Evenings in Maiya Foster’s home unfold in chaos, the kind that accompanies having two young daughters younger than 6. There are endless questions for her to answer, snacks to dish out, errands to run, a gerbil named Royal to feed, bedtime rituals to follow.
In some ways, this kind of chaos is peaceful. Or at least it seems so in comparison to life at a local at a local homeless shelter.
From July to October 2016, Foster and her two daughters, Haven, 4 at the time, and Harmony, who was around 7 months old, were homeless. The closest thing they had to home was their room at Wheeler Mission Center for Women and Children, off West 3rd Street, where they stayed for three months while Foster worked to rearrange her life.
“The baby, obviously, was just going with the flow, but I had to tell Haven that we had to follow all of the rules and not get in trouble,” Foster said. “It was a lot to put onto a 4-year-old.”
Haven hadn’t attended preschool, but because she homeless, she qualified for Fairview Elementary’s Title 1 literacy programming and was able to attend school every day.
Monroe County Community School Corporation is legally obligated to provide students experiencing homelessness transportation to school, according to Title 1. Every weekday, a bus came specifically to Wheeler to pick her up and take her to Fairview.
MCCSC Student Services Director Becky Rose said the transportation provisions of Title I legislation are some of the most important aspects of the bill. It ensures students have the opportunity to remain in their school of origin, no matter where they may live or how many times they may move.
“We have some students who are homeless and staying in Greene County, and we send a bus to pick them up,” Rose said. “We have some buses that drive to the Martinsville county line.”
Title 1 schools also provide free lunches to students like Haven, and children like her are not uncommon within Monroe County. During the 2015-16 school year, MCCSC reported that there were 245 homeless students within the school corporation. In December 2016, Templeton Elementary reported 24 homeless students — enough to count as its own class.
“Our numbers over the last year not including this year are lower than the previous year,” Rose said. “But certain schools have had a higher number of homeless students, so that school’s social worker has been tasked with meeting more basic needs than normal.”
Rose said Title 1 is important because it creates stability for students who otherwise live in unstable and unpredictable environments. Despite being grateful for having a place to stay, Foster described Wheeler as both of those things.
When they first arrived, Foster and the two girls stayed temporarily in the emergency shelter at Wheeler, a large room with bunkbeds stacked one next to another, before moving into a private room. For those who only need a temporary place to stay, the emergency shelter is a short-term solution. For those who may need to stay at Wheeler longer, the thirty days they are required to spend in the emergency shelter serves as a vetting process.
“It’s not a normal environment,” Foster said. “There wasn’t a lot I could control, as a parent.”
Brittany Withrow was staying at Wheeler at the same time as Foster. The two became friends and sometimes Withrow would watch Foster’s children. Withrow said many women, when they saw other children at the shelter, including Haven, would try to step in to help parent.
“Everyone is watching your parenting,” Withrow said. “Everyone wants to give their two cents about what you should be doing, what you shouldn’t be doing.”
Like other shelters, Wheeler requires its clients to follow a specific code of conduct in order to remain at the shelter. One of the more difficult rules for Foster and Winthrow was clients are not allowed to keep food in their room. More than once, Haven asked for a snack after dinner, but Foster had to explain why they weren’t allowed to have food.
Foster’s memories of Wheeler are less cheerful than Haven’s memories. Haven said she mostly liked the women at the shelter, but Foster remembers one woman trying to bring Haven back into a private room unattended.
“I wasn’t around,” Foster said. “It made me worry — are you a sexual predator?”
Winthrow, who sometimes watched Foster’s children at the shelter, said she didn’t think it was a predatory issue because of the prevalent mental illness among the women living there.
“They just didn’t have boundaries,” Winthrow said. “They didn’t know.”
Although there were no major problems between Haven and anyone else at the shelter, she was still confronted with the reality of mental illness sooner than many children.
“I’d have to explain this kind of behavior isn’t normal. This isn’t what you should do, but it’s okay for her,’” Foster said.
Haven’s favorite memories of the shelter include playing on the playground — the slide and the swings were the best — with her friend Dawson and a surprise party some women in the shelter threw for her birthday.
Foster and her daughters moved out of Wheeler in October 2016 after she was able to finalize her new living arrangement through Shalom Community Center’s Rapid Re-housing program. The program provides financial assistance and a place to live as quickly as possible, a process executive director Forrest Gilmore said is meant to fix homelessness first instead of attempting to correct other issues, such as addictions, first. She was one of nearly 200 people re-housed through the program that year.
Haven still attends Fairview during the day, just like she did when they lived at Wheeler. When talking to Haven, it’s easy to imagine things have always been like this, but everything has changed for her family — her baby sister, who once rarely slept through the night at Wheeler, rests easy now, and Foster maintains steady employment and keeps her own home.
One of the things she said frustrated her about some other people experiencing homelessness was a reluctance to move out of the shelter despite programming that makes it possible.
“Some people don’t try that hard to get out, even if they do have children,” Foster said. “But you can get out. It’s possible. I did it.”