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Homeless in the Suburbs

The Bodiford-Gettle Family
Jefferson County, CO

Devin pads sleepily into the church fellowship hall to fill a cereal bowl and finish a book report. He didn't get his homework done the evening before because it was shower night. Every other night the family is driven by church volunteers to a neighborhood rec center so they can use the locker rooms.

The friendly boy with cropped blond hair and piercing eyes has switched schools eight times since kindergarten, moving from apartments to motels to shelters to friends' houses. He doesn't much like school, except for math. He wishes he could have sleepovers like the other kids.

His mother, 31-year-old Heather Bodiford, came to Colorado with her three kids from Arkansas in 2004 after filing for divorce from her children's father. She moved with family friend David Gettle, who had landed a construction job. They became a couple and the kids soon started calling him Dad. But both had trouble finding steady work. They would fall behind on the rent, get evicted, and have to move. Gettle was at a party raided by police and spent six months in jail on a drug charge. Landlords won't look at them now without a large down payment, and the waiting list for subsidized housing is three months to two years. Gettle works construction jobs when he can. Bodiford dreams of owning her own restaurant. She recently applied for a job at Taco Bell. So did 72 others. Gettle sells his plasma at a blood bank for $35 a couple of times a week.

"The church is okay, but I wish we had a house," Devin says. He longs for a room to decorate with sports posters. His 9-year-old sister, Sierra, sometimes gets scared when they move; his 6-year-old brother, Conner, gets clingy. A program called Interfaith Hospitality Network of Greater Denver lets them stay at different suburban churches every week while they save for an apartment. The catch is that they have to be out every morning by 7 a.m. and can't return until after 5 p.m. Bodiford likes the suburbs. She says the city shelters frighten her: "I know, being homeless, I can't be too choosy, but I can choose to keep my children safe."

Just before 6 a.m. the family of five steps into the predawn darkness to catch the series of buses that will take the kids to school. It is 75 minutes each way. Bodiford gets off the bus with her kids at school to make sure they are on time. She has never missed a parent-teacher conference. After school she'll be there again.

"Sometimes I feel like a really bad mother," Bodiford says. "If I can't provide a house for my kids, there must be something wrong with me." She tries to push aside such feelings because she does not want them to seep into her children. "I tell them bad things happen to lots of people. It doesn't make you a bad person. My main goal in life is to make sure my kids grow up to be compassionate, responsible, contributing adults." She tries to keep her kids connected with old friends and maintain as much consistency in their lives as possible: Bedtimes are strict no matter where the bed. "The one thing we make sure of," she says, "is that the kids know no matter what, we are a family."