Kim Hone-McMahan

Editor’s note: Article originally published Feb. 27, 2000.

Tears streamed down the chubby cheeks of the 1-year-old twins as they toddled and fell to the floor. Across the room, their big brother quietly played with his plastic truck. He struggled to ignore their cries. But his eyes told the story. His baby brother and sister were tired. They were hungry.

And — like him — they were homeless.

Silently, the 3-year-old sat on a chair far too big for his tiny body. His eyes grew wide as his mother began to weep not knowing where she and her children would lay their heads this chilly winter night in Akron.

Just two ounces of milk remained in a plastic bottle for her twins to share. Three dollars were tucked in her pocket to pay for cab fare. And on the floor rested a large garbage bag filled with some of the young family’s few worldly belongings.

“I know there is a God,” Teresa Williams whimpers, lifting her eyes to the ceiling. “I just know there is.”

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Teresa, 23, is among the fastest growing segments of the homeless population in the country.

In the early ’80s, families with children accounted for about 3 percent of the homeless. Today, that figure is nearly 40 percent. And single mothers head a staggering three-quarters of those families.

By its very nature, homelessness can’t be measured with 100 percent accuracy. In most cases, it’s a temporary situation and that often makes tracking impossible.

Still, a statewide study found that on any given day, more than 1,000 people in Summit County and another 700 in Stark County are in need of shelter.

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It was drizzling when Yellow Taxi No. 83 pulled up in front of the House of Peace in downtown Akron.

Teresa and another homeless woman, along with their four children, had spent the night in the neatly kept brown brick home. But it was time to move on.

The frigid January rain trickled down the spotless blue and pink snowsuits worn by the twins, Davian and Davierre. Hurriedly, Teresa and her friend, Tonnie Johnson, tucked the children inside the Ford Crown Victoria that whisked them off to the Ocasek Building in downtown Akron.

With children and trash bags in tow, the homeless brood made its way up to the city’s law department on the second floor to speak to prosecutors about filing a complaint. The day before, two women told a worker at ACCESS, a homeless shelter on West Market Street where they were staying, that they were going to beat up Teresa and Tonnie.

The threat resulted in the two mothers and their children having to leave the shelter.

As difficult as it was to stomach, Teresa and Tonnie understood why they had to leave. With no security guards at the shelter, all threats are viewed as potentially dangerous. And they had no desire to put the other homeless women and children they had met at risk.

The law department waiting room is not a place for children. Magazines are stacked on the table, but there is nothing to entertain youngsters. The twin’s brother, Krystopher, quietly amused himself by watching Tonnie’s 3-year-old son, Delyon Robertson, try to rip a poster off a door.

The waiting was also taking a toll on Davian and Davierre, who rolled on the floor near their mother’s feet. Gently, Teresa leaned down to pick them up. One-by-one she lifted them to her lips and kissed the tears from their wet faces.

“Where’s the next bottle going to come from?” Teresa sobbed, swishing the remaining milk around in the bottle. “That’s the last of it.”

While admitting life would be much simpler for her if she would turn her babies over to the county Children Services Board, she vowed that would only be done as a last resort.

“If push comes to shove and we have to sleep under a bridge tonight, then I guess we will have to go down and give our children to the home [Children Services],” she sighed. “But my kids are all I have to live for.”

Following their chat, a prosecutor refers the women and children to Victim Assistance, where they may have some luck in finding a place to stay for the night.

They discuss walking the mile, but decide with four children, they would be better off spending their last $3 on cab fare.

Teresa, Tonnie, and the children clearly don’t match the homeless stereotype. They are neither men, nor are they unkempt. Perhaps that is why no one pays much attention to them as they rush to the curb to wave at the horn-honking cabby.

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While it’s not impossible to find a homeless person sleeping in an abandoned building or doorway in Akron, it’s more difficult than in some cities.

Homeless shelters such as the Haven of Rest and ACCESS have expanded their facilities in recent years to address growing needs in the city.

But when the shelters are full, the homeless say they find places to sleep in cars, parks and under bridges. Those who are very lucky may crash for the night with a friend or relative.

After sunrise, some make their way to libraries, Laundromats and shopping malls to escape the fierce winter weather.

The Haven of Rest also deserves credit for fewer homeless people freezing in Akron during the daylight hours.

In 1995, the Haven of Rest opened a spacious Client Services Center on East Market Street. The center has two large rooms that provide a safe place to stay during the day for the area’s homeless.

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During the short ride, the woman tell the taxi driver that they have little money, no food and no place for their children to sleep. Empathetic, the cabby lets them keep the little change they have left.

But the news at Victim Assistance isn’t good. After a search for shelter, victim advocate Amal Mullin tells the women she’s had no luck in finding them a place for the night.

“I’ve called a million places,” Mullin said, looking as if she herself is near tears. “But, so far, no response. I’ve exhausted all of my possibilities. I’m so sorry.”

Teresa begins to sob. She tells Tonnie that her family is struggling to make ends meet and can’t put them up for the night. Besides, she explains, they are frustrated with her for repeatedly ending up on the streets.

“Half my family has drug problems,” Tonnie adds. “We don’t want to stay with them.”

While the women are discussing their options, Mullin continues the search by phone. She tells Teresa the Haven of Rest’s Harvest Home, a shelter for women, is her best bet. But Tonnie, who was there recently, could not return so soon.

“I broke curfew when I was there and had to leave,” she offers.

Still, Mullin tells them they can go to the Haven of Rest for lunch. Another cab is hailed and they are off to the third stop of an exhausting day.

As the sun begins to set on the gloomy winter afternoon, Teresa and her children are permitted to stay at Harvest Home.

It is a good match for her. The downtown rescue mission is a fitting place for downtrodden people who long to renew their relationship with God. And Teresa is clinging to her faith in an effort to help her cope.

Perhaps that is why she feels the need to reflect on some of her mistakes.

She confesses to having sold drugs to make ends meet, but hungered to crawl out of the black hole of poverty.

“The things that I had to do, I had to do,” she said. “But I’m tired of doing it that way. I’m a Christian. I’m a godly person. I want blessings. The only way to get them is to do it the right way. I’m tired of living this type of life.”

The attractive young woman, who has two other children living with their father, said she has been homeless more than a dozen times since the age of 13. And until this miserable day in January, Teresa thought she had already seen the bottom of her despair months before.

Kicked out of a relative’s apartment at 2 a.m., Teresa, who was then seven months pregnant, took Krystopher’s tiny hand and walked to a bridge in downtown Akron. Thinking their lives could get no worse, she intended to end them.

“I said to myself, we will die together and we won’t have to deal with this no more. The family ain’t got to worry no more about us. And society don’t have to worry about seeing us at the shelters,” she said. “Things were just so bad.”

A fence over the top of the bridge prevented Teresa from picking up Krystopher and jumping. Slowly, they walked from the bridge to a Main Street bus stop where Krystopher fell fast asleep in this mother’s arms.

“I just sang and rocked him,” she recalled. “It was just the worst time of my life. So I thought.”

Because Teresa has a misdemeanor drug record, she doesn’t qualify for public housing. Her income consists of $733 a month from welfare and Social Security. She sometimes works at same-day-pay agencies and sells her plasma to raise money.

The father of her children, who lives in Florida, periodically sends money. Still, she said, the money doesn’t stretch far enough to pay for an apartment, utilities, food and diapers.

Homelessness is a way of life for many, not just Teresa. Children often follow in their parent’s or older sibling’s footsteps. Shuffling from relative to friend and shelter to shelter is common. But for the sake of her children, Teresa knows she must complete her education and change her life.

“I’m going to get my GED right now because I want it. Not because nobody told me to get it. It’s because I know that I have to change whatever the cycle is in this family,” she said. “It has to be broken with me.”

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The majority of homeless families in this country are made up of children under the age of 5. And the stresses of moving combined with often living in abusive environments can have a profound affect on a youngster’s development. They may suffer from emotional problems and delayed speech and motor skills.

The Better Homes Fund, a national research and advocacy organization for the homeless, found such kids have very high rates of acute illness, suffering from twice as many ear infections as other children, five times more diarrhea and stomach problems, and four times as much asthma.

And their troubles go much deeper than fretting over whether to wear their green or yellow pajamas to bed. Most — or 58 percent — worry whether they will even have a place to sleep at night, the group found.

As uncomfortable as it is to fathom, the group estimates that more than 1 million children scattered throughout the country will be homeless this very night.

“The face of homelessness in this country has changed dramatically,” said Better Homes Fund executive director Ellen Bassuk. “Young children are without homes in the largest numbers since the Great Depression.”

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While Teresa settles in at Harvest Home, mulling over the changes she needs to make in her life, Tonnie and Delyon find refuge at the Red Roof Inn on South Arlington Road. The bill is paid by Victim Assistance.

Tonnie, 18, swung open the door to Room 238. The curtains were pulled, shutting out what was left of the daylight. The garbage bag that held the mother’s and child’s clothes spills some of its contents onto the bed through a large hole.

“I don’t have nowhere to go,” she says, dropping her head in her hand.

The teen-ager, who had no job and was not collecting welfare, has wandered in and out of homelessness for five years. To make ends meet, she stripped at bars and private parties.

“One time I got so drunk at the bar that I slept with somebody I didn’t even know,” she said. “Now, I look back at it and it’s so disgusting. People got videotapes of me at private parties. So, no matter what I do in my life, that’s always going to be there for people to look at.”

Her eyes sparkled as she boasted of having earned her GED, but quickly lost their gleam when she spoke of being beaten and abusing drugs and alcohol — starting at the age of 12.

Tormented by her life, Tonnie turned to violence.

“I had to seem like I was hard inside,” she said. “I tore up people’s cars . . . carried knives and tried to run people over. I was out of control.”

But whatever toughness Tonnie harbored inside had disappeared. On this day, the young mother was weak and defeated.

“I’ve just had such a hard life,” she said. “ I feel like I’m a 53-year-old stuck in an 18-year-old’s body.”

Delyon, with his curly braided hair, climbs on top of a dresser to reach the buttons on the television. He quickly flipped through the channels before settling on Batman.

“He’s the only thing I have,” she said, watching him giggle at the cartoon. “That’s the reason I had him, because I needed somebody to feel like they loved me.”

A list of telephone numbers for social service agencies and shelters rested on the nightstand in the dimly lit room. But for the moment, the teen-age mother and her small son had a place to lay their heads for the night.

In the morning, she would worry about tomorrow.