LifeLine Shelter for Families helps homeless families when financial struggles hit

By ADAM SCHRADER
Published in The Dallas Morning News on Jan. 7, 2016

Jaycilva Watson said her financial troubles began in 2014 after a doctor told her she needed a hysterectomy.

Watson, a single mother, had just started teaching at Umphrey Lee Elementary School in the Red Bird area. She wasn’t eligible for family leave, she said, and had cut short-term disability from her health insurance plan.

Dallas ISD placed her on unpaid medical leave. Without an income, rent and medical expenses quickly burned through her savings. She turned to her mother for help, but she had her own household to support.

Having earned a bachelor’s degree and a teaching certificate, Watson never dreamed one bad situation would cause her such financial distress.

“I never expected I’d have to apply for handouts,” Watson said. “I checked off all the right boxes. I got the degree. It was embarrassing and humbling.”

Watson was introduced to LifeLine Shelter for Families, one of 23 agencies funded by The Dallas Morning News Charities, when she approached her apartment complex about her inability to pay rent. While not a physical shelter, the agency provides assistance with housing for homeless families with children attending schools in Grand Prairie ISD, as well as classes in stress management and personal finance.

“The first time I sat down with LifeLine was embarrassing, but they were nice and comforting,” Watson said.

LifeLine paid three months of her rent and taught her personal finance.

After a summer-long job search, Watson found a teaching position at the La Academia de Estrellas Charter School in West Oak Cliff. The job came with higher pay.

“It’s weird to say, but now looking back, all of this was a positive, life-changing experience for me,” said Watson, 36. “I learned patience and humility and now have a great job.”

Kevin Boley Jr., 36, is a single father of two and a former client of LifeLine. Three years ago, he lost his home and moved in with a relative.

He told a guidance counselor at his daughter’s school that he had problems caring for his children.

“I almost gave up my kids,” Boley said. “I didn’t have a high school diploma or a driver’s license, and had warrants for unpaid tickets I got for not having valid insurance. The lady advised me to speak to LifeLine.”

Boley started building custom homes when he was 15 to help his mother feed their large family. When he turned 19, his mother helped him get a job at Kroger because it had better career prospects, he said.

He quickly worked his way up to a manager position. But he returned to home building for more money, working up to lead foreman.

His financial hardships started when his children’s mother left.

“Then the housing market fell and finding work became harder,” he said. “I had problems paying the bills and it snowballed.”

His debt stacked up until he had the security of his own apartment through LifeLine.

“I no longer had to wonder where we would stay,” he said. “If it weren’t for LifeLine and strength from God, I probably wouldn’t have my driver’s license or my kids. It makes you feel like you can make it instead of feeling depressed.”

Through another program, Boley worked to pay off his tickets and got his license back. He started working as a driver for Grand Prairie United Charities three years ago.

“I never received any tickets and I pay my insurance regularly now,” he said. “The first year I had my driver’s license, I kind of hoped I’d get pulled over so I could prove that I had insurance.”

Now Boley works as Grand Prairie United Charities’ donation coordinator.

His biggest worry now is making sure his children do well in school, and that he has enough money for them to participate in school or extracurricular activities, he said.

Boley said he earned his GED because of LifeLine.

“I was so proud in my graduation ceremony, with my cap and gown,” he said. “I watched everyone else go through prom and graduation and never thought I would have any of that. I teach my kids that there’s nothing more important than education. I’m even working on going back to school.”

Gail Wills, the president of LifeLine, said it only takes a hiccup in everyday life to cause financial distress.

“What for most people would become just a nuisance ends up becoming a crisis for them,” she said. “There’s just no safety net and they don’t have the support of family or friends.”

Part of the agency’s success is because of its narrow mission, she said.

“Chronic homelessness, while it’s a huge problem, is not one that LifeLine is designed to solve,” she said. “A homeless child, we can try to help that because it’s probably not chronic homelessness.”

Wills said that even in a good economy, the working poor struggle with poverty.

“A prescription costs $150 you don’t have, even with health insurance. That comes out of your rent money. Then you have late fees on rent,” she said. “Before you know it, you have a problem.”

Angela Giessner, the nonprofit’s founder, said she started the organization in 2003 after noticing that there was a problem with homeless schoolchildren and their families in Grand Prairie ISD.

“Whenever mom and dad are under stress, kids are under stress and don’t perform well,” she said. “Some parents were so stressed they were about to divorce, and this kept them together.”

Giessner said that many like Watson and Boley don’t seek help because of embarrassment.

“They want to keep their dignity,” she said. “With us, nobody needs to know they’re on our program. The kids don’t need to be embarrassed at school. That does a lot for their self-worth and motivation to improve their situations.”

Southern Denton County/Northwest Dallas County editor Adam Schrader can be reached at 214-773-8188. Twitter: @schrader_adam.

MORE INFO

For more information on LifeLine Shelter For Families, visit lifelineshelter.org.