"Being homeless," the fifth-grader explains, "means you don't stay in one spot and have to move around a lot. It gets kind of confusing."
A lot of people think they know what homelessness in this country looks like. They see an urban image of the downtrodden sleeping in alleys and pleading for spare change. Yet as the economy worsens and joblessness soars, there's a new and equally troubling picture emerging: Homelessness is creeping into the once-protected enclaves of the suburbs, but it remains a mostly hidden phenomenon. By day, families fade easily into the landscape; by night, they sleep in shelters, in shabby motels, or on the couches of relatives and friends. "Suburban homelessness is among the most invisible because it doesn't fit our stereotypes," says Barbara Duffield, policy director for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, in Washington, DC.
Devin attends school in middle-class Jefferson County, CO, where the number of identified homeless students is double that of the nearby Denver city school district. School officials say they saw a 100 percent increase the first two months of the 2008 school year. Duffield says 330 school districts across the country identified at least the same number, or more, of homeless students in the beginning of the 2008-2009 school year as in the entire previous year.
Counting homeless children and families is complicated. The Department of Housing and Urban Development defines homelessness in the traditional way: living in shelters, in cars, or on the streets. It estimates that in 2007 more han 341,000 children lived in a shelter at least once over a 12-month period.
But the Department of Education, mandated to gather data so schools can provide support for homeless families, expands the traditional definition to include parents and children living in motels and "doubling up," or staying with friends and families because of lost housing. Its preliminary statistics estimate there were nearly 800,000 homeless students in the 2007-2008 school year, a 15 percent increase from the previous year.
Others say even those numbers are too low. The National Center on Family Homelessness, a nonprofit advocacy group, released a report in March that estimated 1.6 million, or about 1 in 50, children in the United States experienced homelessness at least one day between 2005 and 2006. "No one knows the real number in the suburbs because the communities don't want to know," says Laura Flynn, a housing services administrator for a Salvation Army family shelter in Olathe, KS, a suburb of Kansas City, MO, and county seat of one of the most affluent counties in the nation.
What everyone can agree on, though, is that the face of homelessness is changing. Ellen Bassuk, Ph.D., president of the National Center on Family Homelessness, says that when she began studying homelessness in the 1980s, families with children made up less than 1 percent of the homeless population. Today they are nearly 40 percent -- and experts say the numbers don't even fully reflect the recent economic downturn, since there's often a lag between financial trouble and homelessness.
The long-term prognosis for these kids is not good. Research shows that homeless children who live in chaotic settings or change schools often are more likely to be at least a grade level behind in math and reading. They also are more likely to repeat a grade. They have behavioral and emotional problems three times as often as other children, and more than half will not graduate high school. Worse, suburban homelessness is also the hardest to fight. Suburbs rarely have the kind of social-service infrastructure found in cities. Public transportation is more difficult, distances are farther, and shelters are rare. The stigma is also greater. But all the statistics and research in the world can never really explain what it's like to live in a place filled with four-bedroom houses, and none to call your own. You have to see it through the eyes of those who've experienced it. Here, three families offer a glimpse into their lives:
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."
The Marshall Family
Johnson County, KS
Robert Marshall knows how to scrape by. At 17, he lived on the street for six months after being cut loose from the foster-care system. At 24, he lived for a while in a single-men's shelter. But this time, after losing his job and a place to live, it's different. This time he's a single father raising a 3-year-old son. "It's kind of scary. It's not just me anymore," the 29-year-old says.
In April Marshall and his son, Robert Jr., moved into a 1940s-era motel that has been converted into a ten-room family shelter in the affluent Kansas City, MO, suburb of Olathe, KS. It is the only homeless shelter in the county, and there is a waiting list of more than 50 families.
Sometimes the little boy seems confused. "I want to go home," he whines.
"This is home for now," Marshall explains. "I'm sorry, son. Daddy's trying. Everything will be better soon."
Marshall and his son's mother broke up when the baby was only a few months old. Marshall felt he could be the better parent to Robert Jr., so he took parenting classes, met with social workers, and made a plan to take accounting classes at a vocational college so he could become a bookkeeper. He had steady work at a metal foundry, making $8 an hour. Just after his son's first birthday, Marshall was awarded sole custody. Soon he and Robert Jr. were living happily with Marshall's new girlfriend. He was working hard and taking those accounting classes.
Then his world crashed again. His foundry job evaporated when the company went out of business; then he lost his next job, at The Home Depot, for missing too much work following hernia surgery. Finally, after two years together, Marshall and his girlfriend broke up. For the next few months, father and son drifted among friends and family. No one could take them in for long, and Marshall couldn't get a new job because he had no childcare. He was flunking out of school because he could no longer get to class. "Maybe the shelter wouldn't be so bad," he decided. He called every day for weeks until there was an opening. "I feel embarrassed because I know I can do better," he says.
Still, he clings to a stubborn optimism that has gotten him through hard times before. He remembers how excited he felt just before Robert Jr. was born, buying tiny outfits and toys for his baby boy. His life seemed on track. He thinks about that now, when he folds his hands before dinner or in the stillness of his room late at night. "Hey Lord, what's going on?" he asks. "Am I doing something wrong?"
He tries to stay practical, too. As soon as he can get childcare worked out, he will return to school. A degree, he figures, will lift him out of the cycle of temporary jobs.
A single father in a homeless shelter is a rarity. But he says it's wrong to think fathers can't be there for their children just as surely as mothers can. "I really believe I'm a good dad," he says. Together, father and son play kickball or climb the playground equipment at the shelter. They work on numbers and ABC's. "He can count to twenty, no problem," Marshall boasts. They eat dinner in a group hall with the other families. The little boy has panicked in the middle of the night, when he's woken and not been able to see his father in the dark: "Daddy? Daddy? Where are you?" "I'm right here," Marshall's called back softly.
Marshall hopes they can be back on their feet soon. Maybe they'll even have a house and a fenced yard where the little boy can have friends over. "I want my son to have the life I never had," he says.
The Wega Family
Seminole County, FL
"This is forever," Rhonda Wega said, trying to keep the panic from her voice as she told her daughters to go through their closets and decide what to save and what to leave behind.
The family had lived in their mobile home for ten years, but on October 18, 2008, a notice to vacate was tacked to the door. Their home was now in foreclosure, and in less than 24 hours it would be padlocked and eventually bulldozed. The family of five quickly packed as much of their lives as would fit into the back of a borrowed truck.
The kids in the family -- three girls ages 11 to 16 -- would hold up a toy or a book or a medal won, and ask their mom: "Can I take this?" They were moving things to a storage unit, but there wasn't room for everything.
"I was sad and scared," remembers 14-year-old Kacy. "I was like, 'Where are we going to live?'?"
Richard Wega had worked as a cement contractor for a swimming-pool company. During the housing boom, he could make $1,500 per job. His annual income was close to $80,000 -- but then the housing market in Florida collapsed. In March 2007 he was laid off, and worked odd jobs when he could find them. His wife had chronic kidney problems, which led to a transplant in December 2007. By spring they were behind on their $600-a-month mortgage and foreclosure proceedings had begun.
"I was totally heartbroken," Richard says. "Everything I had worked so hard on for my kids was totally trashed. I didn't feel like a dad."
They drove away in the truck at 1 a.m., Rhonda still wearing the pajamas she'd slept in the night before because she'd forgotten to grab clothes for herself. She was mostly worried about her kids. She also forgot the baby pictures, which are now gone for good.
For six months the family crashed with friends -- eight people in a double-wide trailer. Rhonda slept on a mattress on the floor; Macy, 16, slept on a couch; Kacy, on a loveseat; Richard and Summer, 11, slept in a camper out back.
The strain took its toll. "We argued more, especially about money," says Rhonda. They weren't exactly guests, but they didn't really live there, either. "It's not your stuff; it's not your place. You don't feel secure," she says.
Macy's grades started slipping, and at least once a week she would make up excuses to stay home from school. She would lash out in a fury her parents had never seen before. When they told her to do something, she would snap: "Yeah? Well, you told me we weren't going to lose our house, either." She started going to anger-management therapy.
The younger girls never wanted their mother out of their sight. Summer seemed to burst into tears for no reason; Kacy stopped telling people where she lived.
But in March, things started to turn around. The family was able to move into an apartment in a low-income complex, thanks to assistance from Families in Transition, a Seminole County school-based assistance program. They had no furniture, though: At first, they didn't have the money to retrieve what had been in storage since the foreclosure.
Richard now has a $7.21-per-hour telemarketing job and is trying to pick up some cement work. Rhonda is looking for a part-time job as she continues to recover from her surgery. The Wegas are cautiously optimistic. The apartment manager gave them an old couch, and someone else brought them a table. "We were able to sit together as a family for the first time in a long time," Rhonda says. "We can be ourselves again. The kids are still sleeping on a mattress, but it's their mattress. They are happy again."
Jenny Deam is a former newspaper reporter who now writes about children and family issues for national magazines.