San Diego's St. Vincent de Paul shelter on "God's Birthday"

"How come you won't give us back the kids?"

— Rosa came west from Pennsylvania -- "two and a half, three years ago" -- with her new husband. Her ex-husband "was really abusive toward the kids. He threw my son through a wall. My husband now didn't like it very much, so he moved us out of there. The only place I knew was San Diego, because I had lived here before."

Once here, Rosa attended both medical assistant school and veterinary assistant school while her husband stayed home with her kids -- Jeremy, 10, Alissa, 7, and Andrew, 6. He also did odd jobs. She received $595 a month from AFDC (aid for families with dependent children), and the family lived in a $400/month downtown studio.

In May, they moved up to Catalina. "I moved up there to get on my own [financially]. Minimum wage up there is a lot higher than in San Diego; you can make up to $7 to $10 an hour." She got a job at Catalina Stables as a guide for tourists riding horseback and as medical caretaker for the horses, $7 an hour plus tips. Also, "the person I was working for would give the kids odd jobs, pay them a dollar or two."

The cheapest rent she could find was $659 a month, for a hotel that rented rooms as apartments, "and that isn't big enough for my family." So, about a month ago, they moved back here. Her husband got a job helping decorate at Barona Casino, $7 an hour. The apartment they hoped to get was already rented. They stayed in a hotel room for a few nights, but her food stamps didn't come in. They ran out of money and ended up at St. Vincent's.

"We were trying to find an apartment and trying to find work, and I guess the police officers decided that they were going to clean up the streets of San Diego. They came and got him [from in front of St. Vincent's]. There were cops all over the place; they were arresting everybody. Now he's in jail waiting on extradition to Pennsylvania," where there is a warrant for his arrest. "He doesn't want us to [follow him]. He's going to have that taken care of and have his parole transferred out here."

St. Vincent's gave her a hotel voucher for a week. "Once you've been in a situation, being in with a lot of families, it's like you want to get away from it. So you know, a hotel room is just like heaven. It's good sometimes, when you have families that are supportive. But some other times, it's like all there is is problems, and you have to deal with other people's problems, and you just want to get away." The week ended, and now she is here at the downtown shelter for families, located at 633 State Street. "It's better than being out in the streets," she says with a smile and a shrug.

Anthony has been sitting with her as she talks. "It's almost Christmas," he interjects. "Because it's the 15th now, and Christmas is on the 25th."

What do you want for Christmas? "My daddy." Any presents? "Playstation."

"They always go for that," laughs Rosa. "When we were little, we always went for Barbie dolls, all that stuff. Now..."

"I want the WWF Wrestling game. It has a cage match."

"I'm trying to get into the second floor at St. Vincent's," says Rosa, "but it seems like nobody wants to help me out. It's a four-month program; you have four months to get up on your feet and find yourself an apartment. Different programs, stuff like that; it's really helpful. I want to just try to get my life back together with the kids and everything -- getting permanent housing, getting the kids back in school [they've been out since returning to San Diego], getting off welfare."

"If you're on the second floor before Friday," adds Anthony, "you get to buy six presents for the kids and two presents for the adults."

"That's not why we want to get up there," she reminds him.

"Because you get your own TV," he suggests. "Then we can watch WWF."

Do you believe in Santa, Anthony? "No. I don't even believe in the tooth fairy," he grins. "I don't even believe in the Easter bunny. I don't even believe in the magic Thanksgiving turkey."

"You believe in God, don't you?" asks Rosa.

"Yes," he replies. Later, he volunteers, "Christmas is God's birthday."

The shelter's entrance is in back, on the Union Street side, two doors opening onto a parking lot. There is no sign. Through the doors is the common room -- streaked gray concrete floor, off-white walls, aqua doors, rows of fluorescent lights. A desk, chair, and file cabinet have been set up just inside the doors. Beyond them, two floral-pastel couches sit at right angles. Behind the couches stand two tables surrounded by chairs. At the other end of the room, more couches are set up around a TV. Cleaning supplies and a laundry cart line one wall. The room's white bigness swallows the sparse furniture.

John looks young, and as he carries trays of food into the shelter, he moves with a young man's ease and assurance. But when he talks about his kids, his eyes get a little wider and softer with care.

He has four -- John Jr., 15, Arturo, 14, Jessica, 10, and "my baby, Sarah," aged 7. As a single father, he has trouble playing the role of both parents. "Especially my little girls -- they need the mother figure. There's a soft part that the mom plays. Moms know because they were little girls; they can relate to little girls. My little girl got upset the other day because I told her that she can't play, she has to be with me. It's kind of harder to explain in a man's way. I had to get one of the women that were here to go over to her, and they were able to calm her down. She came back and she gave me a hug and she understood. That part of the mom I'm trying to get, but it's hard."

The kids' mom "is strung out on drugs and on the streets. I never deny them to see her. I never deny that that's their mom. I would like them to see her more often. It's just every now and then, she'll go off into her own little world, and she'll start talking about weird things. Sometimes she'll say some really hurtful things, and it bothers the kids a lot. I've just got to tell them, 'Mommy's just sick right now, and we've just got to pray for her.' "

What happened? "I was a real jerk, and I treated her bad, and then we got involved in drugs. She eventually got fed up with it and she left. It got a little bit worse on her side, and she started getting more into drugs. But I went into Victory Outreach and started changing my life around. I knew I had to, [for] my kids."

John was released from jail three months ago, after serving six weeks for a crime he doesn't care to name, which has made finding a new apartment and job difficult. The children stayed with a friend, who was evicted just as he was released. He stayed a week with his sister, who also watched the kids for nine months while he went through rehab. But her house is small, one bedroom, and she has hepatitis C besides, so he couldn't remain there. He receives about $700 a month from AFDC, but that was gone after two weeks at a hotel in East San Diego.

"I didn't know where we were going to spend Christmas. I'm just happy this place opened up. I was wondering where Christmas was coming from. I told the kids, 'Christmas is like, at least we've got each other. We've got a roof over our heads now.' They're just happy Dad's back. We have a clock radio upstairs in our room -- music seems to help a little bit, makes the time go by faster, makes it a little bit easier. I prefer 90.3 -- R&B, hip-hop. The girls were dancing in the middle of the beds; they were just happy that they had a bed to sleep in tonight."

With regard to the drugs, he says, "I still have trouble every now and then. I know I need to [quit] for my kids, because I don't want to lose them. I know if I end up going back to jail, I'll lose my kids, and I really don't want to. That's the only thing I have left now is the kids. I don't know what I would do without them. I probably wouldn't care. It's the kids that keep me going right now."

John is proud of his children, happy that he has been able to keep them in school, grateful that they are well-behaved. "My boys go to Hoover. My oldest boy is in ROTC. My girls go to Rosa Parks Elementary. I wish I was able to get them presents. My girl wants a bike, my other little girl wants a Walkman. My boys, they're not really picky, they're just happy with anything they get. I'm glad for that."

A Christmas tree stands in one corner of the room, decorated by a strand of colored lights. Another strand runs along a wall behind the tree. The cord angles upwards from an outlet. Other cords radiate from the outlet, lighting a Santa, an angel, a snowman, and a star, all fastened to the wall. Dark green strings, hung with pine cones, entwine a square white pillar, obscuring a cardboard Santa head.

Sheryl, a husky-voiced blonde, has been homeless since July. A mother of three, her second, aged eight, has Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), for which he takes generic Ritalin. "When it gets time for his next dose of medication, he gets real wound up. He was climbing trees where he shouldn't have been climbing, riding toys where he shouldn't have been riding them. They said he got into too much trouble" at the complex in Santee where she was renting a two-bedroom, $570-a-month apartment, and she was evicted.

"Donna at the Crisis House in El Cajon got me a two-week stay in the Days Inn Motel," she recalls. She left her two oldest children with their father, "temporarily, so he could get them to school and stuff while I got situated." She was with their father for 12 years; she has been separated from him for 8. Since then, she has had another child, Richard, now aged 5. Richard's father is in jail -- "We aren't together."

While she was living in a motel, her ex served her with custody papers for her two oldest children. "I guess he felt the children would be better off with him. They've been with me since they've been born. They don't want to be there now, but it was better at the time, you know? I didn't think he'd pull an underhanded move like that." He has remarried, "someone he had an illegitimate child with when I left him."

Just before the custody hearing, Sheryl got caught up in a warrant sweep for an offense she insists she has satisfied. "It was a failure to appear. I was supposed to do ten days of work service, which I did do at the El Cajon courthouse. I needed to go to the East Mesa Detention Facility to get a verification, because it didn't come up on the computer." She spent 18 days in jail, the custody hearing came and went without her being able to attend, and she lost custody of the children.

She also lost her Section 8 status, which had required her to pay only $142 of her $570 monthly rent. "They give you 120 days to find another place, and that expired while I was in jail. I had leads on apartments in El Cajon. I have to make a request that they review my situation and hopefully reopen my case. That's the only way you can afford a place, especially now that I'm getting AFDC for only one child -- $302."

She had hoped to get Richard into kindergarten, but jail and subsequent homelessness put that on hold as well. "I'm not going to get him into kindergarten until I get a permanent place to stay. It's hard enough for a kid to go into kindergarten, but then to have to uproot him to start in another kindergarten..."

She plans to recover $650 dollars from the city, "because I did time I shouldn't have had to do," but she would rather not have done the days, mostly because she lost her kids. Richard "doesn't understand yet, he doesn't realize that his brother and sister aren't going to be here [for Christmas]. He'll be okay, as long as there are other kids to play with. But he misses his brother and sister. He knows that their dad has custody of them." When the father let the kids attend the Mother Goose parade in El Cajon with Sheryl, Richard asked him, " 'How come you won't give us back the kids? We had them first.' [But] until I get a place and get situated, I don't really have a leg to stand on."

What does Richard want for Christmas? "A fire truck. And Hot Wheels cars. He loves Hot Wheels cars. He'd rather watch race-car driving on TV than cartoons any day."

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