Monday, February 22, 2010

Homeless couple struggles to rebuild life in Lincoln

It was easier, she says, when they lived in their car.

In November, Tiffany and Byll Dale would park their 2006 Chevy Aveo on the top level of the parking garage of a Lincoln hospital, in a spot with good Internet reception.

Byll, a 35-year-old out-of-work computer technician, would place his Dell laptop on the dashboard and they'd catch up on movies and TV. "Entourage," "Fringe," "CSI." They'd put snacks in the middle just like at the movies.

It's a camping adventure!

That's what Colt, who's 8, said. Kaiden, 2, had no clue he and his family and his best friend Buzz Lightyear had no home. (They made sure to bring Buzz with them from Florida.)

This is an intergalactic emergency!

That's what Buzz told Kaiden when he pressed the buttons.

My ship has crash-landed here by mistake!

Tiffany, 28, felt scared at times in the car. It was light years from the life she knew in Florida, where she grew up with grandparents who owned businesses and ate dinner every night with them at the table. So far away from fishing on the lake where they lived and shopping with her friends at the mall and kicking her legs high as a high school cheerleader.

So far away from the house where she and Byll lived, the house where she watched Colt do his homework at the table, where she walked with Kaiden around the block and he pointed out every bird.

But at least in the car she and her family still felt like a family.

She'd never been homeless. How do you ... be ... homeless?

When it was time to sleep, they'd park the Aveo on the lowest level of the hospital garage. They liked having the security cameras nearby. It was cozy, even though Tiffany was pregnant and had just had surgery to put tubes in her back to drain her sick kidneys.

They lived mostly in their car for three weeks, and Tiffany was in and out of the nearby hospital -- BryanLGH Medical Center East.

In and out of pain.

To the mission

It's early January, and it's cold. Tiffany and Byll and the boys have a room at the People's City Mission. They've been here well over a month.

The people are nice, but Tiffany is at the end of her rope.

Kaiden is whiney. He didn't get a nap. And Colt got off the school bus crying because a girl punched him in the eye.

"I cry 95 percent of the time," Tiffany tells Chris Webster, a homeless outreach specialist for Lincoln Public Schools who's trying to help them get housing and gas cards and get Kaiden into Head Start.

"There's one lady here who's constantly cussing. Kaiden mimics everything she says, and he's picked up some really foul words. I almost feel like I'm being a bad mom, to have kids in the shelter. I can't fix it. There's nothing I can do."

Tears fall. They stain the T-shirt that covers her pregnant belly. She tells Chris she's been praying every night for a house or apartment of their own, before the baby comes.

But everything she's heard about housing tells her they'll probably have to wait nine months to a year.

They already call the baby by her name. Faith. The doctor wants to take Faith by C-section in mid-February.

"I just want to get a place," she begs Chris. "Please."

"Well, we're working on it here, Tiffany."

She wipes her eyes. She smiles at Chris. She says she forgot to tell him the good news, the one prayer that's been answered so far.

Life without a home

When they lived in their car, they had a routine. In the morning, they drove to the HyVee on O Street and washed in the bathrooms and ate breakfast in the café. They sat at the table for hours while Byll called computer companies about jobs.

The boys watched movies on the laptop or colored or read.

Sometimes, for an adventure, they walked to Barnes & Noble. They'd each find a book and sit together. Byll always bee-lined for the computer books. Colt liked books on drawing. Tiffany liked the gossip magazines. Or she'd read Kaiden books about Buzz Lightyear.

Byll applied for at least 30 jobs. The computer companies had openings, but nothing they were filling for a month or two. So he filled out forms at McDonald's, Burger King, HyVee. He almost fell asleep late one night at Walmart's computer kiosk, where the store's application took about an hour to complete.

Maybe, Tiffany thought, she and the boys should have stayed in Florida and waited for Byll to find a job. But the boys needed their dad.

Byll started his own company in Florida. Storm PC was going along fine, but then the economy soured.

Tiffany sometimes felt Byll was too soft-hearted to own his own company. If an older person thought her computer needed to be fixed and Byll saw that she just hadn't plugged it in, he wouldn't ask for any money. Tiffany used to get on him about that.

After the business folded, Byll couldn't find work. They got behind on their utility bills and couldn't dig out.

Tiffany's grandparents had owned a restaurant and a gas station. They'd worked together side by side. Her grandpa -- her "dad" -- died of a brain tumor when she was 16. Her grandma -- her "mom" -- died of cancer, too, a week after Kaiden was born.

When they were gone, so was the safety net.

Tiffany thinks her mom would have been upset with her for moving. Tiffany is the planner, but she let Byll take the reins on this one.

They chose Lincoln for their fresh start so he could live near his dad. The plan was for them to go in on a place with him.

They stayed with him the first few days, but he was in a tough financial spot too, and things didn't work out.

Byll reminds Tiffany of her dad. Byll is strong, upbeat. Never gives up. She remembers what her dad always told her: It's OK to make a mistake, as long as you learn from it.

One day in December, she and the kids waited for hours in the car outside Schrock Innovations, a company on Pine Lake Road. Byll was being interviewed, demonstrating how he can find viruses and take apart computers and put them back together.

A few days later, the day before Christmas Eve, one prayer was answered.

The phone rang.

Tiffany handed the cell to her husband and watched him step away from the car, so far away she couldn't hear. She tried to look unconcerned, in case it was bad news.

He got back in the car. She saw him smile.

I start tomorrow, he told her.

So far away

Tiffany has cystinuria, an inherited disorder that makes her body form and pass a lot of kidney stones. She's on disability and cannot work.

Back in Florida, she volunteered at a preschool. She loves kids.

Her urologist got upset each time she got pregnant. When she found out she was pregnant with Kaiden, one doctor suggested she abort.

Faith was a shock. Tiffany was in the hospital for another surgery to remove a stone when they gave her a routine pregnancy test. She cried. Kaiden was supposed to be her last.

Byll held her hand and told her everything would be all right.

On Jan. 12, she went to her doctor at St. Elizabeth Regional Medical Center for a checkup. Another shock. Her amniotic fluid was way too low. Tiffany was 33 weeks along; 40 is normal for a full-term pregnancy.

She phoned Byll at work, crying.

They want to take the baby, she told him.

Tiffany checked into Saint Elizabeth. They gave her steroid shots to speed the development of Faith's lungs. Byll tried to keep her upbeat. He joked that with all the steroids, Faith would come out looking like the Incredible Hulk.

He held her hand.

The Dales got together after they'd both had bad marriages. Tiffany was a friend to Byll's first wife, but she and Byll really didn't like each other much. After their marriages fell apart, they found each other.

Byll has three kids he loves from that first marriage. He says he wants to be able to pay child support to them again.

Colt is Tiffany's son from her first marriage. He worships Byll, and Byll worships Colt. Since Tiffany's dad was gone, Byll asked Colt's permission to marry her.

Colt helped him plan the proposal.

It was just before Mother's Day 2007, and Tiffany wanted a digital camera because she'd had to hock hers. Byll handed her a box with the camera inside.

Read the directions first, he insisted.

She opened the manual and found a folded piece of paper, a photograph of a red heart Byll colored with one of her Sharpies. In the photo, on top of the heart, was a ring and these words: Will you be my wife?

Room 254

"Why do I love Tiffany?"

Byll sits at his laptop in their room at the People's City Mission. The room has two windows, two bunk beds and cubbyholes for their clothes. An ultrasound photo of Faith is taped to the door.

"She's like my base," Byll says. "Without that, you'd just fall over."

You don't feel like much of a man, he says, when your family has to live in a place like this. But Tiffany never makes him feel bad.

"Her father taught her to love with everything she has, and everything she is. And that's probably the one main thing that I love about Tiffany -- it's whole-hearted, all out.

"And she lets me do the same."

He plays the Nickelback song "Far Away" on his laptop. It's their wedding song, he explains. And as if on cue, near the end, Tiffany returns to the room.

Keep breathing, hold onto me

Never let me go ...

"Hey," she says softly. "I know that song."

January 14

This is to be Faith's birth day. VH-1 plays on the TV to distract Tiffany.

Byll brushes Tiffany's hair, pulls it into a high ponytail.

She's on the verge of tears, scared something will be wrong with Faith, feeling she's failed as a mom because she couldn't carry her longer.

Byll says things to make her smile, and she does. She jokes that after she's through in the delivery room, maybe he should get in line for a vasectomy.

A hospital chaplain meets them at the doorway. They pray, heads bowed, then Byll walks her down the hall to the delivery room. The doors close.

Soon, a baby girl cries and another prayer is answered. Faith is healthy. Her scores on the newborn Apgar test show she's as healthy as a full-term baby even though she weighs just 3 pounds, 3 ounces.

This is a good day, but there have been some bad ones.

Like the day Colt got punched in the eye on the bus. And the day Tiffany got a call from Byll's dad, telling her Kaiden had just used a string of bad words.

The day the boys woke up with tiny red bites. Bed bugs.

The day she and Byll got "written up" for having a bottle of Gatorade in their room at the mission.

There have been good days, too.

Like the day Tiffany ran out of gas on O Street and coasted into a Git 'N Split and a woman overheard her say she had no money and paid for the gas.

Like the day some people from a church paid for a hotel for them for a few nights when they were sleeping in their car.

The day at the mission when she was overcome with fear and talked with a kind pastor there.

The day some women at the mission threw her a baby shower.

And this day, Faith's birth day.

But still, they have no home.

With Byll's job, they could pay rent and utilities. But they don't have money yet for a deposit.

A few days before Faith is to be discharged, the baby's doctor gives the Dales a letter -- "To Whom It May Concern" -- implying she does not want Faith to go to the mission for health reasons.

Tiffany and Byll show the letter to a case worker at the Lincoln Action Program. But so many people are like them now, the case worker says.

Chris, the LPS homeless outreach worker, tries his hardest to pull strings -- pull heartstrings, too. This is a deserving family, he tells people.

A new place

Just days before Faith was to leave the hospital, the Dales packed their things and checked into Value Place, a hotel near the interstate that lets people pay by the week.

They got a room for $219 a week. It's clean. It's homey, like a studio apartment. It has a kitchenette, a full-size fridge and stove, a table, a bathroom, two beds.

The first night, Tiffany ate a piece of beef in her bed. Just because she could, she told Byll.

You, my friend, are one of my favorite life forms.

That's what Buzz Lightyear told Kaiden when he pressed the buttons.

To infinity, and beyond!

February 9

This has been one of the best days in this journey so far away from a normal life.

Tiffany fed Faith one last time at the hospital about 3 p.m., then dressed her in a pink outfit with brown polka dots and little brown booties shaped like bears.

She put her in her car seat, drove the Aveo to pick Colt up from school and then drove to Value Place.

For supper, she microwaved meatloaf and mac and cheese, and before they ate it the table, they thanked God.

For Faith. For their family, now complete. For having a place to call home again.

Even if it's just week to week.

Source: By COLLEEN KENNEY / Lincoln Journal Star