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Homeless in the Suburbs

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.