“We live here so our family can stay together,” says 27-year-old Jared Henderson. When this family of six (Dallas, 27, Sadie, 8, Xoi, 5, Zander, 3, and Mila, 1) found themselves homeless last year, it quickly became evident that they could not all stay together with any one family member or friend. “We don’t have nowhere else to go,” Jared explains. “It’s really just us.” So, the family found themselves at Union Gospel Mission of Tarrant County in July 2017, where they were accepted into the shelter’s program for families experiencing homelessness. “It’s the most stressful thing ever, but splitting up my family is just not an option,” says Jared.
words and photos by Sara Easter
Mom, dad and the four kids live in a space the size of an average bedroom. There is just enough room for a full-size bed, a set of bunk beds with a trundle, and a crib for baby Mila. They have a bathroom attached to their room and four drawers and a few cabinets for storage. There are usually toys and clothes covering most of the usable space. “We really try to keep our room clean,” says Dallas. “But there is just nowhere to put our stuff. We store clothes and toys and stuff on some of the beds, and the kids sleep together in one.” The kids pull out toys and make up games with whatever they can find around the room while Jared and Dallas watch from their bed and try to stay out of the way. Jared works nights and tries to sleep when he can despite all the noise. The older kids attend an elementary school around the corner, but the younger two remain at the shelter all day with Dallas. Jared tries to sleep during naptime so that he is ready for his shift when it starts at 8 p.m.
The playground at the shelter serves as a much-needed break from the family’s room. It’s a popular spot for families living at the shelter to congregate. The kids play while parents chat with each other; it looks like a scene from any neighborhood park anywhere. There are cries of laughter, tears over a skinned knee, siblings fighting, and parents comforting upset toddlers. Perhaps more than anywhere else in the shelter, the playground serves as a reminder that families need and want the same things, regardless of where they are living.
The shelter feeds its residents in shifts since not everyone can fit in the dining hall at once. Families with children go first. This means that the Hendersons have to be up for breakfast at 5 a.m. Lunch is served around 10:45 a.m., and dinner is at 3:40 p.m. The family sits down for their meals together, and the kids are surprisingly tolerant of anything they are given. Only once is a backup peanut butter and jelly sandwich needed when Zander refuses his barbecue. After eating, it’s usually back to their room for baths and more playing before bed. Jared leaves for work around 7:45 p.m., and Dallas tries to have everyone in bed by 8. Because the family shares one room, everyone must go to sleep at the same time. Dallas states this isn’t a problem though. “They are so tired they fall right to sleep.” Once all the kids are asleep, Dallas attempts to enjoy some “alone time.” She plays around on her phone or reads a book. Even though the kids are all in the room with her, it’s the first time all day she has had any time to herself.
“You don’t gotta feel bad for me,” Dallas insists. She and Jared both feel that they are often judged for living at the shelter and having their children there. “People judge us; I feel it,” she says. They realize that their living situation is not ideal. “We are looking for a place of our own,” says Jared. “We need a place so bad, it’s not even funny.” However, in the meantime the couple is trying to parent the best way they know how in their situation.
Many of their experiences are incredibly universal. The siblings play together, fight, and then make up and play together again. There are cries of “I’m hungry” and then attempted negotiations for some candy instead of a granola bar. Mila, the family’s 1-year-old, attempts to walk, and the entire family cheers her on and then crowds around my camera to see if I got “the shot” when she finally takes that first real step. Kids are put in timeout and comforted after scraped knees and bumped heads. Baths are given and hair brushed.
They struggle with arguments, temper tantrums, lost shoes, meltdowns, and teething babies. But they also revel in the triumphs of first steps, a good report card, time spent together, and the hopes they have for their future. “We’re just like you,” says Dallas. “We just don’t have our own roof over our head.”
These photos and the accompanying quotes are from November 2017. As of March, Dallas and the children remain at the shelter, but Jared is living elsewhere. For more information visit ugm-tc.org.