Homeless in Sandusky: Family struggles to get by

SANDUSKY In a parallel universe, the Rhone family might have been an Obama-era Brady Bunch.
May 24, 2010



In a parallel universe, the Rhone family might have been an Obama-era Brady Bunch.

Four handsome boys. Four beautiful girls. The youngest one, 6-week-old Delicia, in curls.

David Jr., 18, the oldest child, can take apart and rebuild computers like Lego sets. He wants to go to college for computer programming or architecture.

Deja, 13, the oldest daughter, is an aspiring artist who crafts homemade bracelets.

David Jr., a high school junior, wants to stay at Sandusky High School. He's been there one year, and says the teachers "actually care" here.

But he understands his parents must move -- as they've done several times -- if he and they can't find work and permanent housing soon. The Rhones are homeless.

"I want to finish school here," says David Jr., his eyes glued to the ground. "But if there aren't any jobs..."

The Rhones aren't in a unique situation. Families comprise 40 percent of America's 3 million homeless, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless, and that number is increasing.

The number of homeless families jumped 9 percent last year, and in rural and suburban areas the number jumped 56 percent, according to a report released in June by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

"The typical homeless person has changed to become less focused on the chronically homeless or single-individual homeless to somebody who is part of a family, whether it be a mother or a father or a child in a homeless family," HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan said. "I think what that tells us is that the economic crisis is forcing more families who had previously been well-housed into homelessness."

David Sr., 35, and Vanessa, 34, the Rhone parents, fall into that category.

Just last year, the family rented a spacious four-bedroom home in Gary, Ind. David Sr. had a full-time job, a burgeoning recording studio and a small landscaping business.

But the home needed a lot of repairs -- they rented it for cheap from a financially troubled landlord -- and David Sr. poured all their extra income into repairing it.

When the family vehicles broke down and they couldn't get to work, suddenly the American Dream became a dream deferred.

"I loved that house," David Sr. says. "I probably shouldn't have been (putting that much money) into it. That's what got us here, I guess. But I liked it so much. It was perfect."

Sardines and smelly diapers

For more than a year, the Rhone family has crammed into a one-room residence at the Crossroads Homeless Shelter.

It's the human equivalent of sardines: David Sr. and two children sharing a mattress on the floor. Other cribs and beds strategically bunked around the room to maximize space.

Vanessa must change Lelicia and 1-year-old Dayna's diapers in the bedroom because there's no place else to do it.

"You might want to open the door and windows," she jokes after removing Dayna's diaper on a recent steamy day.

"Ewwww," says Daniel, 6, the most animated of the bunch. He holds his nose and grimaces.

In a nearby bed, Deja tickles Danielle, 4, and kisses her. When Dayna starts crying, Devin, 9, holds and gently rocks her until she calms down.

David Jr. said because the family's so tight-knit, if they do find permanent housing again, they would have a tough adjustment period.

"We're so close," he said. "I don't know what we'd do anymore if we were separated by all that space."

David Sr. says he really appreciates everything the shelter offers them -- food, shelter, help with a job search.

But if they can't find permanent housing soon, he said the family might have to save a couple of paychecks and drive down to Texas, where Vanessa's family lives. Texas is one of six states that had a budget surplus in 2009, and has a growing job economy.

Growing roots ... somewhere

David Sr. wants his family to grow roots somewhere though, and if he had his preference, that place would be Sandusky.

"She's got so many friends it's crazy," he said of Deja, who will be entering seventh grade in the fall. "And (David Jr.) has a girlfriend. He wants to go to college up here. We don't want to move them if I don't have to. We'd like to stay settled somewhere."

David Sr. has a job. It's a late-night janitorial gig at the YMCA. But for a family of 10, a minimum wage, 35-hour-per-week job doesn't cut it.

Vanessa would also like to find a job once the baby's old enough. She's worked assembly line jobs most of her life. And David Jr. wants to find a job as well.

But with job vacancies in Northern Ohio few and far between, the light at the end of the tunnel is dimming. Adding to their woes, the housing stock in Sandusky is diminished, and Section 8 vouchers are frozen.

For now, the Rhones face an uncertain future.

"We'll be OK," says Devin, 9. "We've got each other."

David Sr., an affable guy who smiles and laughs no matter the subject, believes the family will get out of this soon.

He envisions a future where he can re-open his recording studio, landscaping business and maybe even start a family-run restaurant.

"She's the best cook in the world," he says of his wife.

Asked what his mother cooks best, Devin, 7 says, "Tacos, chicken, pasta, raviolis..."

Daniel says his mother will cook him a "lot of pizza" when they get their own kitchen again. But the family's not sure when that'll be.

"We're not really sure what the future holds," David Sr. says.

Editor’s Note:

Hunger gnaws. Pain is acute. Shame is seen.

An economic recession equals a homeless population less hidden and looking more like a cross-section of us.

The Homeless but Hopeful project is a yearlong series of stories about the American Dream lost. It documents the lives of local homeless people struggling to overcome the past and claw their way toward a better future.


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