'It wasn't always like this'

Struggling financially and homeless, family makes go of it in an old school bus
2010-05-09T00:00:00Z 'It wasn't always like this'Carmen Duarte Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
May 09, 2010 12:00 am  • 

It is before dawn and the aroma of hot coffee is about to waft through the Moran family home.

Brendan heats water for instant brew over an outdoor stove as birds chirp in the cool mesquite trees nearby.

His wife, Frances, serves as an alarm clock for the couple's four children and gently prods Nia, 11, Katerina, 9, Patrick, 8, and Amelia, 7, to get ready for school.

Dressed, fed and armed with backpacks, the kids head to the bus, which will take them to Los Niños Elementary at 5445 S. Alvernon Way in the Sunnyside Unified School District.

It is a typical weekday for the family, living in a most atypical setting.

The Morans' home has been an old, gutted yellow school bus that Brendan and Frances bought with their $5,000 tax refund. It is a step up from the tents they occupied at a homeless camp from November through February. Furnishings include crude bunk beds, three ice chests that serve as refrigerators, a solar camp shower and a portable toilet.

The bus is parked in a lot filled with discarded tires, old military trucks and helicopter parts near salvage yards in the desert.

"It wasn't always like this," Frances says.

And it won't be for long. The Morans learned Friday that, if all goes well, a government program will soon move them into an apartment.

The children are among about 25,000 elementary, middle and high school students in Arizona who are homeless.

Under federal law, schools must provide breakfast and lunch, transportation, and educational and social services to homeless students.

Sunnyside, the second-largest district in the Tucson area, spent $305,000 this school year to provide support for its 1,044 homeless students. Like the Moran children, 21 others live in unsheltered conditions: camper shells, cars or in the park, said Andrea Foster, Sunnyside's homeless liaison.

Tucson Unified, the city's largest district, has an estimated 1,865 homeless students - eight living unsheltered, said homeless liaison Dani Tarry. The district spent about $1.8 million on those students this school year.

The recession has compounded the problem of homeless students because of job losses that caused foreclosures, or left families with no money to pay rent, said Barbara Green,who works in TUSD's Family Support Center.

Most of these families "double up" and move in with relatives or friends until they get back on their feet, said Sunnyside's Foster. Those families who have no support, or children who live in a situation where the parents struggle with mental illness, physical disabilities or substance abuse, can end up in shelters or on the street, she said.

Arizona ranks as the sixth-worst state for children's vulnerability to homelessness, says a report compiled by the Arizona Homeless Coordination Office of the Department of Economic Security.

The Moran family hit bottom when Brendan lost his job as a convenience-store cashier and clerk in August. The business was bought by a corporation that did not look favorably on serving homeless people, Brendan said, so he chose not to reapply for his position with the new company.

Shunning the homeless "did not feel right to me. Now, I am one of them," the 47-year-old said as he stood in the shade of the family bus. He acknowledges that he is stubborn and impetuous.

"How could I turn away people who need water and ice?" he asked. "There was a huge ice maker in the store, plenty of ice for everyone."

After two weeks as a dishwasher, waiter's assistant and custodian at a restaurant Brendan quit because of the low pay - $6.65 an hour - and the long hours and how employees were treated.

The family eventually lost its housing and lived in their 1987 Astro van for a week. They ended up in a homeless camp after turning down shelter from the Salvation Army. "They wanted to split up my family in the shelter," said Frances, 45. "We took a vote and decided to stay together and go live in the desert."

After filling out more than a dozen applications, Brendan has been unable to land a job.

He acknowledges that he's self-conscious when searching for work because his appearance at times is dusty, and he smells like a campfire. It is difficult for him not to provide for his family, he said, which leads to bouts of depression and anxiety.

"Each day I try to be a better father," he said. "All I have is being a husband and father."

Experts say homelessness is often intertwined with mental illness. Roughly 75 percent of people who are homeless suffer from some form of mental illness, said H. Clarke Romans, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Southern Arizona.

The Moran family receives $952 a month in food stamps and medical coverage under the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System. Treatment for depression terrifies Brendan because of the side effects from past medications, but Frances has convinced him that he needs help.

"I realize I can't look for better jobs that I am qualified for until I have my depression under control," said Brendan, an Air Force veteran who enlisted in 1986 and received an honorable discharge in 1990. He worked as an autopilot instrument technician in avionics maintenance, and he served in the Air Force Reserve until 1993.

A former life

Brendan and Frances met in a coffee shop in Boise, Idaho, in 1996 and married a year later. They are estranged from their families.

In previous years before moving to Tucson, the family lived well.

"At one time we were renting a beautiful Victorian-style three-story house. We had beautiful furniture, antique lamps, and the kids had lots of toys," Frances said of their life in Gettysburg, Pa.

In 2007, Frances worked as a seamstress making Civil War uniform coats with intricate braiding for a sutlery that sold the uniforms for battle re-enactments.

Years earlier, Brendan also worked for a sutlery selling 19th-century clothing and took part in re-enactment battles. He lost his job when the sutlery closed.

Brendan then found a job on an assembly line for Tyco Electronics in East Berlin, Pa., before the company closed the plant. The couple fell behind on bills, including their rent of $1,050, even though Brendan had a second job at a supermarket.

The pressures mounted, and in February 2008 they packed up and moved to Tucson, thinking the job market was more stable than in Pennsylvania. Brendan, a Phoenix native, believed the weather would help Frances and her aching body. She was diagnosed with fibromyalgia - a widespread muscle and connective tissue disorder that causes continuous pain, a reason she has not worked.

When the family arrived in Tucson two years ago, they settled into a motel on Benson Highway and carved out a life until Brendan lost his job and they ended up in the homeless camp.

Frances has been worrying about the looming triple-digit heat and her family in the bus. In spite of her medical condition, she is considering job hunting herself.

Children, she said, need a home with running water and indoor plumbing.

Even with an apartment, challenges will continue. Their van broke down two weeks ago, and a salvage dealer gave Brendan $50 for it.

The family is on a list with Junk for Hope, a nonprofit agency that provides struggling families with a used vehicle. Frances also applied for temporary housing through the federal stimulus program Project Action, which is managed through the city and county. That project, which is the one that accepted them on Friday, will work with Brendan to find him a job.

Life on the bus

The siblings enjoy relative normalcy, playing near discarded tires, chasing each other over mounds of dirt and finding quiet spots to read or practice a musical instrument.

One bus takes them to school for learning and adventures. Another bus provides the security of family.

Returning from school one recent day, Brendan greeted the kids at the bus stop. The still of the day turned noisy as the youngsters walked with their father, laughing and talking in unison.

Nia shared what she had learned in orchestra and her need to practice. Katerina mentioned her math and social studies grades had dropped, then quickly changed the subject to show her father a blister that popped on her hand from sliding down a pole on the playground. Patrick and Amelia wanted to play badminton. The conversation was blurry.

Back home, Frances prepared snacks and reminded the children that homework had to be complete before dark. Lanterns are lighted sparingly to conserve batteries.

With homework, play time and dinner completed, Frances set the dishes to soak in a plastic bin and then headed outside to heat pots of water for the children's showers.

One by one, they showered and put on their pajamas. Once in bed, the quartet closed out the evening with a shout-out game of trivia.

A new beginning

On Friday, a caseworker with Project Action notified the Morans that a downtown hotel room was waiting, and that the goal by Tuesday is to move them into a southside apartment. It wasn't a moment too soon because Amelia and Patrick appear to be coming down with measles.

"It's been a very emotional day. I have cried half of the day," Frances said. "It will be great to get out of this heat, and actually see TV, have a regular shower and sleep in a cool room."

Homelessness

The Tucson Planning Council for the Homeless Web site at www.tpch.org can connect you to facts about homelessness. Reasons for homelessness include poverty, disabilities, substance abuse and mental illness. Triggers resulting in homelessness include job loss, mortgage foreclosure, a health crisis, domestic violence and loss of family support.

The council formed in the mid-1980s and consists of 50 local agencies that provide services to homeless. Under Reports, Resources & Links you can find "Arizona - Current Status of Homelessness - 2009". The report includes research, organizations and advocacy groups working on homelessness.

By the numbers in Arizona

• In a survey taken Jan. 27, 2009, there were 1,568 adults and children in emergency shelters, 2,489 in transitional housing programs and 687 homeless on the streets.

• On the same date, 695 children and 646 adults were in domestic violence shelters.

• During July 1, 2008 to June 30, 2009, 24,555 pre-kindergarten through 12th graders were reported homeless by 214 educational agencies to the Arizona Department of Education. Two percent of the 24,555 students were living in cars, parks, campgrounds and abandoned buildings, and 3 percent were in hotels or motels.

SOURCE: "Arizona - Current Status of Homelessness - 2009".

Project Action

Arizona received $22 million in stimulus money to help families who are about to become homeless or are homeless. Tucson and Pima County's portion is $3.6 million, and the city and county are helping families through Project Action, a program that helps with housing, rent and utilities assistance.

To learn more go to www.pimacountyhelp.org or call 882-7462. Those living outside of Tucson can call 1-877-876-7462.

Homeless youth

Under the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Improvements Act of 2001, schools must provide meals, transportation, educational and social services to homeless youth. Homeless youth are those "who lack a fixed, regular and adequate night-time residence," states the law.

Contact reporter Carmen Duarte at 573-4104 or cduarte@azstarnet.com

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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