Heidi sleeps most nights in her pickup with her two boys, ages 1 and 5.
She parks in one of Wichita’s truck stops. They allow public access and don’t seem inclined to run people off, she said.
She drives there after work, after dark, and after she picks up her 1-year-old from his babysitter, and her 5-year-old from his school.
The younger boy runs around with seemingly boundless energy, laughing.
It’s tiring just to watch him.
When it gets cold at night (it got down to 18 degrees on Tuesday), Heidi, 29 years old, wakes up every two hours or so.
She turns on the engine.
After the cab gets warm, she turns it off.
The Wichita school district is working with Heidi and at least six other Wichita families with schoolchildren who are living and sleeping at night in their cars.
Shelters for the homeless are nearly all full, especially when the weather gets cold, said Cynthia Martinez.
She runs the homeless student education office in Wichita’s school district. The shelters don’t do waiting lists, she said. If you’re homeless like Heidi, you call, and call, and hope you call before someone else gets in, Martinez said.
Another obstacle that homeless parents like Heidi face, she said: Some shelters don’t let parents leave their children in the shelter unattended, if, like Heidi, they have a job.
Martinez and her staff identify homeless kids at the beginning of a school year. They find them transportation and try to keep them in the same school the whole year. At times, with a limited budget, they find them shoes, clothes, food, toothpaste.
The number decreased from 2,400 two years ago to 1,940 last year in part because the district has gotten better at helping families find food, shelter and transportation before they are forced into homelessness.
Martinez identified and helped 1,549 students by mid-December, including 10 high school children living on the streets and 60 more high-schoolers “couch surfing” with friends or relatives. There are 28 students sleeping outside or in cars, abandoned buildings or campgrounds, she said.
“The homeless kids and their families go to QuikTrips and take care of themselves (wash) in the bathrooms,” she said. “You can’t imagine some of the emotional struggles they have, about how they are sleeping tonight, or the worries about where they will stay tomorrow, or what and when they will eat.”
“It’s tough for them, but at least they are attending school,” she continued. It’s a point of pride for her that several homeless school children graduate from Wichita schools every year.
Some parents, when Martinez and her staff encounter them, seem “traumatized, heartbroken, devastated” by finding themselves homeless.
“Others seem to go into a survival mode … they just learn to take it day by day.”
Lynn sometimes steals food for her children. Until her car died, she slept in the car with the kids, with a switchblade knife in easy reach.
She did not want her full name used for this story because she doesn’t want kids at her children’s schools to know they have been homeless. She lived in the car for several months; after the car died two weeks ago, Michelle Drake, a social worker with the homeless education program run by Martinez, helped her find the apartment she lives in now. Lynn got the apartment by saying she’d pay rent, from money owed to her for child support. But the man didn’t pay the support, so she has no money for rent.
In the car, she’d find a cul-de-sac or some other quiet place, and park it in the dark, hoping police would not run her off.
“As a mother, you don’t sleep in a car,” she said. “You watch all angles, and you have to be ready with the knife.”
They were never attacked, or even bothered. But those night vigils wore on her.
When she had the car, they’d eaten regularly at the Lord’s Diner downtown, which feeds all comers seven nights a week; but walking from her apartment to the diner and back would mean a four-mile walk in the dark, too much for her elementary-school-age daughter.
Explaining this, she began to cry.
She uses food stamps, but they are not enough.
She steals from Dillons and QuikTrips. She takes bread, canned vegetables, ramen noodles, “and sometimes those little wieners in cans.”
“I don’t steal for me. I steal for my kids.”
She steals sometimes because her daughter asks her “when will we eat again?”
One day recently, her son stood up to leave the apartment.
“Where are you going?”
“I’m going to go get her something to eat,” he said, nodding toward his sister.
“No, you are not,” Lynn told him. “I catch you ever stealing, I will cut off your fingers.”
Importance of school
Living without a permanent home is hard on the children, Martinez said. They move a lot; relatives or friends get tired of sharing a dwelling with them, or they move to another hotel. Or they park their cars in different places to sleep. It’s hard to do homework when moving around, or when living where there isn’t a table to write on.
“But you’d be amazed at how dedicated many of them are about keeping their kids in school,” Martinez said.
Heidi said she is trying to make sure her 5-year-old attends school.
“I was actually a standout student and was on the student council,” said Heidi, who grew up in Hutchinson. “I know how important school is.”
She never thought she’d sleep with kids in a truck at a truck stop.
Some homeless people, as Martinez said, end up that way because of problems with mental illness or drugs and alcohol, but Heidi said she doesn’t smoke or drink or take drugs. Or have mental illness.
Life unraveled after her boyfriend left her with the kids, and she ran up debts.
After that, she said, after she found shelters full, she found truck stops.
Always on guard
After she gets off work at 3 p.m. Heidi picks up her boys, one from the babysitter, one from the school.
She feeds them in the truck, a bag supper bought at a QuikTrip. She eats, sleeps and helps with the older boy’s kindergarten schoolwork in a 16-year-old pickup packed as high as the seat backs with blankets, backpacks, food and drink containers, clothes, shoes and two car seats.
She started sleeping at the truck stops in August, when it was hot outside.
She has a job that went full time recently, she said: She’s a contract security officer for a Wichita company she declined to name. She has relatives in southern Kansas, but for reasons she declined to describe, she can’t stay with them often. They did take her in on several recent cold nights.
She has a third child who stays with his father. But the younger boys’ father “just kind of ran out on us,” she said.
She ran up a debt at her last apartment, got evicted, and is making payments; the eviction has made it difficult to get a new apartment.
With her full-time job, she will make about $500 a week, she said, but her 1-year-old’s babysitter costs $150 a week. Between that, and food, gasoline and debt payments, she can’t save money beyond expenses so far even with the food stamps she gets.
Like Lynn, she’s always on guard at night. “I never truly sleep.”
She keeps a container of pepper spray within easy reach, and keeps the truck locked with the windows rolled up; this was hard to do in August and September. “It got really hot and stuffy in the truck, but you don’t want to have the windows down too much.”
She’s trying to find housing, and how to pay for it.
She has no idea how or when this living arrangement will play out.
“But crying about it isn’t doing anything to help.”
“It will all work out in the end. I know God is working for me.”
Contributing: Fernando Salazar of The Eagle
Number of homeless children in Wichita-area schools, 2015-16 school year:
Wichita - 1,940
Derby - 53
Haysville - 203
Valley Center - 103
Mulvane - 20
Goddard - 86
Maize - 12
Cheney - 13