Tara Walker, 31, kept her three kids outside of the grimy homeless shelter where they were staying in Albany, Oregon, for as many hours as she could during the day. But once curfew came, there was no escaping the bugs that swarmed the twin-size bed they shared or their disturbing roommate who screamed and cursed throughout the night.
“It’s really hard work being homeless,” Walker, whose boys are 11, 6 and 3 told The Huffington Post. “It’s really hard work being homeless with kids.”
That sense of futility, and feeling that no amount of effort would allow her to escape her impoverished life, is what ultimately led Walker to the steps of the cockroach-infested shelter that charged $5 a night, but didn’t conduct background checks.
“I couldn’t see a way out of this box,” she said. “Eventually I burned out.”
While the number of homeless families in the U.S. dropped by 5 percent since last year, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, those remaining 3,347 households, like Walker’s, face an overwhelming amount of obstacles when it comes to finding safe and available places to stay.
Over the past year, emergency shelters in 73 percent of surveyed cities turned away homeless families with children because they didn’t have enough beds, a recent study conducted by the U.S. Conference of Mayors found.
Walker said she is optimistic about her situation, though. She recently got a part-time job working as a caregiver. She earns $9.75 an hour and believes she’s found her calling in her new line of work.
The relieved mom works with a range of people with disabilities who are homebound and she dreams of becoming a hospice nurse.
That job requires enrolling in a nurse assistant certification program, which costs $2,800. It's an expense she can’t afford, but hopes to raise enough funds to make happen.
While things are starting to look up for Walker, the single mom endured some trying years before getting to this point. She says her experience is pretty much the norm for homeless mothers.
Before those few difficult weeks in Albany, Walker had pursued every avenue she could to keep her family afloat.
Walker moved to Lebanon, Oregon in 2011, where the unemployment rate hovered at around 12 percent at the time, in hopes of finding a job, any job really.
But she found that even when a position opened at the local Burger King or Walmart, she’d have to compete with hundreds of applicants for the minimum-wage job.
Within a few months, Walker was on welfare, getting $621 a month.
Walker’s ex-husband, and father of her two older sons, dutifully paid $265 in child support monthly, but she didn’t get to take much of it home.
The government took $165 of it because she was on welfare.
The struggling mom had her 3-year-old with a man from Mexico who was deported soon after their child was born. The boy’s father died in February.
Once her youngest turned 2 last year, Walker adhered to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Family’s requirements and got a recycling job to earn her welfare checks. Lebanon doesn’t have bus service, and Walker couldn’t afford a car, so she walked about six miles round-trip every day.
Two weeks into the program, she wound up in the hospital with bronchitis and whooping cough because she had been braving the rain every day, she said.
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STORY CONTINUES BELOW.
Walker could just barely make rent for their two-bedroom, one-bathroom townhouse that cost $595 a month. She cleaned her church monthly for $75 and said that paying utilities was often the work of “miracles.”
Walker actually started to feel optimistic after she pitched launching and running a diaper drive at her church right near her house, instead of sorting recyclable electronics.
She wrote a financial proposal, which was swiftly approved.
Though Walker was proud, she was also spent.
The bills kept piling up, but she saw no other way to make extra money.
She was tired of hearing kids say, “wow, you’re really poor,” when they came to the house. Walker eventually stopped letting the boys have their friends over.
Her children grew accustomed to hearing “it’s not happening,” when they asked for something as simple as eating at Chuckie E. Cheese’s. But Walker was tired of saying it.
Walker had the looming sense they would end up homeless and was running low on resources to fight it.
“I never worked so hard to keep something from happening that was going to happen anyway,” she said.
After crashing at a friend's place for a few weeks, Walker resigned herself in July to checking into the squalid shelter in Albany.
She kept in close touch with her caseworker at the Department of Homeless Services and was vigilant about filing her paperwork.
To try to shield her kids from the filth and negative influences at the shelter, the concerned mom scurried out between meals and kept the boys occupied at the river and the library because there weren’t many other free options.
“When you have to tell your kids you’re homeless, you lose their trust,” Walker said. “They think you can make anything happen. When you tell them you’ve dropped the ball, it takes that away.”
Walker was close to giving up when she got a call later in the summer from a homeless friend who had moved to Community Outreach, a shelter in Corvallis that has accommodations for families.
“Get your babies up here,” her friend told her.
Though Walker was concerned she’d walk into another seedy scene, she packed up her kids and put her faith in her friend’s word.
When they arrived, they were led to a private room in the family dorm, where there’s a bed for each person and the space is spotless. The pantry is constantly stocked and restaurants and markets often deliver fresh food to pad the supplies.
Walker contributes by sweeping and mopping the hallway, her designated daily chore.
“My kids like it because it’s their place,” Walker said. “Our room, everything in there, is ours.”
But what Walker appreciated the most was getting the space and the resources to come to terms with her situation.
While the shelter requires residents to be sober, it gives clients time to settle in before plunging completely into the rehabilitation program.
“We want people to stabilize first,” said Ty Pos, director of social services. “We realize everyone is in crisis. Everyone is pretty fragile.”
Walker connected with counselors with whom she immediately felt comfortable “venting” to when she felt overwhelmed. She gradually enrolled in self-esteem workshops, resume-writing courses and recently got accepted to a transitional housing program.
She's going to start apartment hunting soon.
Walker is hopeful that she'll also fulfill her new career dream.
“I really like the whole hospice idea of…being part of a team whose sole purpose is to ease someone into next world with comfort and care,” she said.
In September, Walker’s oldest son moved to Arizona to live with his dad and Walker decided to cancel her child support payments at that point. Her middle child will be joining them to celebrate Christmas.
Walker plans on having a low-key holiday with her 3-year-old at the shelter. She’ll have enough gifts to give this year thanks to the family who “adopted” them.
And while she was living in her own home last Christmas, Walker says that, ironically enough, she feels more at ease this year celebrating at Community Outreach.
“It was the beginning of the end this time last year,” Walker pointed out. “I finally decompressed. I’m not in survival mode. I don’t have to be freaking out all the time. This is all stuff that’s possible for me to do.”
This story is part of series called 12 Days Of Giving. Huffington Post Impact, Religion and Parents have teamed up to feature stories from 12 families in need over 12 days between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Read more here.