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Looking for a way home

A convergence of factors has left the Silveys on the street, struggling to find shelter and security
Friday, October 12, 2007 | 5:43 p.m. CDT; updated 7:34 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Sept. 6, 2007— Because they have two children and another one on the way, Michele and Charlie Silvey try to get off the streets and into a motel as often as they can. “Before we were homeless,” Michele says, “we had this nice little trailer on a piece of land, pictures everywhere, dishes, clean. ... It wasn’t beautiful, but it was our home. We didn’t have to worry about where we were going to sleep.” Charlie recently lost his job at Jiffy Lube, so the couple took to panhandling on Ninth Street, usually late when the bars are busy. On a good night, they can collect $100 or more, but because they pay upfront for as many nights in the motel as they can, the money goes quickly. “Michele and I met 14 years ago when she was getting off a Greyhound bus, and we’ve been together off and on ever since,” Charlie says. “She’s stood by my side since day one. I’ve done her wrong so many times, but she’s still there for me.”

At 22, Michele Silvey has already lived an exceptionally precarious life.

She says her mother was a mentally retarded alcoholic and drug addict who suffered from epilepsy. Michele was in and out of foster care from the age of 5 and was molested by her stepfather at age 10. She has been in 16 different psychiatric wards, taken 32 different medications, lived in four different group homes and at one point was transferred to a juvenile boot camp for being uncontrollable. Click here to read more.

A convergence of factors has left Michele and Charlie Silvey, plus their two young children, on the street, struggling to find shelter and security.
July 12, 2007 — The Travelodge on Vandiver Drive at Range Line Street is one of the many motels the Silveys have called home. “I’m the only woman that I know that’s married on the street,” Michele says. “We’re the youngest couple out there.” In August, Michele and Charlie were banned from the Quality Inn after someone called in a police report, complaining that they were “scam artists who get churches to pay for them and were panhandling other hotel guests.” Charlie says he grew up in a single-parent household without much structure. He says he has a lot of mental problems, including bipolar disorder and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Charlie spent 49 days in jail in 2006 after pleading guilty to misdemeanor harassment of his wife, who had filed a restraining order against him. Charlie was “cheating and drinking all the time,” Michele says, “and I thought he wasn’t fit to be around the kids.”
Sept. 19, 2007 — A few hours after the birth, the Silveys learn that Lutheran Family and Children’s Services will no longer be able to help them. Houberg says the Silvey‘s case was closed because of “conflicting stories, an inability to find consistency.” The agency gave Michele and Charlie information about where they could get a crib and a car seat for Ann’s car. “It comes down to the fact that our agency is a voluntary program,” Houberg says. “I feel terrible about it, but it’s just the way it has to happen.”
July 10, 2007 — To keep the kids out of the summer heat, the Silveys go to University Hospital, where they often spend afternoons at the Ronald McDonald House. Houberg meets them there to discuss their progress on negotiating a lease on a mobile home. She was working to get the couple about $640 toward a down payment through a Lutheran Family and Children’s Services program for families in dire situations. The Silveys have been without a car since Charlie recently sold the starter for their Chevy Blazer in order to feed the kids. “You want to be able to go in there and just do everything for them, but you just can’t,” Houberg says. “It’s so hard. ... If your basic needs aren’t met then you can’t do this, this and this. ...”
Sept. 19, 2007 — While in labor, Michele asks Charlie and his mom, Ann, her birth coach, “When they take babies, do they usually let the parents hold them first?” Michele’s baby boy, Charles Daniel Silvey Jr., was born at 4:45 a.m. By then, Michele had arranged to take her newborn to one of Charlie’s relatives’s house in a Columbia trailer court. A restraining order prohibits Charlie from visiting there because of a disturbance of the peace violation, so he will be separated from his wife and baby until they find a home. A social worker spoke with Michele and was comfortable that when the baby left the hospital, he would be safe and sheltered.
July 10, 2007 — “People are only going to be able to help for so long,” Houberg says. At the Sacred Heart Parish Center downtown, a sign posted on the door says the church will have no funds to offer until September. “I go around to local churches and agencies,” Michele says, “and sometimes I have to lie about being a single parent to get help. They won’t help us if they know I’m married.”
Sept. 6, 2007— Homeless friends Jim Bohnenkamp, Kathy Matson and Charlie watch as Michele breathes through an early contraction. As her due date approaches, Michele has been in and out of the hospital with severe back and stomach pain. Meanwhile, she is becoming more worried than usual because the family still has no place to live. She fears someone will “hot line” her newborn baby and draw the attention of the Missouri Department of Social Services to check whether they have shelter.
July 10, 2007 — A fundamental part of Michele and Charlie’s everyday life is the Loaves and Fishes soup kitchen, run by the Interfaith Day Center. Michele receives $518 per month in food stamps from the state, but the scrip usually runs out by the middle of the month, so they often eat lunch at the Salvation Army’s Harbor House and dinner at Loaves and Fishes. Kim Houberg, a case worker for Lutheran Family and Children’s Services, says, “They are really good parents. They’ve just had some difficulties that have left them kind of in some binds, and that’s why our agency became involved.”
Sept. 6, 2007 — Charlie often panhandles with a sign that reads, “Anger relief. Will take verbal abuse for spare change.” Michele calls her husband a “21-year-old foolish male” and says he wears her down mentally and emotionally with his needs. “They tell me it’s like I’m taking on three children at a time,” she says. “I’m the main caregiver in the family. They tell me to leave him because I take on the responsibility as his wife to take care of my husband as well as the kids.”
July 24, 2007— Broke and on the street, Michele decided to send her two children, Ka’Mel, now 3, and Derek, 1, to St. Louis to stay with relatives. She became depressed and after suffering several seizures caused by the heat, Michele lost feeling in her legs and had to be hospitalized. “She’s now having a third child,” says Lana Jacobs of the Catholic Worker House. “She can’t imagine herself outside of her relationship. Most women on the streets can’t.”
July 13, 2007— Charlie lets the kids out of the stroller to play while Michele, who is seven months pregnant, interviews for a job as a cashier at Wal-Mart. Michele says that, despite his temper, Charlie has never physically harmed their children. “I don’t think he comprehends that the actions that he does affects them,” she says. “He doesn’t intentionally want to hurt them, but he does end up hurting them.”

Sept. 24, 2007 — Charlie, Michele, Ann and the baby go to St. Louis to pick up Ka’Mel and Derek a few days after the birth. Once they’re back in Columbia, the Silveys still visit Loaves and Fishes almost every day. Although Michele and her children have a safe, temporary home, the family must again contend with the needs of Ka’Mel, who has epilepsy and serious developmental disabilities. Jacobs calls Michele a survivor but says that presents problems of its own. “In many ways that’s the problem of why she can’t think past today; she’s still in survivor mode,” Jacobs says. “But she’s a kid. Eventually she may learn that, but some people do, some people don’t.”

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