When Home Goes From A House To A Room
Michael and I met Ron and Yolanda Vazquez at a homeless shelter in Woodbridge and they agreed to share their story with us, even though it was difficult for them and their children. The story will appear in the Washington Post print edition tomorrow, but in the meantime, here is the story with photos you will not see in the paper or online elsewhere.
Ron Vazquez was not a drunk. Not a drug addict. Not mentally ill.
For weeks, he repeated those three phrases to himself and anyone who would listen. He and his wife used to fight over walk-in closet space and which BMW to buy. Yolanda Vazquez is the quintessential PTA mom -- organized and energetic. Ron's the classic Little League coach -- involved and enthusiastic. They were not drunks. Not drug addicts. Not mentally ill.
They were not homeless. Except that now, they are.
"My wife told me today, 'Look, in the mirror, that's the face of homelessness," Ron said. The mirror was at the Woodbridge shelter where he, his wife and their three children have lived since August. They face a Wednesday deadline to move out of the shelter, destination unknown.
This was the family's second shelter. Ron, 48, walked out of the first one, angry. "I was like, 'I don't want to be here. I'm not homeless. I'm just an unemployed engineer,' " said Ron, who made $85,000 a year at a firm in the defense industry. "That was my mindset.
"But" -- he paused for a long while and lowered his voice -- "I'm homeless."
The financial crisis nudged many middle-class families a few rungs down the social ladder; it shoved some, like the Vazquezes, to depths they had never imagined.
During any other time, the Vazquezes' experience might seem an extreme example. But area shelters report that since the recession started, they've seen public school teachers, computer technicians and interior designers walk through their doors.
"We've had a couple people who were lawyers and mortgage brokers," said Vickie Koth, executive director of the Good Shepherd Alliance shelter in Loudoun County. "It has surprised me the number of people with high degrees who have had to resort to a shelter."
"The recession is affecting people beyond foreclosures," said Gayle Sanders, executive director at the Hilda M. Barg Homeless Prevention Center, where the Vazquez family ended up. "We had never seen a Prince William schoolteacher before. You're seeing people you don't expect to see."
It was hard enough for the Vazquez family to give up their three-bedroom townhouse in Prince William County for five twin beds in a single room. Now they also have to figure out what that move means about who they are.
"Dad, I don't want to be known as the 'shelter child,'" Ron's 14-year-old son, Matthew, told him as they walked into the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History one recent Sunday.
The teenager just started ninth grade at a new school and hasn't told his friends about his circumstances. "Not right now," he said. "It's too early."
The family's other children are more matter-of-fact about their situation. The youngest, 6-year-old Jonathan, refers to the shelter as a "hotel." He recently had his birthday party there, complete with cake and presents. The oldest child, 15-year-old Breana, said she misses having personal space, but knows the family's predicament is only temporary.
"It's not what we're used to, but at the same time, we're not on the street either," she said. "Sometimes it's like, 'How did we get here?' But you can't sit there and focus on it. You have to focus on what's going to happen next. I'm going to see it as 'this is where I live.' It's not who I am."
There have always been middle-class families who have struggled, but in the past, their safety nets -- broader and stronger than those of families with long experience living on the edge -- could keep them from hitting bottom. After all, a shelter is no one's first refuge. They exhaust every other option: savings accounts, family generosity, retirement funds. A middle-class family might take longer to get to a shelter, officials say, but when they do end up there, they are little better off than the other residents.
"I think they hold on so long that they have nothing left," said Koth, the Loudoun shelter director.
The Vazquez family held on from January, when Ron lost his job, until August, when they were evicted from the townhouse they were leasing to buy.
When Ron lost his job, he assumed he'd find another position soon. But winter turned into spring and he slowly lowered his expectations. A year ago, he wouldn't have considered a job that pays $27 an hour; now he'd settle for $13.
Walking into the shelter was his low point. It was everything he had tried to avoid in life. He grew up poor, eating meals bought with food stamps, and he had promised himself he would do better for his family. "It was hard for me to accept that I went full circle and here I am back at that spot again," he said.
Yolanda Vazquez, 35, said she knew her husband was struggling as their circumstances grew more dire. She let him vent. She let him walk out of the first shelter. But when they got to the second one, she let him know in her pointed manner that they were out of options.
"We have all our wagons attached to you," she told him. "You are it. You are the quarterback of this team. You cannot sit on the bench."
She let him know their blended family (their children are from previous relationships) was not splitting up, no matter what. She and the children would not go to her mother's, and he would not pitch a tent in the woods.
"When he was threatening the tent, I was like, 'Good, get one for all of us,' " said Yolanda, who still has a job as a part-time property manager. "I don't like it either. But this is my family. This is my investment. This is what I live for. I'm not giving up."
The move has forced Yolanda to make her own sacrifices. Clothes she once struggled to squeeze into a walk-in closet are now in storage; trips to the nail and hair salons have dwindled. But she also sees the family's situation as a single season, an awful moment in a life that will have highs not yet seen. "It hasn't changed my dreams one bit," Yolanda said. She still slings a Louis Vuitton bag over her shoulder and talks about the BMW Ron will buy her one day. "It can't last forever. It just can't."
Ron said he's now thinking of how he can repay the shelter for its help, but for weeks after the family moved in, he was angry. He resented rules that told him when he could come and go and disagreed with a 9 p.m. curfew that didn't seem to take into account a family with a son who juggles sports and AP homework and a daughter who manages the football team and holds a babysitting job.
During their first weeks at the shelter, Ron kept telling Yolanda, "I'm 48 damn years old. Why do I have to ask permission? I'm not an alcoholic. I'm not a drug addict. I'm not mentally ill. Why do I have to ask permission?"
In an effort to maintain normalcy for the children, Ron and Yolanda try to arrange as many family outings as possible. At the museum, while Ron and Matthew stood in a corner discussing the earth's magnetic field and its contribution to man's viability, Yolanda and Breana joked about which animals' hides would make the best purses.
"I told her she'd get a full ride to school if they had a diva scholarship," Yolanda said.
There was no hint of the family's financial woes -- that is, until Matthew decided he wanted to go to the Imax theater. He ran toward it excitedly, only to return to his family, disappointed.
"It costs money," he said.
The family was still standing outside the theater when discussion turned to the deadline approaching them at the shelter. Most shelters limit stays and the Vazquez family hits their cutoff Wednesday. Ron said they face two choices: find another shelter or move into a townhouse that may be in a bad neighborhood, but is all they can afford on Yolanda's pay and Ron's unemployment benefits, which run out in December.
Matthew voted for the townhouse. "I'm not spending Christmas there," he said. "I'd rather spend it in a tent than at the shelter."
"Matthew," Yolanda said. "Why do you say that?"
"It's a shelter," he said. "I don't want to spend a time of joy in a place of agony."
"But where's the joy?"
"It's inside of me but it's kind of hard to feel it in a shelter."
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