Written by Denise Miller, Firesteel Advocacy Coordinator
“It was just kind of hard to explain how Santa might not be able to find us in the hotel,” Lawrence Charles said, recalling the moment when he and his wife, Andrea, sat their young daughter down for a talk about why there would be no Christmas presents.
That holiday season, they were scraping together money to stay in motels. Displaced when their New Jersey home was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, they had moved around the country for over a year before arriving homeless in Seattle.
“We didn’t want her to think that somebody forgot about her,” explained Andrea. “In our heart, I guess it probably seemed like it was more just a protective mechanism, just got to tell her the truth.”
Lawrence and Andrea interviewed each other last summer for the StoryCorps “Finding Our Way” project. At the time of the recording, they were living with their 7-year-old daughter, Zoe, in transitional housing in Seattle’s Central Area.
As Andrea and Charles explain in the clip below, they’d never really had a stable home at any time in their lives.
After bouncing around cheap motels for months, and suffering the loss of work hours, they eventually ran out of money. They didn’t consider shelters an option because most required splitting up the family, with mom and daughter in one facility and dad in another. They were on lists for transitional housing, but the number of available homes is much smaller than the need for them. One day, desperate, they got on a bus headed to a tent city.
“It was really scary,” Lawrence said. “The police might walk up in there and say, ‘You’re not allowed to have a kid on the street,’ and just take her. I didn’t know what to expect.”
While on the bus, they got a call from the YWCA. A transitional housing apartment was ready for them; they could stay together in a safe home.
“I felt like I won the lottery,” Andrea recalled.
At the time of the recording last August, things were starting to come together for the Charles family. Lawrence was working overtime hours as a parking valet. Andrea had a lead on a good job, and was getting more involved in housing and homelessness advocacy through the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance’s Emerging Advocates Program.
They still felt like they had a long journey ahead of them, though. They still needed a permanent home.
“I just want happiness. A place to call home. A place I know that I’m not going anywhere next week, next month,” Andrea said through tears.
“We’re going to keep working and just get through it. We can get there. We got each other. We got this far,” Lawrence reassured her.
Andrea and Lawrence’s StoryCorps recording is a powerful document of a family on the brink of emerging from homelessness. In their voices you can hear a range of emotions: relief, fear, sadness and resolve.
Interested in pairing this moving audio clip with an equally compelling visual story, we asked the photojournalist Dan Lamont to document the family’s everyday life. Over the course of two weeks last fall, Andrea, Lawrence and Zoe invited Dan into the spaces where they live, work and study. Dan captured intimate moments, portraits of a family going through the most normal of routines while enduring a crisis.
Dan Lamont’s photos tell a story of homelessness that is also a story of love, resilience, and determination to end what Andrea calls a “mean history line” of poverty and instability.
The Charles family is one of thousands across Washington state that experience homelessness each year. A number of policies pending in the state legislature would help prevent and end family homelessness; please urge your legislators to help them get passed. Just call the legislative hotline at 1.800.562.6000, and a friendly operator will look up your lawmakers and take a message for them. Here’s an important message you can leave if you’re calling today, Feb. 26:
Please take action today to make sure SB 5065 and HB 1682 get a hearing. The Homeless Student Stability Act will result in short- and long-term savings, as well as better educational, health, and life outcomes for students and their families.