When the city of Raleigh introduced its new parking enforcement system, I quietly cheered.
It's not that I love meters, mind you. But many of us had grown mighty tired of seeing abled-bodied people (even some state employees) abuse the city's previous policy allowing drivers with handicapped placards to park in metered spaces - free - all day long. Truly handicapped drivers had no problem with the new parking system; they were fed up with the abusers, too.
But our quiet glee didn't envision the circumstances of Betty Brock, 67, who has been living in her beat-up white van on the Blount Street side of Moore Square for almost five years.
Brock, who is both disabled and obese, hardly ever gets out of her van.
But she is a seatbelt-bound den mother to the homeless who gather in Moore Square and across the street at the Salvation Army. She runs a mini-convenience store out of her front seat. She is a regular informant for the police.
"I'm the eyes and ears of this area," she said. "I know just about everything that goes on."
Most folks call her Mama.
That's what many of the Parklink attendants call her too.
Unfortunately for Brock, even mamas have to feed their parking meters.
So even though Brock cannot walk and does not exit her vehicle except on rare occasions, she is responsible for plugging coins into a Parklink meter every two hours, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday for the privilege of keeping her 18-year-old Chevy van next to the curb. If she had a credit card (and she doesn't), she could pay for the day all at once.
Most days it's her 46-year-old son, Robert Brock, who has been living with her for the last several months - yes, in the van - who puts her coins in the meter. An ex-con, he has trouble landing work. He lost his apartment last year, and his truck blew up. So he and his mom sleep on pallets in the back of the van, along with a portable bathroom setup, her long-saved-for laptop, and the rest of their gear.
In the 97-degree heat.
When Robert's not around, Betty relies on one of the homeless guys she trusts. She knows whom to trust and whom not to.
"When someone goes missing, she's the first one the police come to see," Robert Brock said.
In the year and a half since I first met and wrote about her, Betty said she has persuaded five runaway girls to go back home.
She has also obtained a vendor's permit from the city to sell packs of Nabs, chips, sodas and cigarettes. For a dollar, she'll recharge your cell phone in her cigarette lighter.
But at 9 bucks a day for parking, she can't keep up.
Gordon Dash, parking administrator for Raleigh, said he was "saddened to hear there's a hard luck case like this" in his city. But his attendants need to follow the rules, and the $9-a-day rate was set to keep people from abusing those handicapped placards.
"To get this changed, to get any kind of exemption, it would have to go to the council," he said. He has heard from a few other people with handicapped placards, who volunteer to help the newly disabled for instance, who would like a break on the rate.
In the meantime, he said, Brock could move a few blocks over, to one of the Southeast Raleigh streets with out meters outside the downtown zone.
But not all of those streets are safe. And even Dash could see how, after five years at the very heart of the homeless community near Moore Square, Brock might not want to relinquish her parking spot.
"That's a tough one," Dash said.
Indeed it is. No one knows it better than Mama.
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