Rock Center | November 29, 2012
>>> good evening to rock center. the tree is lit up tonight. we keep hearing the holiday is roaring back this year. everybody is hoping it's a sign of a morro bust economy, but way too many families got caught and are still trapped in the downturn. ann curry spent time with families who were supposed to have the american dream , educated, hard-working with all the trappings of middle class life in america. but in kind of a slow-motion way, they have watched themselves become part of a new class of working homeless , something we last saw in the depression 80 years ago. and as ann curry shows us tonight, these families are trying mightily to turn their lives back around.
>> reporter: it's an ordinary school day for nine-year-old jillian kenard and her sisters in jackson, tennessee. band class, a math class. but life for the kenard sisters are anything but ordinary.
>> guys, it's time to get up.
>> reporter: every sunday, their parents, patrick and cindy , wake them before the sunrises. they fold cots.
>> we till have some more packing to do.
>> reporter: and pack up their lives. jillian makes sure the birdhouse she built out of popsicle sticks, glitter and glue isn't left behind. and as evening approaches, for the 11th time in four months, they make their way to a sunday school classroom. in another church for another week. it might not seem like much, but for the next seven days, this is where they'll sleep. for the first time in their lives, the kenard family is homeless . they are the new face of american homelessness. in the wake of the recession, experts say the u.s. stands at a historic juncture. the latest government data show the number of people in homeless families living in suburban and rural america rose nearly 60% during the depth of the great recession, an unprecedented surge. more than 1 million school children are now homeless , the most ever recorded. children like the kenard sisters, living a life of uncertainty and sometimes shame.
>> the hardest part is people finding out. sometimes when we're on our way to school, we have to ride over in a church van and people can probably see that.
>> reporter: what made you not want to tell everybody else ?
>> i don't want everybody to laugh at me.
>> reporter: no one knew. you went to school every day, you played with your friends.
>> reporter: then when they went home, what were you thinking?
>> i was all happy for them because they had a house and i didn't.
>> reporter: but she does have her precious birdhouse. why do you love it so much?
>> because it reminds me of the old house.
>> reporter: the kenards were typical of many families across country. working class people pursuing the american dream . they worked hard and built savings accounts . both have college degrees. but perhaps the most surprising thing about the kenards is that even now, they are a working family, for the last seven years, patrick has worked a full-time job at a bank call center with benefits, and until recently, cindy worked full-time as a director at a daycare center . despite the recession, they were getting by.
>> we're not big spenders, we never have been. we just made the necessities of life.
>> reporter: but then came the unexpected. patrick developed serious kidney problems. even with health insurance , medical bills went into the thousands. their car broke down repeatedly. then cindy quit her job because she couldn't afford child care for her own kids.
>> it was just like a domino.
>> when we fell, we fell hard and we fell fast.
>> reporter: they downsized from a spacious apartment to a smaller apartment here but then couldn't afford the rent and were evicted.
>> reporter: describe the moment.
>> i wanted to dig a hole and let somebody cover me up.
>> reporter: jillian took the eviction notice especially hard.
>> i was scared because we lost the house and i didn't want to leave it.
>> reporter: they didn't have relatives to stay with in the area, and they wanted to keep the family together.
>> we considered going to a campground.
>> reporter: but even camping supplies cost too much.
>> then we decided we would just live out of the van. then it got repossessed. we didn't know where to go to then.
>> we're living paycheck to paycheck.
>> paycheck to paycheck. there was nothing for savings, there was nothing for --
>> reporter: food?
>> -- food. there was nothing for -- nothing.
>> reporter: and they were forced to make heartbreaking decisions.
>> one of the hardest things i ever had to do was sell my wedding band . that ring on my finger meant the world to me.
>> reporter: do you still have yours?
>> no. we needed food, though, and gas. so we pawned them.
>> reporter: they got $100 for both rings. soon the reality of failing to provide for his children sent patrick into despair.
>> they didn't do anything to deserve this. they didn't do anything. they're totally innocent.
>> reporter: it's almost too much to bear.
>> it was. i'm sorry.
>> reporter: then they finally caught a break, getting shelter in those sunday school classrooms, a program run by the interfaith hospitality network. the family's struggle to keep the family together is a fight darlene gaines knows well. she attributes hers to divorce, another reason for homelessness.
>> now when i see homelessness, i see my reflection.
>> reporter: darlene thought she had done everything right, even taking classes for her master's degree. and she's held a good job with the veterans administration for the last 15 years. she had savings, college and retirement accounts and a comfortable suburban home for her three sons.
>> they had never worried about anything. they never had to go into the kitchen and look into an empty cupboard. i lived a middle class life all my life. that's all i knew. i dropped from middle class to no class.
>> reporter: as she struggled to cover her bills by herself, including her student loans, darlene couldn't keep up with rising food and gas prices .
>> i just knew that i was drowning and i was doing everything possible to prevent from drowning. my greatest fear for my children was to take them out of an environment that they knew all their life.
>> reporter: you tried to prolong the life they knew, as expensive as it was becoming, because you didn't want to hurt them.
>> you hit the nail on the head.
>> reporter: after using her savings, she couldn't pay her mortgage, and a foreclosure letter soon arrived.
>> i opened up the letter and i began to read it. and the whole while, i'm in total disbelief.
>> reporter: with her three sons, 15, 16 and 17, darlene faced the prospect of breaking apart her family, because most shelters separate men and women for security reasons. and, advocates say, there are not enough shelters for the new wave of homeless families.
>> we had families that were coming in --
>> shawn donovan is secretary of housing and urban development , or hud , which funds homeless programs across the country. what do you say to the families who are living in cars, living in trailers, who have to separate their family to live in a shelter?
>> what i would say is they shouldn't have to do that. it's wrong.
>> reporter: they must now use their funding differently to accommodate the rise in homeless families. and if they say the funding, and a large amount of funding comes from hud , that the funding is not there to support families, what do you say?
>> i absolutely believe, and the president has fought for, greater investment in homelessness.
>> reporter: is there enough money being allocated for homeless families?
>> no. i'm not satisfied that we have the full amount of resources that we need. and we will continue to fight for more.
>> reporter: hud did spend $1.5 billion in stimulus money on homeless prevention. now, secretary donovan says, he has an ambitious new plan to reach families before they become homeless , like the kenard family and darlene 's family.
>> and on this side here, you see this bed, yours truly .
>> reporter: this is yours?
>> reporter: after months of sleeping on her parents' floor, darlene got lucky. she found a rare family-friendly shelter for the working homeless called our house where her boys could stay with her.
>> reporter: if they had made them stay on the other side, would you have?
>> no. i would have tried something else. i didn't want to divide it because emotionally, you know, you have those moments where no one can fix it but mom.
>> reporter: the shelter is also helping darlene get back her financial footing while her boys learn that no matter what their circumstances, they can never give up.
>> i'm constantly talking about grades. this is not the end for you, we're just passing through. so let us stay focused.
>> reporter: the kenard sisters are also learning a lesson about homelessness, to overcome their shame. for the first time they're speaking publicly.
>> it's going to reach people, even people i don't know, who may be in this situation or going into it. maybe i'll be humiliated because of the kids in school, but i'll get over that because we won't be there much longer.
>> reporter: not there much longer because the kenard family just got an unexpected slice of good fortune. they just got help for rent for up to five years. they expect to move into this four-bedroom apartment here before christmas. for jillian , that will mean no more dark mornings in parking lots. and at last, she may be able to put down her birdhouse.
>> tough story, but it's part of the story playing out across the country, and ann plans to keep us updated on the families we just met.