Greg and Colleen Ball are sitting in their beat-up Chevy Cavalier, trying to figure out what to do. They've just dropped off their 15-year-old daughter, Kelsey, at a relative's house, and now they're in the parking lot of a Red Roof Inn in Holland, $5 short of an overnight stay.
It's late April and the Balls have been homeless for a few nights, but this is their first night apart from Kelsey. Earlier in the week, they sold their other car for junk, buying a few nights at a hotel, but that money is gone.
Greg and Colleen are surrounded by their belongings -- white plastic bags full of clothes and food, loose blankets and pillows. The dog, Daisy, is in Colleen's lap, breathing in her face. Greg can hardly see out the windows. The claustrophobic atmosphere only exacerbates the silent panic. They haven't had to sleep in the car yet. That fact is one of their few remaining points of pride, and they'll do almost anything to hold onto it.
At a loss, Greg stares blankly at the dashboard. Then an idea strikes him. He calls his nephew and offers to sell him his car stereo.
The Balls are in many ways the new face of poverty: former homeowners, lifelong workers, educated. They are fallen members of the middle class, people who have weathered past recessions but have not managed to escape the long reach of the Great Recession. They are people unlikely to ask for help, even as their lives crumble.
This new class of the economically disenfranchised is largely invisible.
Over the past few weeks The Blade spoke with dozens of people in circumstances similar to those of the Balls. One of the most common threads is a desire to remain anonymous. The Balls agreed to be interviewed but debated for weeks about whether to allow their names to be used. Others did not want their names used at all, citing embarrassment or the impact it might have on job searches. In some cases, one spouse would agree to an interview while the other -- usually the husband -- would not.
One man said he used to send his son to football camp but now can barely afford to buy him cleats. The son is a quarterback for a local suburban high school -- perhaps the same school your children attend -- but you'll never know, because the man later called The Blade's newsroom and asked that his son not be identified.
If recessions are like thieves, this one is clever. Its victims are those least likely to report its crimes.
Reversal of fortune
Ten years ago, the Balls were squarely middle class. They owned a home in North Toledo and had well-paying full-time jobs -- Greg as a production worker for The Blade, Colleen as a triage technician for Mercy St. Vincent Medical Center. Kelsey was starting first grade at Riverside Elementary. She was shy, but making friends nonetheless.
But about three years ago, after 16 years with the company, Greg went on sick leave because of a degenerative spinal disease. When he ran out of sick leave, a company doctor evaluated him and said he could no longer work. He went on unemployment and later applied for Social Security disability insurance.
A year later, Colleen, who was teaching medical assistant training courses at the Professional Skills Institute in South Toledo, began to experience health problems of her own -- several precancerous lumps, adverse reactions to medication, and hypertension. She went on sick leave but eventually her company said it couldn't hold her position any longer. She began to receive unemployment too.
Greg's unemployment ran out, but the family was hopeful that his disability payments would be approved soon. They waited and waited. Today -- two years later -- they are still waiting.
Many people don't know that the disability side of Social Security is in a much direr financial state than the retirement side. After three years of high unemployment, many more people are applying for disability than in the past, some on much less legitimate grounds than Greg. Waits of more than two years are now commonplace.
The family had moved into an apartment, in part, they say, because they got caught up a few years earlier in a fraudulent real estate investment scheme involving the Westhaven Group. But with Colleen's unemployment as their sole source of income, keeping up with rent was a struggle and they were evicted. Colleen cashed in her 401(k) -- their last "Hail Mary," she said -- and they moved into a new apartment, but they got behind again and were evicted in April.
Kelsey still recalls when men came into their apartment unannounced, bagged up their possessions, and put them on the curb. It's one of the reasons their car is packed so tightly now; she begged her parents not to put her possessions into storage, for fear they might be lost if the family couldn't pay rent.
Kelsey had a month of school left when the family became homeless. Soon after their dilemma in the Red Roof Inn parking lot, the parents of one of Kelsey's friends offered to let her stay with them until school finished. Fearing another separation, Kelsey refused unless her parents could come too. As a result, Kelsey slept inside with her friend while her parents slept on a mattress amid the cobwebs in "the barn," as they came to call it -- a loft above a detached garage. Kelsey would join them on the weekends.
All this time, they kept telling themselves the situation was temporary. Greg's disability payments would come soon.
"We were in denial," Colleen said.
When school ended, the Balls kept their promise and moved out. For a while they stayed in a relative's camper at Maumee Bay State Park, but the overnight fee of $21 became too much. They hauled the camper back to the relative's home and continued to sleep in it, although it was a housing code violation and the summer heat was growing unbearable. Greg and Colleen tried again to persuade Kelsey to stay with a relative, but she refused.
At last, they dropped Kelsey off at the Main Library downtown one afternoon and walked up a creaky staircase to the offices of Family Promise in South Toledo. Colleen became emotional as she mounted those steps. She and Kelsey used to volunteer with the organization. Now, they would be on the other side.
Grasping for help
The program is called the Interfaith Hospitality Network. Family Promise works with local churches to provide dinner and a place to sleep. Each week, the four families in the program move to a new church, where they sleep in nurseries or Sunday school rooms at night, but they must leave during the day.
The night of her 16th birthday, Kelsey slept on an air mattress in the unfinished basement of Pilgrim Church on Sylvania Avenue in West Toledo, which also housed objects for an upcoming rummage sale. Kelsey lay on her back that night, staring up at the missing ceiling tiles overhead, trying to ignore the smell of mold.
For the most part, the volunteer hosts were exceedingly generous. Kelsey, who likes Japanese comics and can draw well, got four birthday cakes from volunteers and "like 16 sketchbooks," she said.
Still, they often felt like animals in a zoo as volunteers watched them eat. One host told Greg she brought her children "so they could see what homeless people looked like." Another woman refused to eat with them, calling homeless people "disgusting." She was later banned from the program, the Balls said.
During the days, Family Promise had a day center available, but it lacked air conditioning and Colleen's asthma was acting up, so they spent much of their time at YMCAs in Perrysburg and West Toledo, which provided low-cost passes to the family.
"Here for a swim?" the facility's staff would ask them when they checked in. The Balls would bite their lips and nod. They were there to shower.
Sometimes they'd just sit in their car. On weekends they'd park at Gordon Foods, where they'd make a meal out of the free samples.
There were some bright spots too. During a stay at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Maumee, former Mayor Carty Finkbeiner brought them restaurant food and took them out to a movie. Kelsey, meanwhile, had become close with some of the other children in the program.
But in mid-July, things got even worse. Colleen's unemployment benefits stopped. She was told her extensions had been exhausted. Eventually, she was told there had been a mistake, but the family had to go four weeks with zero income. Colleen sold her engagement ring for $150; later, she and Greg hocked their wedding bands for $30. The money went to gasoline.
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In August, Colleen's unemployment situation was sorted out and she got a check for the money she was to have received during those four awful weeks in July. Another Toledo shelter -- Beach House Family Shelter -- helped them out with a grant that went toward new housing, which covered the deposit and the first month's rent, with the hope that Greg's disability payments would begin soon and make the situation sustainable.
By September, they were able to move into a small rented house in Swanton. They didn't tell their landlord that they had been homeless -- a fact that had undermined their previous efforts to secure housing.
The last the Balls heard, Greg's disability benefits were expected to be approved this month, but so far that hasn't happened. That's a big problem because Colleen's unemployment benefits will run out next month.
Again, the family is on a precipice.
"We have to do something not to go back where we were," Colleen said at their home recently. She turned to Kelsey. "And we won't. We won't, OK?"
If Greg's disability hasn't kicked in before her unemployment ends, she'll go back to work, despite her doctor's orders, she said.
Coping with shame
Although no longer homeless, the Balls are still coping with the shame. It's a kind of daily internal negotiation with themselves, and each member of their family is handling it differently.
Colleen has decided she's going public -- "I want to change the face of homelessness," she often says -- but Greg and Kelsey are less certain. Both refused initially to allow The Blade to use their names. Then they agreed. Then Greg changed his mind. As a kind of compromise, they decided only to use their first names. Days before publication, they decided at last to use their full names.
Greg has struck up friendships with his new neighbors. They know him as a likable guy who wears a camouflage ball cap and enjoys hunting. He hasn't told them he was homeless. When asked how he ended up moving into the house next door, he tells them it's close to the state forest. In reality, he hasn't hunted in a long time.
Kelsey is at a new school. She doesn't want her classmates to know, either. She's old enough to understand that kids can be especially cruel -- a truth highlighted during a recent incident outside Family House, a shelter in central Toledo. A group of children from the shelter were jumped by a much larger group of neighborhood boys, who beat them up and taunted them with references to homeless people, according to the shelter's director.
Kelsey, who is typically quite articulate, had a hard time trying to explain her decision to keep her homeless history private.
"I know it sounds very coward-like," she said. "It's not something I necessarily want to hide."
Finally, she said something that broke her mother's heart. "I guess I think if I talk about it more, it will happen again," she said.
"Oh honey," Colleen said. "Is that what you think?"
"No," Kelsey said. "It's just … " She fell silent for a moment. "It's pride, I guess."
Sharing her story
She's growing braver, or humbler -- or both. At a recent event sponsored by the Toledo Area Alliance to End Homelessness, she walked up to the podium at Friendship Baptist Church in South Toledo and spoke publicly for the first time about her experiences. The audience was made up of more than 35 individuals and families -- 16 children among them -- who had recently been homeless. Many wore ties or suits. It looked like any other congregation on any other Sunday.
Kelsey spoke about how she had learned the true meaning of faith and love while in the program. By the time she delivered her final lines, the audience was like putty in her hands. "Home isn't the ceiling above you or the walls around you," she said. "I had a home all along, because I was with the two people I loved the most."
The audience erupted in applause.
Contact Tony Cook at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6065.