Housing First

Tales of New Beginnings

The quest for a place to live: It's as big as the crisis in affordable housing, and as small as the first step toward a home of one's own. At a shelter in Tucson, Ariz., women and children alight, settle briefly, and then move on, in a restless search for refuge. For three months in the summer and fall of 2002, reporter Reed Karaim will trace their paths and tell their stories in an NPR Online serial, Tales of New Beginnings. Part One appears below; subsequent installments will be posted occasionally through September.

Part One: 'This isn't a bad place, but still...'

Jennifer with her five-month-old son, Big Mike.

Jennifer with her five-month-old son, "Big Mike."
Photo: Reed Karaim, NPR Online
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Beatriz with daughters Faustina, left, and Maria.

Beatriz with daughters Faustina, left, and Maria.
Photo: Reed Karaim, NPR Online
View enlargement.

In a purposely nondescript building on a slightly tattered street in a part of town no one will ever call upscale, 13 women and their 20 children are beginning a journey each woman hopes will lead to a home.

They've landed here, at the New Beginnings Shelter in Tucson, because they had no place else to go -- at least no place they felt welcome or safe, or no place that was good for their children. In the road back from homelessness, this is the first step, and the residents view it with an understandable combination of gratitude and impatience. "This isn't a bad place," says Beatriz, 22, who has two daughters, ages three and four. "It's a good shelter, better than some places. But, still..."

No one wants to be in a shelter. Even so, more than 110 women and some 250 children pass through New Beginnings annually.

The shelter occupies two buildings and includes community rooms with secondhand furniture, two kitchens, and a playground for the children. Each family gets a small room with a dresser, metal bunk beds and, if necessary, a crib. At the end of the day, when everyone is a little frayed and frantic, New Beginnings has the odd chemistry of a dorm crossed with a day-care center.

The women share chores, make friends, bicker, take care of one another's children -- and unite around the dream of finding a stable place to live. In the distance between their current situations and the futures they hope for, they illustrate the challenge many Americans face in making a home of their own.

A shelter celebration

On Independence Day this year, Beatriz celebrates by cooking hot dogs for strangers at her job at a fast food restaurant called Wienerschnitzel, and then cooking hot dogs for other residents of the shelter. As the meal ends, she sits wearily at a table with her two little girls, Faustina and Maria, who were driven to distraction by a male visitor to the shelter.

"The girls haven't been around men much," Beatriz says quietly. She separated from their father a couple years ago and, although she is still young, she exudes the matter-of-fact caution of someone who has seen too many ways life can go wrong. She favors no-nonsense clothes and keeps her dark hair pulled back. Another side to Beatriz peeks through only rarely -- when she shows off the lovingly tended potted plants by the window in her room, or the photographs she keeps of other families from the shelter, most now gone.

Her husband, who she says was abusive to her, ran up unpaid debts that make it impossible for Beatriz to rent an apartment in her name. She moved in with her mother and stepfather, who were caring for the mentally ill in their home, but that ended badly when her stepfather lost his license. After some time with her mother in a trailer "five feet from a highway" -- a place they lost when they couldn't afford the rent -- Beatriz turned to a friend who lived in an apartment with four children of her own. Then her friend started using drugs, and Beatriz and the girls were out the door.

They stayed briefly at another shelter before coming to New Beginnings. The shelters have been a difficult adjustment for the two girls. "The three-year-old went straight back into diapers," she says. "She had been completely potty trained. It took a long time to get her back."

A paycheck that won't cover a rent check

At Wienerschnitzel, Beatriz gets minimum wage, $5.15 an hour. She works shifts of three to seven hours every other day. Her first paycheck, after deductions, was for $12.95.

Like Beatriz, an increasing number of America's homeless do have jobs, studies show. Mothers with children also make up a growing part of the homeless population: Of the estimated 800,000 Americans homeless on any given night, 200,000 are children. The people who run New Beginnings believe more than 2,000 homeless moms and kids are on the streets of Tucson daily.

The shelter has been in business since 1989. "It was founded by a group of religious and community leaders at a time when there really just wasn't anything for the homeless people we were suddenly seeing," says Debra Owen, executive director. It's open to homeless women who have children or are pregnant; for stays of up to 90 days.

New Beginnings also operates a transitional apartment complex in which families pay a subsidized rent, and can stay for up to two years. The program's aim is to give participants the economic and personal self-sufficiency to make it on their own.

Learning the skills to navigate life

The process begins at the shelter. The weekly schedule includes regular sessions on parenting and life skills. Residents work with staffers to hone their job skills; and they're expected to come up with a series of personal goals, including a financial plan. "They work with you quite a bit on that," says Beatriz.

One of Beatriz's goals is to get her General Equivalency Diploma (GED). She would like to work in "information systems, or graphic design." Art, she confesses, is her love -- but America Online and several other companies have call centers in Tucson, and the starting wage can be $8.50 an hour or more. Her closest friend at the shelter, Jennifer, 19, is also surveying the financial horizon: "A good job," she says, "would be sitting in front of a computer and answering people's problems on the phone."

Jennifer's young life has been a blur of different homes and families. Her biological mother gave her up at age five, and she was in foster care until nine. She says her adoptive mother was "abusive beyond imagination -- sexually, physically, emotionally, everything" -- so Jennifer ran away. By her calculation, Jennifer has moved at least 36 times in her 19 years.

She has a five-month-old boy. "Big Mike," as they call him in the shelter, already weighs 19 pounds. Jennifer lost her last apartment when the father of her child joined the military, and the Arizona Department of Economic Security, the state's welfare agency, decided he was, or should be, financially supporting his child. Without the DES check, Jennifer couldn't afford a place to live.

She quit her last job when the store manager gave her a hard time for needing time off to take Big Mike to the pediatrician and then insisted she work Sundays -- "There's no day care on Sundays," she says. Work schedules are a constant problem for the women at New Beginnings. In the service industries where most work, night or weekend shifts often go to the new employee and flexibility about hours is rare.

Jennifer still dreams big. "I'm just going to do whatever God tells me to do," she says. "My dream is to be a missionary." A few days earlier, her dream had been to be a singer.

The unsure path toward self-sufficiency

What Beatriz and Jennifer are really counting on is getting spots in New Beginnings' subsidized apartment complex. They have only two weeks left in their stays at the shelter. Ninety days is longer than many shelters allow -- but still a relatively short time to chart a new course in life. If they get into the New Beginnings complex -- with rents starting at $200 and continued educational and child care help -- they'll have some extra support in their next steps toward self-sufficiency.

Without it, they face a difficult future. New Beginnings has 62 apartments available -- and a waiting list. By mid-July, neither Beatriz nor Jennifer has been told they have a spot assured. But at New Beginnings, the one dream no one relinquishes is that there's something better ahead. "I can't wait. I'm going to have my own place," Jennifer says. "Just me and Big Mike. Just us."

Coming next: The transition.

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