Elsewhere, people mark National Homeless Awareness Week with fund-raisers and food drives and protests.
Here at St. Joseph's Villa, the occasion means a few plates of brownies spread on a table outside the Monday night mothers' meeting. Free bibs for babies, social-services brochures too. Red fruit punch and granola bars. What's with the healthy stuff? one woman wants to know. How about some real food? The rest nibble on snacks as they sit down in a semicircle and talk softly.
The women here already have acute homeless awareness. It's difficult to forget what the word means, really, when you're lying in a small bedroom in a communal cottage, listening to your kids breathing in their sleep and trying to plan a future without a house to call your own.
The meeting is a welcome respite for the 24 mothers in the Flagler Home's transitional-housing program. They tease each other, compliment new hairdos, talk about what's on TV. A chorus of groans sounds when Nancy Nolin, the home's administrator, reminds them to clean their rooms for inspection in the coming week.
These women are following the thousand other homeless mothers and children who have passed through Flagler Home in 11 years. But "homeless" isn't the best word, Nolin explains. It sounds too much like an indelible label, and the women who come to Flagler haven't always been homeless. They come here for countless reasons: Abuse. Depression. Losing a job. Things falling apart.
"In transition" is the term the professionals use. And transition is a tough place to be. Every day is filled with work, chores, counseling, child care and classes. But always there is the hope of really making it. Of walking out Flagler's door after two years into a house of your own.
One woman, Lisa, 25, is about to do it. For the last 19 months she and her three kids have been living in a communal cottage at St. Joseph's Villa, where they're finally reassembling their lives. (She asked that her last name not be used in this article.)
Lisa smiles often, though her eyes betray exhaustion. Most nights are punctuated with screams from her 22-month-old son, Austin, who's protesting the pain of the ear infection he's had for six months. And 6-year-old Amber, who's been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, won't go to bed if her blanket is wrinkled. Meanwhile, 3-year-old Traé says his prayers: Thanks, God, for my family and for my firetruck. And the lights go out.
Life now is better than it ever was, Lisa says, but the weariness and prejudice sometimes beat her down. Lisa says sometimes people at her daughter's school will peer at her and say, "Oh, you're from the Villa."
There is one thing she wishes she could tell those who look down on her: "It's not because we're dumb, because we're stupid, because we chose these things," she says. "We had to make a change and we did."
On this night, Lisa stands up for the first time to tell her story to the other moms at Flagler. The women listen in silence, except for a few murmurs of recognition at her descriptions of abuse and loss. Hers is a story many know too well.
Lisa recounts how her wealthy parents never denied her anything as a child. Yet abuse and family problems drove her out of her home before she graduated from high school.
She still planned to attend college and study nursing, she says, but at age 19 she found herself pregnant with Amber. "She's biracial, and that did not go over well with my parents at all," she says. Her father refused to allow Lisa in the house when he was there.
Lisa relied on her mother for support until a few weeks after Traé's birth, when her mom abruptly left for Florida. Lisa was 23 and suddenly on her own. She spent years floating between homes: hotels, cars, trailers and friends' apartments. That last was the worst, she says. Her friend's boyfriend verbally abused Amber, she says, and "used the N-word as freely as hello."
By the time Austin was born, mother and daughter were unraveling. Tiny Amber solemnly told her that she was going to pick up a knife and stab herself in the heart. "She had just turned 4," Lisa says, "and she threatened to kill herself."
Mmmm, comes a collective murmur from the audience, a sound of disbelief and recognition mixed together.
After that, the family moved to Caritas, a local shelter, and straightaway Lisa applied for admission to Flagler Home. "When I walked in the door I cried," she says. "I was so thankful."
At Flagler she lives in a single small room, the walls lined with four narrow beds and plastered with crayon art. Lisa attends Beta Tech career school to learn nursing in the mornings and processes forms for a research company in the afternoons.
Lisa thinks her kids are happier now, yet she knows it'll take a long time for the scars of abuse and rootlessness to fade. She stays in contact with the boys' father. "Besides me, he's the only constant in their lives," she says, but their relationship's future is uncertain.
Last year, Amber's father asked Lisa to move in with him. She refused. "To have come this far and to have worked so hard and to have someone hand me something
" she says, and shakes her head.
It's not that she wants to stay at Flagler. Lisa's tired of the cramped room, the other kids screeching, the smell of cabbage invading her room from the kitchen downstairs. But her kids have learned gratitude, she says. "My daughter can get a box of crayons, and it's like you handed her a million dollars," Lisa says with pride. She discourages her three children from using the word "want." It's such a negative word, she explains. "Would like" is better.
Lisa herself has no problem using "I want." She has a list of ambitions that follows. No. 1 is getting a home by Christmas. She wants to live in the county, but few places there will accept rent vouchers. One day, though
"My daughter wants a horse. I want to be able to give it to her," Lisa says emphatically. "My kids want dogs and ducks."
It could happen. She just got accepted into the housing-vouchers program, Lisa announces proudly, and soon the family will be on the way home.
When she finishes, the mothers applaud, then fall silent. Each, perhaps, is thinking ahead a year, or two, or three to that time when Homeless Awareness will come once a year, and not every