2014 Pulitzer Prize Winner

I spent all day shadowing a homeless family

Published: July 3, 2014, 10:37 am, by interns

by Emily Donovan
Gazette Local News Reporter Intern, Summer 2014

For dinner, we ate fried WalMart pork chops and macaroni and cheese from a box.

This was a big deal.

I spent all last Thursday hanging out with a homeless family with fellow Gazette intern Elise Schmelzer.

When we sat down in the Salvation Army’s R.J. Montgomery Center Shelter’s waiting room next to signs with sayings like “A life can also be turned right-side-up” at 6:45 a.m., I recalculated how many hours are in a day. A lot of hours are in a day.

The shelter’s director said hi as he walked by to an Employees Only room with a steaming white mug in his hand. I realized the coffee I had made for the morning was still sitting on my desk at home.

We waited.

In this time, the mom bought the week’s $33 of groceries — higher than their normal $20 because today was a special occasion — at WalMart after dropping her husband off at work. She had wrangled her three kids and changed the 4-year-old boy’s diaper in the time that it took Elise and I to work up the courage to ask the front desk to page her.

Her 11-year-old girl doesn’t like sandwiches so she ate lunch early — a black TV dinner tray that was either steaming hot or partially frozen in different spots after seven minutes in the microwave.

I thought about all my mom’s local grocery and farmer’s market shopping kicks. The time that she made ratatouille just because but my brother and I didn’t like it. Her beer can chicken and how I always got to cut up the baby corn and carrots for Sunday sweet and sour pork dinner.

I asked the mom why she doesn’t just eat for free at the Salvation Army or go to the Marian House Soup Kitchen every day.

The kids can be picky eaters, she explained. It’s not always easy to get all the way to there at the right time every day. When they do eat there, they have to squeeze into whatever seats are still open in the big dining halls and might not get to sit together. She likes to make meals for her family.

“Plus,” she said, “it’s like a dollar.”

“$1.75,” the 11-year-old corrected her, plowing a TV dinner meat I have been told was pork into its gray-brown sauce.

The mom packed bologna and cheese on white bread for the rest of the family’s picnic lunch.

Eating on the job is awkward. I don’t like to be caught filling base human needs like hunger or thirst while on assignment.

Two days before, at a primary elections results release party, the winning candidate gestured towards a table of hot appetizers and finger foods and told me to help myself to dinner. I said I had already eaten.

Elise and I had both packed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches so we told the mom to not worry about us.

College students live off of PB&Js and chicken ramen, we joked. Peanut butter is in our bloodstream.

We all laughed about it.

Both crashing from a long morning of asking questions and writing down what people say, Elise and I designated a 20-minute McDonald’s pit-stop before meeting back up with the family’s picnic.

This was an affordable lunch for me and I don’t even remember if I spent $5 or $6. Finally drinking a coffee, I remembered how the 11-year-old knew the cost of her lunch to the penny.

I felt a little embarrassed.

I blasted my car’s air conditioning to battle nascent beads of back sweat and Elise and I used my iPhone and car stereo to play anything ranging from The Dixie Chicks to Frank Ocean.

Leading us, the family drove with their windows all the way down and arms on the windowsills. The dad said he likes an old country music station and the mom said she likes rap music.

It’s hard for the mom and dad to keep gas in the car. The Gazette comps me for my on-the-job mileage.

The 11-year-old kept saying that she couldn’t wait for dinner. Compared to the small selection of generic brands in their family’s designated food tub, that night’s dinner plans were clearly a special occasion. We couldn’t say no.

Elise and I panicked in the car. In general, we don’t accept gifts from sources. But not offending the people we were trying to feature was the priority.

We ate graciously and politely. Too politely. The mom commented on how I used both fork and knife in the pork chop consumption process.

The kids hugged us as I put my camera in my backpack. If we had said anything funny throughout the day, the 11-year-old would say, “She’s like,” then repeat it. She called us “like my best friends.” The mom invited us to join their Fourth of July grilling plans.

At 6:54 p.m., the mom said the long, hot day had worn her out and it was time to start running baths and calming the kids down. That night, I would have time to eat another half bowl of cereal, lift weights at the gym, run a couple miles, SnapChat puns to Kansas friends, call my mom, get caught up on Twitter, Tumblr, and Reddit, and transcribe nine of my 25 pages of notes from the day. The mom and kids would have to be asleep by 9 p.m. but I wouldn’t choose to until almost 1 a.m.

“Did you get enough to eat?” the dad asked. “We could always make meals and ship them over.”

The homeless family’s day-in-the-life feature will be printed in a homelessness special section later this summer.

Emily Donovan is an undergraduate student at the University of Kansas from Kansas City, Kansas. Follow her on Twitter @emdons.