Fifteen years ago "Sweet Eva Lena Chenault, the girl with the smile in her voice" and a guitar in her hand, climbed onto the stage of Nashville's Grand Old Opry clad in shiny white boots and a cowgirl costume.
A country and western singer and composer of more than 30 songs and the daughter of a traveling Mississippi preacher. Chenault rubbed elbows with the big stars like Jimmy Dean, Johnny Cash and the Carter family. "Honey, I've been writin' and singin' my life," said Chenault, a teen-age bride who left her native Memphis for Washington nearly 40 years ago.
"I was just getting what you call 'hot' in music," she said, with two hits - "Another Defeat" and "Hurts Don't Hurt Anymore" - on the country charts. Then, Chenault recalled, her husband died and "things just started going downhill."
All that remains of those star-struck Nashville days is her stack of dusty 45 rpm records and a glossy balck and white publicity photograph of herself above her bed, next to the color cardboard picture of Jesus.
Frail and alone at 57, Chenault lives in a garden apartment in Springfield where she nurses emphysema, gout and colitis and tries to get along in spite of near-total blindness.
Now, Fairfax County housing officials, enforcing federal housing regulations, have told Chenault that in order to continue receiving a federal housing subsidy that pays most of her $250 per month rent she must find a responsible companion to live with her.
Three weeks ago her landlord told her he will not renew her lease and she must vacat by Sept. 1.
"I can't afford the rent [without the subsidy]," said Chenault, who says she receives $274 per month in pensions. "I've tried and tried to get someone to live with me [in exchange for free rent] but I can't.
Chenault says she receives occasional small royalty checks from her songs. Last year, she said, it was $60.
Chenault, who weighs about 85 pounds and hobbles around her apartment, moved to Edsall Gardens with her 36-year-old daughter a year ago. Last January, after her daughter remarried and moved to California, a friend of her daughter's who needed a place to stay moved in but left after two months.
"That left me alone," said Chenault, who said she also has spells of unconsciousness. She spends most of her days in her pink bedroom, listening to the radio or to recording of the Bible.
Fairfax County officials will not discuss the details of the case, but said Chenault's predicament is shared by thousands of older, disabled area residents on fixed incomes who have no family to help them and very few options in emergencies. The county is trying to find a companion for her.
"We help stave off evictions where possible and we try to locate alternate housing," said Julia Barton, assistant director of the county's Social Services division. "We have many persons like Mrs. Chenault and it's a very difficult management problem. But you also have to look at the idosyncracies of the person involved."
"Our concern is that she's in there by herself," said John Munick, property manager for Edsall Gardens. "People in the building are afraid she may set the place on fire. She turns the stove on and forget it. It's a pathetic situation but our concern is for the safety of other people."
Munick said that if Chenault finds a responsible companion who will cosign a year's agreement, he will renew her lease.
Her son and daughter "got in with the wrong crowd," she said. Chenault's 30-year-old son is in prison on a drug charge. "My daughter calls occasionally from California, but she can't afford it that often and she can't give me any money. Most of my friends have moved away or died."
"I'd like to help her," said Dr. Antonio Longo of Alexandria, Chenault's physician. Longo said he is hamstrung by a combination of federal regulations and a lack of facilities for people like Chenault.
"Nursing home space is very tight," he said, "and in order to get a patient into a home under Medicaid they have to be in a hospital first. She's not in a state of acute illness so I can't put her into a hospital in order to put her in a nursing home, assuming I could find a bed. And considering her age, she's young for a nursing home."
"Living in an affluent community is always more difficult on a limited income," said Thelma Petrilak, director of adult services for Fairfax County. "We've had retired, high-ranking civil service employes living in shacks. Sometimes the family can't or won't help and some elderly people won't admit they have a problem."
Her attorney, Roger Amole, said he thinks he can secure a 30-day extension on her lease, but that's all he can do.
Chenault said she is too worried to sleep.
"I just don't know what I'm going to do," she said sadly. "I never thought things would work out like this.