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Homeless in the US : The Unaccounted-For

Fay Johnson

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by Fay Johnson

The number of homeless people in the United States on any given night is difficult to calculate. Most individuals who find themselves homeless are only temporarily without shelter.  The picture of homelessness most commonly presented in the media and on the street corner is one of extreme poverty, mental illness and substance abuse. Although many individuals who live on the homeless individual looks the same. Despite an overall decrease in homelessness nationally, due to a concerted effort by multiple government agencies and their partners, there has been an increase in the number of families reporting temporary or long-term homelessness. The Cheves  were one of these families.

Kristie and Mike met 25 years ago, while working at a local grocery store in a small Texan town. They married and moved to the big city of Dallas. Mike began a career in IT, while Kristie worked as a corporate travel agent. Over the course of several years, they had three children and began to build the life they had always dreamed of. They built a brand new home, purchased two new streets do suffer from these realities, not every cars, had a pool and, as many Texans do, got a dog. They had achieved the American Dream. Mike, who was now working in consulting, had a thriving practice, placing their family in the top income bracket. In 2006, his consulting practice expanded internationally, at which point they started their second venture: a live music venue. In twelve months, their community grew from dozens of friends to well over 14,000 unique visitors. By 2008, their combined businesses were producing revenue well over $250,000 per month. They were on top of the world.

On April 13, 2008, Mike awoke feeling ill. He went to the local clinic, where he was told to go immediately to the ER. Upon arriving at the ER, Mike was rushed into the operating room, where surgeons completed an emergency heart bypass surgery. While on the operating table, Mike flat- lined three times and was kept in the hospital for over a week for observation. According to Mike, this event began the spiral toward homelessness. “A large percentage of people with a near-death experience have personal, family, professional, mental, physical, spiritual, and sometimes financial issues. In our case, it was all seven,” says Mike. “Most people do not want to think about how fragile their existence really is.” According to Mike, “everyone is three sequential events away from becoming homeless: Losing your ability to obtain loans or credit, depleting your savings, and going 90 days without income.

The Cheves Family before Homelessness

The Cheves Family before Homelessness

Mike’s theory is born out of personal experience.  Within 45 days of Mike’s surgery, the Cheves family was forced to close the live music venue and file for business bankruptcy, which affected their ability to obtain credit. Simultaneously, the economy crashed and 80% of Mike’s clients either, as he said in his Texan manner, “no paid, slow paid, or short paid.” This forced the Cheves family to spend their savings on basic living expenses. By December 2009, all of Mike’s consulting revenue had ceased. After 90 days without income, their utilities were cut off, foreclosure started on their home and repossession agencies were calling. The Cheves family joined the ranks of the unaccounted for homeless people in the US.

Unable to afford a place for the entire family to stay, they were forced to find separate places to lodge. The Cheves’ high school aged girls, Shelby and Marty, stayed with friends, while Mike, Kristie and their youngest, Michael, moved in with relatives. At the time, Shelby was pregnant and Marty was struggling with the effects of  juvenile diabetes and early-onset arthritis. The stresses of separation were compounded by the family’s inability to pay for food and medical expenses. Mike’s heart issues, diabetes, and high blood pressure, coupled with the cost of Marty’s diabetes and chemotherapy treatments for her arthritis, led to costly medical bills that often exceeded $3,000 a month.

Like many of the more than 1 million homeless children in US schools, their son, Michael, struggled to keep his grades up in the face of environmental stresses. The Cheves reconciled with estranged family, who then helped them buy a house. Mike got a salaried job for a few years and then restarted his own consulting company. The Cheves family had gone from small town, to high life, to homeless and back to small town life. “God providentially provided a new beginning in a smaller city, Denton, Texas,” Kristie says. Business is picking up, Mike has written a few books, and he and Shelby run the growing consulting practice. Marty is in her final year of high school, and Michael is a sophomore.

For those without strong social support networks, it can be even more difficult to land on one’s feet after losing one’s home. The Cheves’s story is not uncommon. In 2009, although the estimated number of sheltered and unsheltered homeless persons nationwide was 643,067, the number of individuals passing through temporary houses was much larger. Approximately 1.56 million people used an emergency shelter or transitional housing during the 12-month period between October 2008 and September 2009. This number suggests that roughly 1 in every 200 persons in the US used the shelter system at some point in this period. Mike and his family were never counted in this pool, but they struggled with many of the same realities facing other homeless families.