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. Although she managed to steer clear of drugs, Michele did spend time in jail and juvenile homes for assault and theft.
“I never had somewhere to feel comfortable and was always on the run,” Michele says. “I never had the structured family, the actual love, care and devotion that I’m trying to give my children.”
Like many foster children in Missouri, Michele fell through the cracks in the system when she turned 17. She was discharged from Chillicothe Women’s Prison but was not eligible for social services, including government health care and food stamps, until she turned 18.
Lana Jacobs, of the Catholic Worker House, has met many young people like Michele. She says that without life skills, they are vulnerable to being exploited or becoming exploiters themselves.
“It’s a vicious cycle,” Jacobs says. “How do kids that have no family and no support system deal with that?”
Michele first met Charlie Silvey when they were both children in the foster care system. He had already dropped out of school when they reunited in Columbia and began a relationship. They were married at the Boone County Courthouse on July 25, 2003. Charlie was 17; Michele was barely 18.
Colleen Coble, executive director of the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic Violence, says relationships are complicated in extremely vulnerable situations, such as Michele and Charlie’s.
“If you find someone to be with,” Coble says, “you don’t let them go. Every bad thing is relative to what you know as being even worse. It’s rational in that sense.”
Not long after they were married, Michele learned she was pregnant.
Their daughter, Ka’Mel, was born on Aug. 11, 2004. She has severe neurological problems, including epilepsy marked by intense grand mal seizures. Doctors said she probably wouldn’t live past the age of 2. Ka’Mel is now 3, with the brain development of a 1-year-old. She has trouble communicating, displays behavioral problems and requires frequent hospitalization.
The Silveys had their second child, Derek, on April 7, 2006. The family’s life was relatively stable until last spring, when the roof of the mobile home they had been living in for more than two years collapsed after a severe storm.
Kimberly Houberg, a resource parent specialist for Lutheran Family and Children’s Services, met the Silveys shortly before they became homeless. Houberg is one of four social workers at Lutheran Services working with mothers age 22 and younger. Each of the four social workers handle an average of 30 cases each.
In addition to Lutheran Services, Michele has also sought and received help from almost every other social service agency in town, as well as churches and individuals. Michele and her children receive health care through the Medicaid program, which covers prenatal care and regular checkups. Michele also receives $342 a month through the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, which has a five-year lifetime cap.
“Columbia has a great deal of agencies that can help, but there is such a high need, and we can’t meet every need every time,” Houberg says.
The most difficult challenge for the Silveys has been finding safe, clean, affordable housing. Because Ka’Mel’s epilepsy is so severe and Michele suffers from seizures as well, even temporary housing is difficult to secure: Most shelters are reluctant to take in people with serious medical problems.
In addition, the Columbia Housing Authority has a long waiting list. Michele applied for a subsidized apartment in May, but she was told in September that she’ll have to wait another nine months. Liz Hager-Mace, regional director of the Missouri Department of Mental Health, says the CHA has followed federal guidelines and done away with policies that once gave preference to people in emergency situations.
“Even if you are homeless, you go on the list behind others who aren’t,” Hager-Mace says.
Jacobs estimates that there are 800 to 1,000 people in the Columbia area who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless, but the number is difficult to measure.
In the case of the Silveys, Jacobs says, so many factors have converged, including Ka’Mel’s health needs, the couple’s lack of credit and job skills and Charlie’s criminal record, that finding a stable home at this point is an almost insurmountable task.
“Chronic homelessness is a story with no beginning, middle and end,” Coble says, “just chapter after chapter of instability.”
For now, Michele and the children are off the street, staying with Charlie’s relatives. Michele has begun working at Labor Ready, which helps her find temporary jobs, and is scheduled to begin a vocational rehabilitation program in January. Charlie, who is on probation and prohibited by court order from visiting his relative’s home, has had trouble holding a steady job.
Everyone who has met and tried to help Michele and Charlie says that they love their children and want them to have a stable life. The question is whether love will be enough to break the cycle.
“Children grow up in the Third World all the time with nothing, but if they know love, they’re going to be OK,” Jacobs says. “Do her children know love? Yes, they do. Do they live a precarious life? Yes, they do. Does that make them different than 90 percent of the children in the rest of the world? No, it doesn’t.”