In Transition: When a Family of Five Calls One Room Home

Corey MacDonald and his wife (not pictured) have three children – Miles, 7; Leland, 5; and Chloe, 4. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)
Corey MacDonald and his wife (not pictured) have three children – Miles, 7; Leland, 5; and Chloe, 4. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

Juneau charity organization St. Vincent de Paul has a record high number of people staying in its transitional housing shelter. Usually, around 55 people live in the 26 units. At the moment, there are 66 occupants, almost half are children.

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Twelve-year-old Carrie McVey has been living in and out of transitional housing at St. Vincent de Paul for as long as she can remember.

“I’m used to calling St. Vincent’s home because I’ve been here most of the time,” Carries says.

She lives in unit 16 with her 16-year-old sister, 11-year-old brother and their parents.

“We’re all just living in one room. I’ve basically made my bed my own room, ‘cause I have to sleep on the bottom bunk. My brother sleeps in the top bunk and I can just tuck blankets in under my brother’s mattress.”

St. Vincent de Paul’s transitional shelter has 26 rooms. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)
St. Vincent de Paul’s transitional shelter has 26 rooms. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

It’s like a little fort, she says.

Carrie’s father has a job at Goldbelt Security Services and her mother doesn’t work. During the school year, Carrie goes to Juneau Community Charter School. She’s open with her classmates about sometimes living in a shelter.

“‘Cause, like, some of my friends would ask if they could stay the night and I’d have to tell them no,” Carrie says.

There are more kids at the shelter than usual, she says, which means she actually has someone her age to hang out with. During the summer, Carrie visits the playground and wanders around the shelter.

“I like going in and hanging out with some of the other families ‘cause, you know, I know how they feel. Most of us just feel alone, like we have nowhere to go,” Carrie says.

She wants her family’s stay at St. Vincent’s to be what it’s supposed to be – transitional.

“I hope that we can get our own house that we can stay, for once. ‘Cause it seems like, you know, every year we move from one house and then back in here, and I’m getting tired of it,” Carrie says.

Carrie is one of 30 kids currently living at the shelter.

St. Vincent de Paul housing manager Tamee Martini says the high number of shelter occupants is driven by the number of kids. She says families at the shelter usually have one or two kids. At the moment, several families, like the McVeys, have three. A couple families have more.

“It’s sad to see a large family with children that are homeless for whatever reason. I mean, being homeless is sad for everybody, but those children deserve to be in a place of their own and not in a room. I just believe that they need more room to wander around and be kids and be outside poking at bugs or whatever, just being kids,” Martini says.

Individuals and families can stay in transitional housing for a maximum of two years, though most stay for a year. In order to get in, there’s an application and an average wait time of six months.

Rent is $525 a month. That gets a person or family a 400-square-foot room, which includes a bathroom with a toilet and sink; shared kitchen, laundry and shower facilities; as well as a kids’ play room and a computer area for job searching. The shelter stays clean through assigned chores.

Martini says residents are required to be actively looking for permanent housing and for work if they don’t have it.

“We do keep on top of that and have frequent conversations with the families about what are you’re doing to move on to a better situation. So even though it is probably the cheapest rent in town, especially for a family, it’s not something we want anybody to consider the last stop,” Martini says.

Cory MacDonald and his wife live at the shelter with their three kids.

“Miles is the oldest. He’s 7. Leland is 5 and little Chloe is 4,” says MacDonald.

This is the family’s second stint. They spent about six months in the shelter two years ago. This time, it’s been about three months. In between, they’ve lived with family in town. They haven’t lived as a whole family in their own place for three years.

Both parents have jobs, but MacDonald is away from the family for large chunks of time.

“I’ve been in and out of trouble, so I’m actually out on an ankle monitor here right now,” he explains.

For a tight space, the MacDonalds have made the room as homey as possible. The parents have a large bed in one corner. In another corner, Miles and Chloe share a homemade bunk bed, with Leland’s bed at the foot of it.

“Then we got our fridge and our entertainment system and we brought this freezer in here so we could store extra food and stuff. This is our little dining area set up,” MacDonald says.

The children look at home sitting on the beds, eating crackers and watching TV. But MacDonald doesn’t want this to be home. At least, not forever.

The plan is to stay at the shelter for up to a year while MacDonald and his wife save up enough money buy a home of their own.