Kaily Ross rocked a baby stroller as she talked to the staffers who run the after-school program at Ingels Elementary School in the Hickman Mills district.
Could her older son, the 3rd grader she was enrolling in the LINC program that day, still get in the flag football activity? What else did they offer?
It was a few weeks after the start of the school year and Ross’s son was transferring from another area district. When I asked how many schools he had attended to that point she sighed and said, “There have been so many.”
Later, we added them up. The move to Ingels Elementary marked the seventh time that Jeremiah has walked into a new classroom, although he has cycled in and out of the same elementary school in Independence three different times.
His mom, who herself left school in the 11th grade, regrets the instability. The moving around has created stress for her son and made it hard for him to make friends, she says.
Life has rarely been easy for Ross, who is 32, but as recently as 2014 she was living in an apartment, working in a warehouse and paying her rent early. That year she gave birth to a second son. The delivery required a cesarean section and a longer recovery than Ross and her employer had figured on. She also went through a bout of postpartum depression. The result was a lost job, unpaid rent and an eviction.
Ross didn’t realize at the time that the eviction would thrust her family into homelessness. She moved in with relatives for awhile and then traveled with family members to Seattle, hoping to get a fresh start there. But expenses on the West Coast were too high, so Ross returned with her children to Kansas City and spent a few months couch surfing and living in a cheap motel. Finally she sought help at a family shelter.
“I want to give some major props to the Salvation Army, because that’s where I went. They were amazing,” Ross told me. “I was scared because I didn’t know what to expect. I thought a shelter was for somebody else but not me. Then I found out everyone there was just like me.”
All this time, while working a series of low-paying jobs, she was on the phone with landlords and property managers, trying to find a place to stay.
“I probably called 100 to 200 property managers. I was desperately looking for housing,” Ross said.
The experience was demeaning. Ross had saved enough money for a deposit on rent, but that was canceled out by the eviction on her record. “They were very rude when they heard that,” she said. “Even if you have money in your pocket, they don’t want to talk to you.”
Finally one of Ross’s coworkers told her about someone he knew who was looking to rent a small house in south Kansas City. With great relief, Ross moved in and enrolled Jeremiah at Ingels.
Having a roof over her head hasn’t solved all her problems. After weeks of sputtering, the transmission in Ross’s car gave up entirely soon after she moved. That made it impossible to get to the job she held at the time. So now Ross takes temporary jobs through staffing agencies. She rides metro area buses to work, even as far as Kansas City International Airport.
Fortunately, a family near her home helps out with child care. Still, shortage of cash forced Ross to choose which utility would go unpaid. She picked water, and the family went without for several weeks.
Shortly before Christmas, Ross and her son arrived at Ingels Elementary for the holiday concert featuring 3rd and 4th grade students, Jeremiah dapper in a jacket and tie. Neither let on that they had walked a mile or so in the dark to get to the program.
Ross said she considers her son’s school an anchor. “He knows that whatever happens, you still go to school, you have a schedule, you have to do certain things,” she said. Jeremiah has always gotten good grades, but recently they’ve been slipping, she said. She’s hoping that this summer she can get him in some programs where he can make friends.
Although she rarely has enjoyed a stable life, Ross has a wistful concept of what one would look like. She said she would like to spend more time at the school, getting to know her son’s teachers and attending parent’s events, but her erratic work schedule and lack of a car make it difficult.
“I really would have liked to have been with Jeremiah when they did the ‘muffins with moms,’” she said.
Barbara Shelly is a freelance contributor for KCUR 89.3. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.