Room at the Inn
[Sample text from Lamb's feature, "Room at the Inn," which appeared in Hallmark Magazine's, January, 2008 issue.]
It was late summer in Bozeman, Montana, when Angela and Daniel Shelton (their real names) spent their last $92 on a campground fee so they’d have a place to pitch their tent. It was the only home the couple and their young daughters could afford. This was an adventure, they told the girls, willing themselves to appear calm and cheerful. But Angela, 31, could feel the panic rising inside her. “We had just enough food for about three days,” she says. “There was a jar of peanut butter, some jelly, a half loaf of bread, a box of grits and several bananas.”
The couple had acquaintances in the area but they didn’t contact them. “People talk and things get said,” says Angela, a soft-spoken woman. Her biggest fear was that Taiilor, 11, and Sierra, 9, would be taken away from them. So the family kept to themselves. The campground manager’s wife, however, must have guessed the Sheltons’ plight because soon after they settled in at the camp, she suggested they drop by the Salvation Army to see what kind of assistance they could get. This wasn’t the time to be too proud or embarrassed to accept help, Angela realized.
The next day, she sat down with her daughters and explained their situation. The girls were quiet for a long time. Then they asked how long they would be camping. Would they still be there when school started? What school were they going to? She didn’t have the answers but she told her daughters “Mom and Dad are working hard to change things.”
It was time to put her words into action. Without saying anything to Daniel, 44, she dropped him off at the construction job he’d found in town, then with the girls in tow, she drove to the Salvation Army. The supervisor there helped them with their immediate needs and gave them a gas voucher to get Daniel to his job and back. Most importantly, he gave Angela the phone number for Family Promise, a nonprofit organization that helps homeless families find shelter and become self-sufficient.
Last year there were about 3.5 million homeless people in this country, and by most accounts, families with children make up the fastest-growing segment of this population, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. More and more, the people seeking help are working families like the Sheltons–people who struggle with wages that are too low to cover anything but the barest necessities.
The mortgage crisis, says Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, will make things much worse. As mortgages are foreclosed, many families will end up in the shelter system. “People losing their houses are entering the rental market, and in places where that’s happening it makes rents go up and causes fewer vacancies. That starts to push people lower down the housing scale into homelessness.” The problem boils down to a lack affordable housing, says Roman, who compares it to a dire game of musical chairs. “There are more people who need low-cost housing than there are low-cost apartments or houses,” she says. “People with a very low income who are paying 50 percent of their wages for rent are vulnerable to homelessness.”
The story of how the Sheltons ended up homeless unfortunately is not unique. Like many families in America, making ends meet had become a daily struggle. Twelve years ago, mutual friends thought Daniel and Angela would be perfect for each other and introduced them. Over the next nine months they dated, and when they married in Adel, Georgia, the future looked bright. Angela was a licensed nurse’s assistant and Daniel was a skilled carpenter. But while the pay was good when Daniel could find work, the couple found that when one construction project ended, they would have to pick up and move to a new area for the next job. And with the family’s health problems and lack of medical insurance–Daniel has diabetes and a history of heart attacks; their firstborn, Taiilor, has asthma; and their youngest, Sierra, needed surgery to correct a foot deformity–it was hard to save. Living in motels near Daniel’s work and moving to the next job became a way of life.
In 2000, the Sheltons left Georgia to find work in Florida, then Iowa. In 2001 they headed to Colorado so Daniel could take a construction job in Denver. That’s where they “fell in love with the Rocky Mountains,” says Daniel. In between jobs, the family spent summer weeks camping and exploring the West. But this nomadic lifestyle became impossible once Taiilor and Sierra started school. In the fall of 2005, Daniel and Angela decided to settle in Bozeman, a scenic mid-sized community just 90 miles north of Yellowstone National Park. They took a room in a motel at the edge of town and lived there for six months while they began saving for an apartment. But when they started looking, they found that everything in their price range had already been rented to students at nearby Montana State University. Even if something had been available, their savings—about $1,200—wasn’t enough to pay for the first and last month’s rent plus a security deposit.
Their troubles worsened in March of 2006 when the Sheltons had to make a cross-country drive back to Georgia to visit Angela’s terminally ill aunt. By the time they returned to Bozeman four months later, their savings were gone and they didn’t even have enough money for a motel. That’s how they ended up at Sunrise Campgrounds. Although Daniel had just started a new job in town he wouldn’t get paid for two weeks. Soon it would be fall and the weather would turn cold. Taiilor’s asthma was kicking up and the children needed to be in school. Where would they live and what would they do without money for food or gas?
When Gloria Edwards, executive director of Family Promise in Bozeman, opened the door of the old Victorian house that served as the local program’s headquarters, “there was an instant connection,” says Angela. “I could see in her eyes that her whole goal was to help people. She started talking to me like she knew who I was. I wasn’t a stranger.” While Angela followed Gloria into her cubbyhole of an office, two volunteers approached Taiilor and Sierra and invited the girls to play with the other children in the living room. The whole house was abuzz with activity. “We were operating at our maximum capacity all summer,” Gloria remembers, “and that day we had 12 family members in the program at one time.”
“Let me explain to you what our program is and what we do,” Gloria began. She told Angela that certain factors could disqualify families from taking part in Family Promise. These include a serious mental illness, violent criminal history or behavior, and ongoing drug or alcohol abuse. Then she asked Angela about the Sheltons’ current living situation, the reason for their homelessness and their medical issues. By the end of their conversation, Gloria told Angela that Family Promise could help them, but she needed to meet her husband too.
So Angela left to pick up Daniel. He was skeptical when his wife explained that this could be the solution to their problems: “What are we going to have to do? What does this involve?” Nevertheless, he accompanied Angela back to the Family Promise office. Normally an outgoing man with a ready smile and forthcoming nature, he was quiet as Gloria explained the program. Sensing their unease, she told the couple they didn’t need to make a decision that day; they could think about it.
That night, Angela brought up Family Promise again. “I really want to do this,” she said, determination underlying her soft Southern drawl. “I think it’s the best thing for us.” Daniel was still wary about joining a program (“Wasn’t this for deadbeats or people who were truly troubled?”) but he, too, knew they had little choice. The next day, Daniel and Angela went back to Family Promise with the children and told Gloria that they’d made their decision. “We wanted to get going in the right direction,” says Angela.
The first step was to sign a guest agreement that Gloria reviewed with them in detail. It stated that the Sheltons would receive shelter and meals for up to a 90-day stay. During that time, they would develop a family plan with help from Gloria, outlining steps they’d take to obtain stable housing. Both adults had to agree to look for jobs on a daily basis, open up a savings account and save money for rent. They had to promise that the children would be enrolled in school. Angela and Daniel also had to meet with Gloria regularly to tell her of their progress.
“Family Promise isn’t just a shelter,” says Gloria. “It’s a commitment from the family to look at issues that got them there in the first place and try to resolve them. We have a lot of expectations for the families. They aren’t just coming in at night and flopping on a bed.” And despite where they’re staying, nothing is asked concerning their faith or religious affiliation. Just as any person and congregation—church, synagogue, mosque—can participate in a Family Promise network, there are no religious requirements for the families seeking shelter. “When we tell people they’re going to be sleeping in churches, some of them are afraid of doing this,” says Gloria. “But I explain that nobody is going to preach to them.”
Daniel and Angela began to feel better as soon as they got to the church where they would be staying that first week. It was a huge relief to know that they were no longer in this alone. “People came right up to us and wanted to know who we were,” says Angela. “We were real people to them; we weren’t just a number.” Angela and Daniel didn’t know it at the time but earlier that week, volunteers had prepared rooms for the families to sleep in, clearing away books from Sunday school classes, taping paper over windows for privacy and making up roll-away beds. In another room, more volunteers had set up tables and chairs for eating meals.
That night the Sheltons had dinner with other guest families and some of the volunteers. After the meal, they helped clean up and packed brown bag lunches for the next day. The evenings followed a similar pattern. Sometimes volunteers would bring their children and the kids would play games together; another time, a volunteer might read a book to the kids or help the adults with their resumes. By about 10 p.m. the families would be getting ready for bed. A few volunteers spent the night at the church too, in case the families needed anything.
The next day, everyone boarded a van to go to the Family Promise house, which served as their day center, and Angela drove Daniel to work before joining the other families. At the house, staff and volunteers helped the adults apply for jobs and look for housing, and they hooked them up with free community and state services such as healthcare and financial counseling. Every day they transported the older kids to their schools and took the little ones to a nearby daycare center. After school, the children were picked up and returned to the house for snacks and playtime. Then at 5:30 p.m. the van took the families back to their host church, where volunteers were waiting with a hot meal. In the weeks that followed, the Sheltons, with their unflagging Southern politeness and willingness to lend a helping hand, became well liked among the volunteers and other guest families. “Daniel could fix anything and often did,” Edwards says. “Angela helped other moms with their small children and the girls were always asking what they could do to help.”
With the girls enrolled in school, Angela turned her energy to
finding a place to live. “Every day I’d get the newspaper and start going through the ads,” she says. “You needed to be first in line and ready with every penny.” The hunt was emotionally draining. One day she saw an ad for a promising two-bedroom apartment just blocks from the girls’ schools but when she talked to the building superintendent, she was devastated to find out that she didn’t have the money for it. The superintendent relented and told her that in two more weeks she’d have an affordable apartment opening up and she’d hold it for the Sheltons.
The day they finally moved into their home, the girls were overjoyed. “Are we going to stay here for a while?” asked Sierra. Which side of the room would be Taiilor’s? Which would be Sierra’s?
Next, Angela needed a job. After her daughters were born, she had worked as a licensed nurse’s assistant but only intermittently, so she was nervous and unconfident. With the encouragement of the Family Promise staff, she worked on her resume and pounded the pavement. She was in for a long haul; after each rejection, Angela picked herself up and tried again. After four months and 5 days, she found and was accepted into a training program in WalMart’s optical department, where she was told that she would eventually be able to earn good wages and have benefits.
On a clear September day, nearly a year after they entered Family Promise, the Sheltons are filled with hope. 2007 had been a rough year: Daniel injured his shoulder on a job, suffered through three reconstruction surgeries and is receiving worker’s compensation. But this time they have the support and tools they need to keep them on track. Daniel and Angela check in regularly with Gloria, filling her in on their lives, and Gloria has gently suggested to Daniel that he consider returning to college and pursuing an engineering degree.
Despite the injury, Angela and Daniel stress that there’s a lot to be thankful for. The kids are thriving in school—Taiilor looks forward to her cello lessons and Sierra, who is scheduled for more foot surgery in March, is performing in an extracurricular drama class. The Sheltons’ apartment, furnished with items rounded up by Family Promise, is warm and homey, with board games on the bright red kitchen table and alphabet magnets decorating the refrigerator. “Miss Caroline, an afternoon coordinator at Family Promise, gave us a green chair we call the Miss Caroline chair, and a doctor in town gave us our couch,” says Angela. “When we come through our door we don’t see furniture; we see friends we’ve made.”