FORT MYERS, Fla. — Henrietta Hughes slept only a few hours that first night, her truck's seat barely reclining. For the next seven months, she and her son camped night after night in obscure parking lots alongside the same nameless faces.
They were just two more jobless people in an economy full of them until an encounter with President Barack Obama at a town hall meeting this week transformed them overnight into a national symbol of homelessness.
Obama kissed Henrietta Hughes' cheek Tuesday and promised to help the 61-year-old and her son, who have fallen on hard times like so many others in this southwest Florida city. A few years ago, the area boomed with new homes and businesses. Now the foreclosure rates are among the nation's highest and the unemployment rate has nearly tripled.
After the meeting, the wife of a local state representative offered to let the Hugheses live free in one of their homes. A police officer paid for three nights at a nearby hotel. There was free furniture, a job interview for Hughes' son, Corey, and a visit from the head of the local housing authority.
But even with that meeting, and a nod from the president, the Hugheses are still on a roughly 60-day wait list for a long-term spot in public housing. The waiting list for Section 8, a voucher program that allows families to choose their residences, is more than 2,000 people long and has been closed to new applicants.
Meanwhile, an $80 million public housing project nearby that would provide 380 family units is stalled and in desperate need of investors, though a $789 billion stimulus bill now awaiting a final vote from Congress could help.
"There's a million Mrs. Hughes across the country and the president knows that," said Marcus Goodson, the Fort Myers housing authority's executive director.
'I've been praying for you'
Henrietta and Corey, 37, left Rochester, N.Y., early last year with the promise of jobs and warm weather in Florida. Both had college associate's degrees, computer skills and experience in fast food and housekeeping. They seemed like a good fit for the state's tourism industry.
They rented a two-bedroom apartment near Tampa, looking every day for jobs, knowing the money they borrowed to move was quickly running out.
"Are we going to survive the next day, the next week?" Corey worried daily.
When the money ran dry, they moved into their silver Nissan truck with no back seat, resuming their search for jobs and shelter. They eventually headed south to Fort Myers.
His mother prayed often, sometimes handing out their last dollar to another homeless person. But the hopelessness was starting to wear on her. She planned to write the new president a letter.
When the Hugheses learned Obama was coming to Fort Myers, they slept outside in line for tickets. Henrietta Hughes prayed all night that she would have the chance to speak with the president. She knew he would understand.
"I've been praying for you," she told Obama when he called on her.
"I appreciate prayer," he smiled.
"The housing authority has two years waiting list and we need something more than parks to go to," she said. "We need our own kitchen and our own bathroom. Please help."
'Great American tragedy'
To the others who spoke of their struggles in the economy, Obama talked about statistics and the stimulus bill and promise of change. But to a plea so earnest and vulnerable, even the president could say little.
Looking into Hughes' grandmotherly face, he offered help.
"We're going to do everything we can. All right?" Obama told her, directing his staff to meet with her.
Goodson flew to Washington on Thursday to meet with U.S. Sens. Mel Martinez and Bill Nelson, pressing them to vote for the stimulus bill and make sure it includes a tax credit to get stalled public housing projects — like the one in his city — moving.
If the stimulus bill doesn't pass, "we're going to see more stories like the ones from the Hughes family," Goodson said. "It's the great American tragedy in the richest country in the world."
For now, thanks to the chance meeting with Obama, the Hugheses have food and shelter and a job interview. But they remember the other cars parked overnight, their owners sleeping inside.
Said Henrietta Hughes: "It makes me want to cry when I look and see so many people that are homeless."
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