognize you when you go out?
HUGHES: Yes. They say, “You’re the lady who was on television with the President!” Some of them give me well wishes-“You did the right thing; ignore people who say negative things.” That is so encouraging to know that someone realizes that I was genuine.
ESSENCE.COM: What do you make of people who have been critical of you, arguing that you haven’t done enough for yourself?
HUGHES: Well, if they came down to some of the places I’ve been to, they would know that I went to McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Ace Hardware, the hospital, everywhere. This was after I had exhausted the Internet looking for jobs. Nobody’s hiring. If they are, they tell me, “We reviewed your résumé and skills, but we have chosen another person.” What I need to do, I do. I used to be a secretary before I became ill. I went to school while on disability and got an associate’s degree in human services. I worked in a welfare office, so I knew how it all worked. But despite all of that, I could not get a job. Neither could my son, who was a computer programmer.
ESSENCE.COM: How are you and your son doing now?
HUGHES: We continue looking for work. Sometimes we go to the library and look on the Internet and see what’s there, and we contact different companies for employment. Mrs. Thompson and her husband also send our résumés out. Every time I speak to anyone I ask them about a job. We don’t fail to ask someone to please give us an opportunity to prove that we are reliable and honest working people.
ESSENCE.COM: What’s your outlook on your future?
HUGHES: There needs to be more opportunities for employment. There’s nothing like having money to pay your own way. I don’t feel good not being able to have sufficient finances. I’m so grateful for Mrs. Chene Thompson, but I want a job so I can pay her more than adequately and support myself. It’s only right.
ESSENCE.COM: Do you feel optimistic that things will get better for you?
HUGHES: Yes, yes, yes. My faith helps me get through it. The doctors said I was not supposed to be alive today, but God handled it. So I give all praise to the Lord, regardless of my situation in life. I still thank Him.