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Families in Transition: The Face of Homelessness
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The Woods family share a laugh as they enjoy a night out. (left to right) Caleb, 15, mother Angela Woods, Courtney, 14, and Herman, 18, a senior at Salem High School.

(This is the first of a multi-part series looking at the reality and lives of families in transition)  

The face of homelessness is probably more familiar than you realize. In fact, a neighbor, or the student in your child’s classroom, or a co-worker or the teens strolling around in a mall might be carrying out daily life despite the uncertainty of not knowing where they’ll live month to month.

 In Rockdale County, it’s sometimes easy to forget the plight of the homeless. There aren’t people in urban centers pushing shopping carts with all their worldly belongings inside and sleeping in the parks. And many families hit by hard times often don’t think of themselves as homeless because they have a roof over their heads, even if it means doubling up with relatives and friends or living in a motel. But just because they are not often seen, it doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

 This is a reality that Howard Horton knows too well.

 Horton and his four children were forced to leave their rental home in Conyers when he got behind and was unable to pay the utilities. Horton and his three boys have been staying at the Garden of Gethsemane homeless shelter in Covington since October. His 19 year-old daughter decided to move in with her boyfriend because she could no longer take living at the shelter.

 Their homeless situation is only one of many setbacks and challenges the family has faced. Two years ago, the children’s mother, Leigh Anne Horton, passed away from retinoblastoma, an eye cancer. Shortly after that, Horton discovered he had a serious cardiac condition; basically his heart functions at 10

percent capacity. He’s on a lot of medication and tires easily and could no longer work at Folks, where he was employed for more than 10 years as a waiter, cook and dishwasher.

"I was doing alright, until I lost my job," said Horton, a soft spoken man who had moved to Atlanta with hopes of entering the music business. Horton found himself in the house with no utilities. When they made the decision to leave, they were assured their belongings would be looked after until they could retrieve them. But when Horton came back two months later, he found everything had been sold or given away, including pictures of the children’s mother.

"I pretty much was never in that position before, of being homeless or anything," said Horton. His wife was estranged from her family, and he’s lost touch with his only immediate relative, his sister.

Horton is only one of many families in Rockdale and throughout the metro-Atlanta region that have been thrown into upheaval by the economic downturn or by medical calamities. There were about 200 students enrolled in Rockdale County Public Schools that classified as homeless in 2009, and its been estimated about 400 Rockdale residents are homeless or in transition. 

In addition to his heart disease, Horton lost an eye to due to a detached retina when he was a child. He grew up in foster care and has lost touch with his sister, the only family member he knew. He and his wife met when they were teenagers at the Tennessee School for the Blind. His 16 year-old son, Jason, inherited his mother’s eye disease and suffered tumors so they made the painful decision to have his right eye removed. Their first daughter had passed away at age seven from the same condition.

"He’s a very courageous man," said Tom McPike, Rockdale County’s Manager of Therapeutic Recreation. McPike has gotten to know the family through Jason who plays on the Special Olympic basketball team. He’s been impressed with the family’s attitude and outlook despite so many obstacles.

"I’ve never been one of those people that stay down in a bad situation…I try to look at the bright side of things. It’s not always easy, but I have to focus on my boys now," said Horton. He credits their mother for raising the children "to respect people and do the best you can." Promising her they would get an education, he emphasizes study and schoolwork to Jason and his brothers, Nicholas, 12, and Eric, 11. Receiving her own student loan, daughter Stephanie is taking online courses and plans to earn a law degree.

Currently on disability, Horton is saving what he can and hopes to secure a real home for his sons in time for summer break, since there is little to do for the boys outside of school. As part of the federal McKinney-Vento Act, the boys still attend Rockdale schools. With so many upheavals, staying enrolled at their "school of origin" provides some stability for them in an ever-changing world.

"Actually, they’ve done pretty good," said Horton, of his boys’ adjustment to living at the shelter. "They don’t want to be here but they try to deal with it the best they can. They wish their mother was still alive, of course."

For the Woods family, medical difficulties have played a big role in upheaval and uncertainty in their lives as well.

On a night out, after the child support funds have come in, the Angela Woods and her "big babies" Herman, 18, Caleb, 15, and Courtney, 14, look like any other family having dinner at a nearby wing joint. They laugh and rib each other good naturedly. Even though they're teenagers and still put on an occasional mask of aloofness, they remain affectionate and not afraid to share a hug or lay their head on their mother’s shoulder. Few of the other patrons would guess that after dinner the Woods family will return to a cramped motel room where they've been living since the beginning of the school year.

Angela Woods suffers from sickle cell anemia, which prevents her from working a full time job and often sends her to the hospital. The last several years have been especially tumultuous, with deaths in the extended family, hospitalizations, and the family finding themselves the victims of scams as the housing bubble burst. Through it all, Angela remains determined that her three children, Herman, 18, Caleb, 15, and Courtney, 14, receive an education.

"I worry about my children the most," said the DeKalb native, recalling her own childhood having to move around. "I grew up like that, and I don’t want that for them."

Next week: schools, school resources and families in transition.