by Janice Watkins | photos by Megan Rogers
A snapshot. That is how the day was described, as a snapshot.
Get a picture. Gather data. Better understand the scope and needs of those who are lacking a home.
On a strikingly warm day in January, I, along with 70 other volunteers, combed the streets, the crevices in between bridges, the muddy banks of the Kansas River and posted at the Topeka Rescue Mission to gather a Point-In-Time Count of the homeless population in Shawnee County. With Shawnee County reporting a higher percentage of homeless individuals than the national average, the importance of the Point-In-Time count could not have been greater – gather the data as a requirement for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD ).
HUD funding for the county equals housing, housing for the 55% increase in homeless individuals from 2009 to 2011, with the fastest rising population being families.
I went to twist my wedding ring, as I prepared myself to encounter children without homes, children that could be the same age, height and even have the same sparkling eyes as my children, but it was not there. “Dress down for the occasion,” is what they told us at training. “Don’t call any attention to yourself. Don’t wear any jewelry. Be prepared.”
Ironic, because that day was actually my fourth wedding anniversary – a day that is celebrated across the walls of my home in black and white photographs with shiny dresses, sparkling champagne and smiling faces. A day that I will now recall with a different set of images – that of the families and children that were on that day without a home to hang photos on the wall.
I pulled up the sleeves of my hooded sweatshirt and prepared for my volunteer shift.
Question the individuals about their demographics, about the reason they are homeless, about how long they have been homeless – just get a snapshot.
DeAnn Ishman stares lovingly at her three children: Kaylena, 14, Anthony, 11 and Leeann, 7; the type of stare that hints at wanting to shield them from the dark corners of the world, the type of stare that says “I am glad you don’t fully understand.”
“It’s like playtime. They have so many kids to play with,” Ishman sighs, with a hint of sadness in her voice, as she gestures to the crowded common area of the Hope Center, the women and family-oriented shelter of the Topeka Rescue Mission, filled with cots and people in every corner.
Anthony, commonly referred to as “Bryant Gumbel” within the walls of the Hope Center, laughs and cozies up to my side, ready to give me the dish on any “guest” of the Center – their street name, their story, their fears. Having stayed at the Hope Center once before in 2007, he refers to himself as an “old hand” about what goes on at all hours of the day.
Ishman sought shelter at the Hope Center again in October 2011, due to financial strains. Her roommate abruptly moved away and she was given five days to vacate her apartment. Already unemployed and attending cosmetology school, Ishman found no other option.
“We stayed with a relative at first, but we thought it was better to come here and get stable and get on our feet.”
Now five months later, Ishman tries hard not to show the wear on her family.
“The resources list is exhausted. There are either too many people, or not enough housing.”
Anthony smiles at Kaylena who is fittingly reading a fantasy novel across the two twin beds she and her mom have pushed together.
Ishman looks out the window and stares into the bright Winter day, as if anywhere else, but her single room.
“A vehicle will see us walking and pull over and flash money at us and it makes us feel like what are they thinking about us? Do they think we’re dirty or nasty people?” Louis Cantrell spews with a raised voice.
“I’ve always been told life is how you make it, but it’s hard out there being a big family trying to make it,” he sighs. “Hard.”
After losing his job in October 2011, Louis and his then family of six were facing an eviction, with their fifth child on the way. He tried to house his family with his sister for a brief stint, but there was not enough room. He thought it would be short-term, that he could get back on his feet, get a job again, but five months and 60 to 70 job applications later, he realized how tough it would be.
Cantrell notes the seemingly revolving door of individuals in and out of the shelter and utters, nearly inaudible under his breath – “Nobody’s better than anybody here. We are all here for the same reason.”
“There is a lack of shelter,” Cantrell says adamantly. “Some people think they are just too good to come here, or are embarrassed. If there was not a place to come, who knows where I would have ended up?”
With a family of seven confined to one room, things have been difficult for the Cantrell family, with an unorthodox Christmas behind them and raising their newborn in a confined space of one room in the Hope Center.
“We’ve got all of our kids and we are not used to being all together – literally in your face all the time,” he says. “I’ve been through a lot. I try to understand what everyone is going through.”
While working on his GED, admitting to an increased knowledge in budgeting and being patient with his finances, he adds that the stay has brought him and his family closer together, but promises “I am going to try my best not to end up back in this place.”
“I felt safe,” Brandy Washington says directly.
Following threats from another family member to shoot her and burn down her house, with her and her children, as well as her new granddaughter inside, she had no other option, but to seek assistance from a shelter. With traditional domestic violence shelters not providing her with any options if she wanted to be sheltered with her newlywed husband, Washington packed up her family and entered the Hope Center.
With the added pressure of caring for her six month old granddaughter, Lyric, Washington is adamant about providing her family with everything she can.
“It’s a blessing that it’s here [the Hope Center], but it’s a struggle. Every day it’s a struggle.”
With Lyric only a couple of weeks old when the family sought solace at the Hope Center, she was exposed to a lot of germs, notes Washington, causing the entire family to battle a bout with Bronchitis.
“It didn’t matter. I felt so safe at first. I wasn’t in a rush to leave – let’s get all the way back on our bearings, all the way back on our feet, but now it’s been setback after setback,” Washington sighs with tears in her eyes.
“A lot of landlords instantly frown when they hear you are at the Mission. They assume that because you are homeless, you have a drug or alcohol problem,” she says on the verge of more tears. “Normal families have hard times too.”
“It’s like a prison,” 17-year old Kaine utters and I am instantly unsure if he is referring to his stay at the Hope Center, or the fact that he is a homeless teenager.
“I don’t want anybody to know,” he continues. “It would result in one of two results – pity or disgust.”
Kaine an active teenager has been keeping the fact that he is homeless from the majority of his high school.
“Three of my friends know it, I wouldn’t tell anyone else,” he says. “You see all of these kids and if you don’t dress the right way, or if you dress a certain way you get picked on for how you dress – you just don’t want to draw attention to yourself.”
At 17, he and his mom agree that being a resident of the Hope center draws extra challenges – an automatic quiet hour from 7:30 – 8:30 at night, chaperones to and from the restroom, even in the middle of the night, and no access to many of the teen staples, including most electronic devices, a computer and a TV, which are forbidden.
“I am 17. I don’t want to go to bed at 9 o’clock,” he fumes.
His mom pleads for a brighter future for her “genius” son, as she describes him and it is evident that this 17-year old is more resilient than most at his age.
“In a weird way, we’ve all bonded,” Kaine adds.
Mike Montgomery stares lovingly at his wife, Stefanie, who has just returned home from work, as Kierstyn, 7, bounds around the house with her feisty feline. Although they only received the keys to their new home within the week, the living room is already adorned with school certificates and family photos, as their two dogs lounge next to Mike’s armchair.
“We had come from Salina, where I had lost hours at my job. We had to come to where we thought the work was and we had to try,” Mike notes of their journey just three months prior.
“We didn’t know what to do, we knew we had to make it,” adds Stefanie. “The camper was old and the wheels were nothing and I looked at my husband and said ‘we have to go as far as we can to try and make it.’”
They made it to Topeka and found themselves living in the very camper that had hauled their life from Salina – in a Wal-Mart parking lot. When the temperatures began to drop, someone told them about the services offered at the Rescue Mission and they were driven to seek shelter. They fostered their three animals with the assistance of the PANT program and began their stay at the Hope Center.
“It opened my eyes to how real life it is to have things one moment and lose it the next – it really can happen,” notes Mike, nodding his head grimly.
Now settled in their new home, with their qualification for housing through the Rapid Re-housing Program, Mike, Stefanie and Kierstyn are trying to acclimate to their new surroundings.
“What’s strange for us, is this is all we know about living in Topeka – there is the office, the locked gate and the people to talk to right when you walk in the door,” Mike adds of his three-month stay at the Hope Center.
“It’s feeling like normal,” adds Stefanie, doting on her ability to grab her dogs and go for a walk.
Mike glances at her across the room.
“Or as normal as normal can be,” he adds.
I encountered “Aimee” on a jaunt around Lake Shawnee.
With the unseasonably warm winter, I was taking full advantage of being outdoors and so was Aimee. She approached me, when she spotted my “Everybody Counts” button that I had received from my participation in the Point-In-Time Count.
She brushed her long, brunette bangs out of her eyes and immediately engaged me in conversation about the project. I informed her of the reason for the count and she informed me that she was homeless, but had not participated that day and doubted that she would if someone approached her.
As we talked, I learned that she and her two children had been staying in her old station wagon for about a week. She had fallen on hard times and felt she had no other choice.
I informed her of the services at the Rescue Mission and she politely responded, “Not for me. I don’t trust the system.”
She pointed to her car nearby and I spotted two blonde heads of curly hair peeking at me over the back seat. I sent them a wave and they ducked for cover.
I asked Aimee what I could do to help her and she told me that I just had.
“You listened,” she smiled.
Several weeks later when we saw our first dusting of snow for the season, I went looking for Aimee and her station wagon. She was no where to be found. Close to where I remember her “camp,” I found several discarded juice boxes and a tattered Barbie doll that had been left behind.
It’s an image that I won’t forget. A snapshot.
All information provided by the Shawnee County Homeless Task Force 2011 Point-In-Time Count results. 2012 results are not yet available.
[ March 2012 | Janice Watkins | photos by Megan Rogers / | republished from Spring 2012 print issue XYZ ]