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Hanging tough, hanging together

Life's difficult when you're a single parent with little money and two children. Amanda Ward is trying hard to find a dependable roof for her family, but her efforts often fall short.

By JACQUIN SANDERS

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 31, 1999


PINELLAS PARK -- Amanda Ward went to her boss one afternoon and asked to leave work early.

Jean Cavaliere looked surprised. "No," she said. "How can I let you off while the children are still here?"

Ward, a 25-year-old teacher's assistant, looked stonily ahead.

Slowly, unwillingly, she began to cry.

Later she tried to explain her situation to a stranger: "My two little kids are all I've got," she says, "and I can't even get us a nice place to live."

Amanda smiles for no reason except perhaps to keep from crying. She is a single parent, on her own with two small children to support. She is also a woman whom life has knocked down a lot. So far, she has always gotten back up.

Sometimes she wears a slightly bewildered expression, as if wondering how she grew up so fast and got so much responsibility. Sometimes she looks like a pink-and-white mama doll left outdoors too long.

At her best, she shrugs off her crises with humor:

"Almost getting apartments is what I do best. Last month, we were ready to move into two clean, nice-size rooms with a kitchen. On moving day the landlord changed his mind.

"I had till dark to find somewhere for me and the kids to sleep. That was the day I asked my boss to get off early."

Cavaliere had come around the desk to speak soothingly to Amanda, then zeroed in on the problem. It was, sadly, no novelty. As director of Kids Christian Care, a preschool and summer camp attached to First United Methodist Church in Pinellas Park, she had dealt before with finding shelter for suddenly homeless families.

"This time it should have been easy," Cavaliere says. "As homeless people go, Amanda is an acceptable risk. Good recommendations. Good record on a yearlong, full-time job here at the school. Motivated -- she's on her way to a degree at junior college. She even has offers of help with the rent from church organizations."

Amanda's problems are low credit and no savings, a condition that resulted from her sortie, last spring, into house-buying.

"I'd seen this nice little house for sale. Had a little money put by. Thought there would be some government help. Even had some encouragement from mortgage people -- until they decided I didn't have the qualifications."

In the end, she felt hung out to dry. The mortgage brokerage lost interest in her. Most of the $750 she had saved from her $7-an-hour salary disappeared into the traditional money-eating charges and fees that accompany mortgage-seeking.

There may have been another reason Amanda lost out on some apartments. Sooner or later, prospective landlords would see her children -- and suddenly remember reasons for not renting.

Both children are attractive and have different fathers. The little girl, Caluegh (pronounced Kay-luh -- and named out of a history book by her proudly Irish father) is 9 and looks like her mother. The boy, Jeremy, is 5, with a mixed racial heritage.

When Cavaliere, trying to help Amanda, confronted such landlords ("You're breaking the law," she told them), they denied that race was a factor in withholding the apartment. Amanda did not have the money, or perhaps the inclination, to launch legal reprisals.

House-hunting has been hectic. On one emergency, all Cavaliere could turn up was a $100-a-night room in a hotel -- which agreed to take Amanda and the children for $25 a night. (Kids Christian Care had a friend on the hotel staff; also, the school's Methodist connection couldn't have hurt.}

But the little family had to leave after two weeks. The friend who set up the deal couldn't hide the generous arrangement from management beyond that period. If discovered, he was convinced he would be fired.

Jeremy seems to take the frequent housing crises in his stride, which is very fast and contains many bounces. Caluegh has become poised beyond her years, and is nothing if not articulate.

"Moving is fun," she says with sunny determination. "Maybe not always," she admits, listing sample detriments:

n "The trouble with checking out apartments is sometimes they are awful or in a scary neighborhood with raggedy men coming up and trying to talk to you."

n "Once we lived in a house with another single-parent mother and her two kids. I thought we were all getting along okay, but the other mother owned the house and sold it and moved into a place that didn't have room for us."

n "A real nice teacher at the school here let us move in while her husband was driving his truck across the country. But he drove back, like we knew he would, and we hit the road again."

Caluegh spends several nights a week with her father.

"He's not married, and lives in a house with his mother who's one of my two nice grandmothers. I like it at Daddy's. He and Grandma will always be there, as long as they can keep paying their bills."

For a moment a bleak look passes over the 9-year-old face, followed by a mischievous grin.

"Sometimes," she says, "I can be a royal pain in the butt."

Caluegh and Jeremy do not have the look of starveling children. Amanda can buy a few of the dolls and games children are conditioned to "need." Caluegh's gifts are rewards for when she makes the honor roll, which is often.

As for Jeremy, "He is my everything, my day and night," says Amanda, who is not one for understatement.

Some Saturday mornings the three members of the little family search out the bargains Amanda hears about on the poor mothers' grapevine. "We get famous-name toys and dolls for, like $6, when at the department stores they're $15 or $20."

"And I get makeup," says Caluegh. "My favorite is lipstick, Very Hot Pink."

"Which I don't let her wear outside the house," her mother says.

Amanda was brought up in St. Petersburg by her mother. She never knew her father, she says, though they were in the same room once at an aunt's funeral.

"He didn't come over and talk to me," she says. "I was 15 years old and pregnant."

Amanda's mother let her daughter know what she thought obout getting pregnant at such a childish age, "But she stuck with me -- she always has."

Amanda didn't marry the baby's father, although he remained in the picture. "Caluegh is the apple of his eye," Amanda says. "Of mine, too. I owe everything to that little girl. It's because of her I got an education. I knew if I was to keep her, I had to take care of her. That's what inspired me to go back to school, get a GED and go to college."

She is studying marine biology. "It's what I want to do," she explains.

At 19, Amanda married and had Jeremy and a divorce. A few years later, she took training and then went to work as a pre-school teacher's assistant.

"I knew the kids could go to school if I was on the staff, and I could be close by them all day."

Beside, she has a knack for the work.

Amanda's time of troubles began two years ago when her mother, who had shared a house with her and the children, moved to Illinois to live with her seriously ill sister.

Amanda couldn't go along without leaving Caluegh behind with her father. He shared legal custody of the little girl and would not allow her be moved out of state. So the little family stayed in Tampa Bay.

Then Amanda's mother raised the ante. She found a job for her daughter at a higher wage in an Illinois preschool. It was even near the house where she and the sick aunt live, and where Amanda and Jeremy could have their own rooms.

The idea of leaving Caluegh still devastates Amanda -- and once again something came up. This time it was an available -- and acceptable -- apartment.

Second floor, two rooms and kitchen on outdoor corridor reached by an outdoor stairway. Rent, $390 per month. Okay neighborhood on bus line to school.

They moved in Aug. 12. Happy ending?

Not quite yet. This is, after all, Amanda. Things seldom work out perfectly for the Amandas of the world.

A visitor arrived at 6:30 p.m. Aug. 13. The kids were sitting on the floor, with their backs against one wall of the living room. For once Jeremy wasn't bouncing, and Caluegh wasn't talking.

The place seemed dim. It was dim. There had been a mix-up about getting the deposit to the power company. Or maybe, as Amanda thought, the company hadn't pressed the right buttons. Anyway, the lights would go on early the next week. Practically definitely.

The rooms looked empty, and were. Not a stick of furniture except a pile of sticks in the bedroom. One day it would be a double bunk bed, but why bother to assemble it now? There were no mattresses. The family slept on blankets on the floor on a quite nice shag rug that came with the apartment.

Amanda passed out slices of a pizza brought by the visitor. The kids only nibbled, as if they had already eaten. Maybe another pizza?

The visitor wondered why Amanda, who knew he was bringing supper, hadn't waited. Maybe because she had spent a lifetime waiting for pizzas that never got delivered.

She saw the visitor to the door. "I should have given you a dish of the ice cream you brought," she said.

A bull's-eye! He had worried about the ice cream.

"We're going to stay with friends and keep it in their freezer, until our own gets turned on," she said.

The ice cream will survive. So, in the long run, will Amanda and her little family.

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