CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — They weren't exactly rich, but Tommi Jo French and Eddie Goering were living a good life in 2014, before everything fell apart.
He was a line leader at a company that built suspension systems for tractor trailers, bringing in about $1,000 a month. They had a new Toyota Camry and a mobile home they liked.
He blames a brown recluse spider bite for causing him to miss work and lose his job. But they had savings and a 401K he cashed in, and the Clarksville couple thought it would be enough to tide them over until he found work.
They were wrong.
"We ended up losing everything," Goering said. "The trailer, the car. Everything."
For a while, the couple stayed with family or friends, but there's a limit to how long that will last. After a brief stint trying to start over in Utah, they returned to Clarksville and soon found themselves living in a tent behind the Fort Campbell Boulevard Walmart.
He worked odd jobs, sold plasma and turned in job applications. But without an address, he couldn't find work, and it was all they could do to survive.
Goering and French were among an estimated 500 people living on the streets of Clarksville at any given time. That doesn't include the homeless who have friends or relatives that loan them a couch here and there.
They are the truly homeless, living in tents, sleeping in cars or spending nights at a post office until they are asked to leave.
French and Goering have done all of those things — at one point living in his father's garage before they returned to the streets in August.
French coughed heavily one cold day in November as she dug through a pile of bins in a Madison Street parking lot.
YAIPaks, a local nonprofit, was doling out warm clothing, blankets, water and protein snacks from a trailer they use to go out to the homeless, so the homeless don't have to come to them.
About a dozen men and women walked up from different directions to see what they could use to fight the frigid temperatures.
French and Goering needed clothes, camping gear and new backpacks after theirs vanished — again.
In the two periods they were homeless, that happened at least four times. Sometimes their stuff was stolen by other people, other times they assume property owners found the backpacks hidden in bushes and just threw them away.
Guarding what little they had and their own safety sometimes felt like a full-time job.
"You have to worry about everything constantly," Goering said. "It's miserable. ... There are a lot of people out on the streets that are scandalous and you can't trust them, but there are actually decent homeless people. They'll give the shirt off their back and their last dollar."
Other worries included finding food. They regularly ate lunch at Loaves and Fishes, a Clarksville soup kitchen that serves a hot lunch Monday through Saturday to anyone who wants one. Sometime they had a free lunch at The Well.
They got food boxes from Manna Cafe, which included items like canned meat, crackers, cookies and other non-perishable items. Urban Ministries helped, too.
"This ain't the life we want," French said, wiping away a tear, perhaps the result of emotion, coughing, or the chilly gusts of wind. "We just need a little push. ... We need jobs. We need jobs, bad."
They didn't know it yet, but the parking lot where they were digging through bins for clothes that day happened to be right in front of the organization that would eventually give them that chance.
As they mingled with other people on the streets, Goering kept hearing talk about an organization that was helping a lot.
The couple had spent time recharging their cell phones — their only real link to other people — outside a small office on Madison Street for a nonprofit called Operation Stand Down. Its goal is to help veterans, partly by connecting them to Veterans Administration benefits.
Goering came from a military family, went to Austin Peay State University for business management and joined the Army, where he was a tank navigator. He served for three years before he was discharged because a nasty divorce caused him to act a little "crazy," he said.
"I got in trouble, and they kicked me out," he freely admits. "I still got an honorable discharge."
It didn't occur to him that his short and wayward military career would be the answer to the couple's prayers. But as he heard about other veterans getting help, he realized, "Wait, I'm a veteran too."
He finally went to Operation Stand Down, and sure enough, they were willing to help. He had to do his part, too. The first step was tracking down his military paperwork. The second was going to the Salvation Army for a month, to get help there and prove they were homeless.
And then, one day in January, they got word that their lives were about to change.
On Jan. 25, French and Goering didn't show up at Loaves and Fishes as usual. There was excitement among those who shared the streets with the couple and knew them well.
"They're getting their place today," said one man. "They're at Operation Stand Down right now, waiting for them to open."
A few blocks away, French and Goering were arranging their few belongings in the back of her mother's SUV. Excitement filled her voice as she talked about all they had to do to get their new apartment ready.
"It's happening," French said.
Just before noon, Goering came out of the office with the paperwork necessary to turn on their utilities and the keys to their small, two-bedroom apartment near Dover's Crossing.
"There is hope; don't give up hope," Goering said.
For up to 90 days, Operation Stand Down will cover their rent and housing expenses. They stopped by Manna Cafe a few days later to pick up boxes loaded with meat, fresh vegetables, milk and lots of other food French was eager to cook on their new stove.
Goering still has to find a job and take over the rent payments after that, but that's something he's looking forward to.
He spent the last week of January filling out a stack of applications and walking them to nearby businesses. He wants to start quickly and is willing to walk or take a bus. If he gets a job, Operation Stand Down will even get him a bus pass.
"I'm not scared to work," he said. "I've worked my whole life."
He said he spent about 30 years in construction, has worked at factories and at a saw mill.
French is looking for a job too. She lost her disability, which stems from several spine surgeries, and she's trying to figure out her next move. That will be easier now, with a place to shower, sleep and think clearly for the first time in a long while.
Living on the streets can be stressful, and that makes it easy to fall back on alcohol as a means of escape. Both admit they've done that in the past, because at times it seemed like the only way to get through. At one point, French was so depressed, she said, she put a gun to her head at a camp in the woods, but a woman stopped her, and she spent a couple of weeks in treatment, getting help.
Both have had to fight, and that's landed them in trouble too, with criminal backgrounds that could hurt their chances at certain jobs.
They're not squeaky clean, and they don't pretend to be. They say they are just a couple who has been through a lot and wants to live indoors, work and earn another chance.
Reach Reporter Stephanie Ingersoll at firstname.lastname@example.org or 931-245-0267 and on Twitter @StephLeaf
Information from: The Leaf-Chronicle, http://www.theleafchronicle.com