Five school-age children and their mother are living in half of a garden shed in The Dalles, as their housing situation has steadily declined over recent months.
They don’t even have a car to live in, said a woman who has been advocating for them.
It was two Saturdays ago that they moved into the shed, cramming into a space measuring 6 feet by 11 and a half feet.
Before that, the six of them crashed at a friend’s apartment for a few weeks, until the apartment manager got wind of it.
Before that, they lived for six months in a fifth wheel outside a couple’s home. But they had a falling out and were kicked out.
And before that, just last March, the woman and her kids were living in an apartment. She’d been there about a year, but steadily got behind on bills and was evicted, she said.
She is on public assistance, but said she lost her rent assistance in 2012 because of a felony conviction involving drugs.
The advocate, who did not want her name used and will be called Angel in this story, called 30 local churches, government agencies and other non-profits, trying to find housing for the family. No luck.
“I can’t get over how there is not some kind of organization that could take this family in for awhile,” Angel said. She hopes someone in the community will step forward to help.
“Even her social worker is fit to be tied,” Angel said. “It’s just a sad, sad situation. I’m just freaking out that these little kids — they’re not animals, they can’t be sleeping in a shed.”Ironically, the mother, who asked not to be named, used an animal metaphor to describe their cramped sleeping arrangements in the shed. “Usually it’s like a pack of wolves,” she said of their intertwined tangle.
The mother said her social worker “stood there and told me I was falling through the cracks and there wasn’t anything she could do about it.”
The mom is seeing an agency this week that may be able to provide temporary housing.
Her kids started school in September, but dropped out in October when their housing situation collapsed. She had to re-register them last week – a feat accomplished only with Angel’s help — because they’d missed more than two weeks of school.
One government official told Angel that just because a child is homeless, that does not automatically qualify them for foster care.
If they are being fed and otherwise cared for, she was told it is not neglect.
“The best thing about the kids is they don’t blame me, and if they do, they haven’t gotten mad enough to tell me yet,” the mom said.
Their bed isn’t even a mattress, but a box spring, covered with a feather bed, a sheepskin mattress cover, and several layers of blanket.
A tangle of electric cords are powering a TV, two lamps, a heat source, and two inactive phones that still at least provide games and music. Her phone was cut off the day before they moved to the shed.
Of her circumstances, the mom said, “First off, I can’t cry in front of them. In the beginning, just trying to get them fed was hard: something warm in their stomach.”
The mom, in her mid-40s, is open about her decades-long drug history. Clean for 18 months now, she’s been in outpatient treatment three times, once for alcohol and twice for meth.
She has two adult children — stable, housed and employed, working in the Willamette Valley — but of her younger five, the oldest two were each removed from her the day they were born.
The oldest of the five, a girl, is now a teen. “I did an 8-ball of coke the day I had her,” the mom said. She didn’t get them back for two years.
She’d had years of clean and sober living between relapses.
She hasn’t officially worked in about 10 or so years, but before that, she held a number of jobs in retail. She graduated from high school and even took some college classes.
Now, her lack of work comes down to a lack of childcare and transportation, she said.
She recently got offered a job, on the spot, when she applied at a fast food place, but she never even started.
“That day I lost it because I felt overwhelmed,” she said. She didn’t have the right shoes, and “I realized even if I did go to work, I didn’t have any place to take my kids to be watched.”
She arrived in The Dalles in 2009 with her then-husband. They had a period of homelessness before getting into a two-story house in town.
“It was like the Taj Mahal when we got that two-story house,” she said.
Life was good for about three or four years. Then a HUD re-inspection found lead paint, making the house off limits to HUD renters. HUD provides rent assistance to low income households. They moved, and she relapsed.
She lost custody of her kids to their father when she was jailed in 2012 on drug charges.
She admits she wasn’t keeping her kids in school – they’d attend one day, then miss three. “I didn’t care,” she said. With five kids, “getting out of the door is an issue.”
She got her kids back seven months later, the day after Christmas.
She doesn’t dwell on what’s happened in her life, but just adapts and keeps going.
When she relapsed in 2012, she said her housing benefit was taken away for two years.
In August, she got on the HUD waiting list again. The wait time is six to 12 months.
Finding housing is tough as a single mom with five kids.
The house has to be large enough for the family, a barrier in itself. Then, everybody thinks her kids unruly, but they’re not, she said. Angel vouches for them, saying they’re charming and well-behaved.
They are polite to a reporter, offering her Gummy Bears, and are obedient when their mom directs them.
When the reporter arrived at the shed for an interview, the smell of marijuana wafted over from two men sitting on a nearby porch.
The men had bought the family pizza the day before.
Later, the men walked through the family’s outdoor living space on their way elsewhere. One returned later, again cutting through their area.
Impediments to getting back on her feet are everywhere.
She not only lacks a car, but can’t even get her driver’s license back until she pays a $430 ticket in Dallas, which is now $630 because of late fees.
She can’t take classes at the community college until she pays a debt there, she said.
She can’t even check out library books for her kids because she owes $50 there.
Now, even basic things are an ordeal. Just getting everyone showered “can be an all-day issue, especially if we have to walk,” she said. Now that she has no kitchen, her food expenses are going up because she has to buy expensive ready-to-eat food. She hauls groceries in a child’s red wagon.
Her Oregon Trail card, which contains her cash allowance for essentials like toilet paper and such, and money for food, is loaded with $833 each month. “It sounds like a lot but when you divide it by six people it’s like 100-some-odd dollars” apiece, she said.
She’s estranged from her mom now, but when she was in her apartment, her mom helped regularly, and she availed herself of local food pantries, when she remembered. “Sometimes I just didn’t have the oomph.”
Keeping her apartment for a year without rent assistance meant she was “robbing Peter to pay Paul.” Eventually, it caught up with her.
She told a reporter, “The only thing I hope for, ma’am, is my kids are better than where they are now, because I realize it’s not about me anymore. I don’t want them to have to repeat this as an adult.”