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Homeless in the Suburbs: One Family's Story

It’s never been easier for middle-class suburbanites to slip into homelessness. Meet a family that’s staying strong despite the unthinkable.
 

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On a warm September afternoon, Destiny Scales was sorting everything her family owned into two piles: essentials and things that would go into storage. Into one bin went pajamas, underwear, and socks for her girls, Priscilla, 4, and Stori, 3. Their dollhouse and play kitchen went by the front door for the storage unit, as did family photos, bedroom sets, and Destiny’s wedding dress. Her son, Trenell, 11, looked up from his video game. “Mom, where are we going?” he asked.

Destiny, 30, was dizzy. How could she explain to her children that they’d been evicted from their home in Fairfax County, VA (one of the 10 richest counties in the nation, according to Forbes)? With just $2,000 in the bank, she and her husband, Darwyn, 32, had booked an $86 room at a Quality Inn down the road. “We can’t live here anymore,” she told her son. “We don’t have the money, so we’re going to a motel until we figure out where to go next.” She hugged him. “It’s going to be okay,” she said, trying to reassure him.

That first night at the motel, the girls wrapped themselves in their pink fleece Cinderella blankets and watched TV. Trenell tickled “Baby,” as he calls Stori, and wrestled with Priscilla to distract them from feeling sad and worried.

The next morning, Trenell walked to a shopping center to catch the school bus. “I didn’t tell my friends; they might make fun of me,” he recalls. “If they found out, I’d say that we’re taking a family vacation.”

A Normal Life Slips Away
When you swipe through the photos on Destiny’s phone, you see her kids at a pizza place, Priscilla beaming in a new dress, a Christmas tree with a mountain of gifts. Yet those are scenes from their old life, when Destiny ran a home-based childcare business and Darwyn worked a regular schedule at Home Depot.

It’s middle-class families like the Scales that have suffered most since the 2008 downturn. Many parents found themselves with fewer working hours (as Darwyn did), while others lost jobs (like most of Destiny’s customers). In this tight economy, one lost job, illness, or accident can lead to homelessness.

“Families aren’t working with much cushion,” says Jerry Jones, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. “If their budgets change suddenly, they can find themselves with no place to live.”

For Destiny and Darwyn, the final blow was when their landlord raised the rent by $685 per month. None of their relatives had room for them to stay, even just for a little while.

The Scales are an example of the dynamic that experts say has caused suburban homelessness to grow in recent years. If you have kids, you want good schools. But with them comes high taxes and a dearth of affordable rentals. “The cost of housing is the top cause of homelessness in the suburbs,” says Amanda Adere, the executive director of FACETS, a Virginia nonprofit that helps the homeless. A study of Fairfax showed that you’d need to work 155 hours a week at minimum wage to afford to live there.

Indeed, according to a Brookings Institution analysis of 95 of the largest U.S. metro areas, the number of suburban residents living in poverty rose 64 percent between 2000 and 2011 — more than double the rate of those in urban areas. Waiting lists for suburban shelters grew longer, too; some have had to change mealtimes to accommodate growing numbers of families.

The Education Effect
With all the upheaval, Destiny wants stability for her kids; she never considers moving to a less costly town. “Keeping them in their schools is one thing I can do,” she says.

As the Scales’s motel stay stretched on — and their savings slowly disappeared — a counselor at the girls’ Head Start preschool program started calling social-service groups on their behalf. Finally, with not enough cash left for another night at the motel, the family was bracing to hit the streets. Then FACETS called. Thanks to the school counselor, the organization had found them somewhere to live.

Every school district has a similar liaison who connects struggling families with support services. That’s because the stakes are high for kids: At least one study shows that every time a homeless child has to change schools, he falls four to six months behind. In a recent National Center on Family Homelessness study, 23 percent of homeless children were held back a year in school.

Considering what these kids face, those numbers shouldn’t come as a surprise. According to Barbara Duffield, policy director of the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, such kids, especially those younger than 8, tend to have developmental delays and worsened chronic health problems like asthma. On top of that, they’re also at risk for post-traumatic stress disorder. Not least of all, when a child is sleeping in a shelter — never mind in a car — she’s unlikely to be fully rested. “It’s a wonder they can concentrate on anything, let alone multiplication tables,” says Olethia McBride, the Scales’s FACETS case manager.

Thanks to her help, the Scales never ended up in a shelter. Instead, McBride drove them to a brick townhouse, one of four FACETS uses as emergency homes for families. When Destiny walked in, she knew God had heard her prayer: “Please don’t put my kids on the streets.”

Tough Adjustments
Despite this positive development, there were still challenges. “I started to feel nervous at school,” Trenell recalls. He had trouble focusing; his mind would wander: How long will we be in this place? Where will we go next? Trenell would be doing a math lesson and feel tears rolling down his cheek. He’d excuse himself to go to the guidance counselor’s office.

One day after school, Trenell came home crying and upset. He wailed to Destiny that he was so sorry that he’d made them homeless, that he’d eaten so much, that he’d asked for so many video games. “I’m so sorry, Mom. I won’t ask you for anything ever again!” he sobbed. Destiny erupted in tears along with him, trying to find a way to reassure him again. “My poor baby, Trenell! None of this has anything to do with you.”

“What’s most frustrating to me is that I’m a motivated person. I want to work,” Darwyn says. “If I could just get a second job . . .” In the meantime, the Scales are trying to make do with what they have.

At the beginning of every month, the family gets $548 in food stamps. Destiny has become creative at making it last, although it never really does. Every week, she buys a big pack of ground turkey, using half to make tacos and the other half for meat sauce or burgers. When Trenell cries that he wants four tacos, Destiny must explain that “the meat has to be enough for everyone, so you can only have two.”

The Scales used to host big dinners, inviting a their families over on Sundays. Now, that fun routine is on hold indefinitely. Nobody is much in the mood to laugh — and although their relatives would probably be happy to make it a potluck, Destiny hates to ask them to.

Recently, the Scales suffered another loss: Because Destiny and Darwyn couldn’t make the payments on the storage unit, their belongings were auctioned off as a lot, including their irreplaceable baby albums.

Despite this heartbreak, the Scales are grateful that McBride is working to get them into a subsidy program that will prepay their rent for a year. In fact, FACETS’s goal is to get them into permanent housing in 45 days or less. Previously, many social-service agencies would help with jobs first, then housing. In recent years, the thinking has changed. “If you can’t provide a roof for your kids, how are you going to focus on getting a job?” asks Adere.

The Spirit of Hope
On most days, as soon as the kids are off to school, Destiny and Darwyn walk to the employment office at the South County Building. “I’m doing everything in my power to remove my kids from this situation,” says Destiny. “I just keep telling myself, ‘It can’t rain forever.’ ”

Destiny, who sometimes gets temp work, says she’s applied for countless positions but has been called for just one interview. A local nonprofit took her shopping for a cardigan and flats with polka dots for the occasion. But she never heard back.

Even after a blow like that, the family is determined to stay positive. “No matter what went on during the day, I always tell Destiny that I love her before I go to sleep,” says Darwyn. “I want her to know that I have her back. We’ll always have each other.”

Meanwhile, in the bedroom Trenell shares with his sisters, he keeps a Pringles can on the top shelf of his closet, next to his books. “I decided I needed to be brave, not worry so much,” he says. So he started a collection to help his family get a new house. Whenever he sees a penny, he’ll pop it in. So far, he has 51 cents. It’s not much, he admits, but he’s going to fill it up.

“Come on, let’s go for a walk!” Destiny calls on a frigid January afternoon. It’s a ritual the family enjoys most days. “We went out for walks before, and we go out now,” she says. “I try to do as much as I can to keep things normal. It makes us all feel better.” Strolling through the neighborhood, they seem like any other family. Nobody knows that they’re homeless.
 

Does Your Family Have a Plan?
You may not be one paycheck away from being on the streets, but it makes sense to sketch out a what-if plan. Here are some tips to get you started:

Build an emergency fund
Experts say you should have enough to cover your mortgage and living expenses for three to six months.

Draw up a resource list
When you’re in panic mode, it’s harder to effectively research where to get help. Look online to see what your local county and state social services agencies offer. Some states, like Massachusetts, provide subsidies for families struggling to make rent or mortgage payments.

Arrange for emergency shelter
Talk to relatives and friends who might be able to take in your family in a worst-case scenario. Knowing that you’d have a place to go may ease your mind.

Don’t wait
If eviction is possible, forget your pride. Reach out to family, or use the list you made in step 2. Often, a counselor at your child’s school can connect you to help.
 

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