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Homeless in the Suburbs

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.