Homeless for the holidays: Amber’s story

by Carole Perkins

Homeless for the holidays: Amber’s story Amber and her 10-year-old daughter Brooklyn sit in the hard plastic chairs that circle the round table, a centerpiece in their one-room home. Two sets of bunk beds line opposite walls. A double bed, carefully made with a blue and white quilt, nestles in the corner near the large, blinded window. Nine-year-old Shannon stops fidgeting with his soccer ball for the first time in 15 minutes and gazes with rapt attention out the window as leaders from Girl Scout Troop 1449 stir homemade Brunswick stew in a cauldron large enough for Shannon to swim in.

“I’m not eating that stew!” Shannon declares. “You don’t have to eat it, but be polite about accepting it,” his mother warns. TeVin, Amber’s oldest son, sits on the double bed strumming mellow chords on his electric guitar, seemingly oblivious to his younger brother’s whirling dervish or the excited chitter-chatter of his mom and sister. A dedicated vegan for the past few months, he’ll also politely decline the stew, the only lunch he’ll see today. “We love our church,” Amber says. “We’ve been going to Potter’s House for eleven years. We have an outreach program where we go on Saturdays to feed the homeless and give them the word.” “My Daddy grills food for them,” Brooklyn says proudly. “My husband has such a desire to go and help the homeless, especially since being here. It’s given him a different outlook,” Amber says.

Amber and her family are homeless. They’ve been living at Pathways, an outreach of Urban Ministry in Greensboro that provides temporary shelter for homeless families. Mark Sumerford has been director of Pathways for the last 26 years. His eyes cloud when he describes the growing epidemic of families without homes. “It’s horrible,” he says. “We recommend that families

call us every day to see if there’s space for them. When this center was built six years ago, we’d have fifteen to twenty families on the waiting list. Last month we had 43 families waiting for one of the sixteen rooms we have here, now we have 53 homeless families waiting for a place to live. “You can hear the frustration in their voices when they call day after day and there’s no room for them,” Mark continues. “Sometimes they become angry because we can’t do anything to help them. It’s tough for these families, especially the victims of abuse. Where do we stay tonight? Where will my children stay?” Amber and her family are the luckier ones who found shelter at Pathways several months after losing their home and sleeping on the floor of Amber’s mother’s house. “I miss riding my bike and playing with my cats,” Brooklyn says about her old neighborhood. “I wish we didn’t have to give our Jack Russell terrier, Bandit, away,” Amber says. “We couldn’t bring him with us. I held onto him as long as I could.”

Amber’s father, a violent and abusive alcoholic, lined Amber and her brothers up to watch as he beat their mother. He had just thrown her down the steps as Amber played outside with her red ball. Running for her life, Amber’s mother grabbed the 3-year-old and hid her behind a tree.

“Stay here,” she commanded before running back inside to grab her brothers. “I can’t leave without them.” Seeking shelter at the homes of relatives, Amber’s mother eventually rented a trailer. Amber’s life became like that one long moment when the elevator plunges downward, leaving the rider suspended and off-kilter, waiting for the landing. Molested as a child by a family member while other teenage boys watched, Amber kept her tongue even as she was forced to hug her abuser when family arguments always ended in “make-up” time. She dropped out of school by the 8 th grade and bore her first son at 15. “I went into the same abusive situation I swore I’d never be in,” she says. “I wanted a way out. I just didn’t know how to get up. I ended up in Charter Hill’s Hospital after I had my son. DSS threatened to take my son away. It broke my heart. All I ever wanted to be was a good mother.” Amber took out life insurance at 18, convinced she would never see the light of the next day. “I made a decision to move from the abusive relationship and found shelter at Clara’s House,” Amber says, a home for abused women. “He tried to shoot me there so I moved into public housing, where he kicked my front door down.” Back at Clara’s House, Amber connected with an advocate who helped her go to court. The abuser ended