Christina moves her car each night to a different location in Bowing Green – sometimes multiple times each night. She parks near business establishments so she can get up and use the restroom every few hours. A man offers to have sex with her after observing her sleeping one evening.
The leaves begin to fall, and it’s getting colder. She has to run the car to stay warm. She covers herself with multiple jackets and blankets, but wakes up from the cold.
Her two children are staying with a friend. She talks to them on the phone but can’t visit due to gas costs. Being separated from the two boys has “been a living hell,” Christina said. (The Daily News agreed not to use the woman’s real name in the interest of her privacy and safety.)
“I can’t promise that I can pick them up and take them up any time soon. I’m waiting to get a home and be able to say, ‘Yeah, now Mommy can take you home,’ ” she said.
She’s beginning to feel hopeless.
When Thanksgiving morning arrives, Christina is 25 weeks pregnant and still homeless.
“Some days, the only thing I have that keeps me going is that I need to keep fighting for my kids, especially the one that’s inside me.”
• • •
It is not uncommon for pregnancy and homelessness to overlap, and it’s not uncommon for mothers to leave their children with a friend or relative while the mother is on the streets, according to Sharli Rogers, the program coordinator at Room in the Inn – an offshoot of the Salvation Army that recently opened its doors to the consistent overflow of homeless people during the harshest winter months.
While often associated with an image of a middle-aged man living under a bridge, homelessness affects many different people. There are veterans struggling with mental health issues. There are senior citizens who can’t afford their medical bills. There are young adults escaping domestic violence. There are unexpected deaths or job losses. There are women, and there are children.
On any given day in Warren County, there are between 400 and 600 people experiencing homelessness, according to Rhondell Miller, the executive director at HOTEL INC. But it’s hard to get an estimate, because people might live in and out of motels, or couch surf.
In Kentucky, the annual count in January totaled 3,688 homeless people. That is far less than the number of people served in homeless programs statewide, according to Adrienne Bush, executive director of the Homeless and Housing Coalition of Kentucky.
The number of homeless children alone far exceeds that number, too. The Kentucky Department of Education estimates nearly 26,000 children statewide face homelessness, based off reporting from each school district’s homeless liaisons for the 2017-18 school year.
Five years earlier, the total statewide homeless count was 4,998. “That’s good, but that’s not the kind of progress that we want to see,” Bush said.
“I think the numbers show that we are making strides in reducing the number in homeless people, but investment is needed, continuous investment. We could drive these numbers down a lot faster and a lot more humanely if we put the resources into helping people get into an affordable home,” Bush said.
Thomas Beatty, the Housing and Homeless Programs administrator for the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services’ Division of Behavioral Health, helps monitor the state work to reduce homelessness strictly among people with mental illnesses or substance abuse issues – which could be between a third and a half of the people facing homelessness.
“There’s a limited amount that we can do, because we have a limited amount of funding,” Beatty said. Most people he works with don’t earn enough money to afford a place to live, and there aren’t enough Section 8 housing vouchers available.
In addition to the lack of state resources and programs, the recurring issue is that there simply isn’t enough affordable housing. Many individuals experience long periods of homelessness before being housed.
“Basically, we’re going to have a homeless problem until we solve the affordable housing situation,” Rogers said. “Bowling Green needs to understand and look at this situation.”
Nationally, about 38 million households spent more than 30 percent of their incomes on housing in 2016, according to Harvard University’s “The State of the Nation’s Housing.”
In Kentucky, the average renter wage does not equal minimum wage. To afford a “fair market rent” two-bedroom apartment at $749 a month, a household must earn $2,496 monthly. That level of income translates to working 79 hours per week at minimum wage. For a one-bedroom apartment, a household would need to total 63 work hours per week at minimum wage. Consequently, nearly half of renters in the state are in financial hardship, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s 2018 housing report.
In Bowling Green, about a fifth of the population lived below the federal poverty level last year, according to the most recent American Community Survey Census Bureau.
Median rents might be a bit higher due to the prevalence of college students with parental support. But every place has “something” preventing it from having budget-friendly homes.
“Every county has a shortage of affordable housing,” Bush said.
• • •
Few people know about Christina’s situation, as she wanted to keep this chapter of her life private.
“The few friends I do have occasionally let me use their shower,” she said.
But she hasn’t been offered a room.
Christina’s family is aware of her situation. They live in Oregon, and she says they have not offered to help her. She moved to Alaska at 16 years old to escape what she described as a devoutly religious family of “nut jobs.”
After she became pregnant with her first son – unmarried and with no father definitively in the picture – her parents pressured her to give her child up for adoption. With her current situation, her father’s tone hasn’t changed much.
Christina’s physician does not know her situation. He warned her that this baby boy might be premature, unaware that her daily stress of dealing with homelessness could be a significant contributing factor.
“Every day has been stressful,” Christina said. “If he is born prematurely, I’m guessing that it would be stress.”
With limited support from friends, Christina decided to seek help from the community. She contacted local churches, the Barren River Area Safe Space, Community Action, HOTEL INC and the Salvation Army.
Christina paraphrased the responses as a broken record – explanations centering around a lack of funding and affordable housing.
It was starting to feel hopeless, and sometimes mean.
“The worst part of it is people criticizing that I’m a single mother with a baby on the way, and being told that this is a situation that I’ve gotten myself into,” she said.
The best solution she received was a six-month waiting list for housing.
“I’m 17 weeks away from having my baby. I can’t have my baby and then move back into my car,” she said a few weeks ago. “I need a place to live now. Not six months from now.
“I never in my life expected to be pregnant and homeless, and not have someone willing to help out.”
• • •
BRASS provides emergency shelter and services to victims of domestic violence and their children, but does not offer services to homeless populations.
Melanie Lawrence of Community Action confirmed that the organization does not have any funds for rapid rehousing and that she has to refer folks to either the Salvation Army or HOTEL INC.
HOTEL INC does not offer rapid rehousing assistance, but it does offer classes on budgeting and finding affordable housing. The staff also refers folks to other services and the Salvation Army.
The Salvation Army in Bowling Green offers emergency housing to individuals or families for 12 days on a first-come, first-served basis. There are limited beds for individuals, and only about six or seven beds for families. After the initial period ends, there is an option for certain individuals to join an additional housing period that includes help creating a plan for housing and employment. This service can only be used once per year.
Staff from all of the organizations shared three opinions: there isn’t enough affordable housing, there aren’t enough resources or funding available to help end homelessness and they wish they could do more.
• • •
It was an unexpected pregnancy.
With the first two children, the father – a longtime partner and then friendly co-parent – was in the picture.
But that father has a drug abuse problem. After cycles of becoming sober followed by regression, she informed him in July that he would need to become clean, and stay clean, to be a part of their children’s lives.
“My children’s health and safety were my main priority,” Christina said.
Soon after, everything began to fall apart.
She took three home pregnancy tests. Two weeks later, she grabbed another handful of pregnancy tests. All positive.
While dealing with the emotional turmoil of her ex-partner, Christina found out she was pregnant from another man.
“It was a one-time thing that ended up in a baby,” she said.
This father pushed denial, and even encouraged her to end the pregnancy.
“When his father found out about my pregnancy he tried convincing me to get an abortion. When I refused, he got mad and made my life a living hell. It was constant arguing and saying things to intentionally hurt,” she said.
Christina never considered abortion, but at one point she considered adoption. She knew a family that was struggling to become pregnant, and they agreed to take the child if Christina’s situation did not improve.
But that is not what Christina wants to happen. “I really want to keep my baby, I don’t want to give him up at all,” she said.
The father eventually told her that he wasn’t yet sure if he wanted to be in the child’s life, and that wasn’t a good-enough answer for Christina.
Then, on top of dealing with an unplanned pregnancy, she needed to find a new place to live. The previous apartment where she lived for one year was charging $300 water bills and the landlord wasn’t fixing what Christina assumed to be a leak. She decided not to renew her lease.
And then she lost her job.
Before long, she was living on the streets.
• • •
It’s Thanksgiving, later in the day.
A former boyfriend-turned-friend and “uncle” to her children told Christina that he got her something.
“Did you get me tacos?”
“I got you a place.”
Christina struggled to describe the emotional whirlwind of the surprise.
“I cried,” she said simply. “At that point I didn’t care if it was a shack on a freaking hill, I was happy.”
On Friday, Christina moved into her new place, where her friend paid the deposit and first three months of rent.
She’s been vigorously cleaning the home and moving her belongings from a storage unit, but she hasn’t told her kids yet.
“I’ve been kind of afraid of something happening and it all falling through,” Christina said. “I really want to tell them right away, but I don’t want to tell them until everything is set up. Their world is shook up.”
From there, Christina’s goal is to find a job – any job – as soon as possible. But it’s difficult to find a job when you’re pregnant and in need of maternity leave in a few months. She filed for unemployment and continues to fill out applications for receptionist positions and jobs at fast- food chains.
“Even if it’s minimum wage, it’s an income,” she said. “I need to pay the next three months of rent.”
Though nervous about the future, Christina seemed hopeful.
The fact that the system didn’t ultimately provide aid didn’t escape her, but she does not harbor any negativity.
Instead, she expresses appreciation that she won’t bring her newborn son home to a cold car parked in a strip mall parking lot.