Long Road HomeDecember 23, 2017
Story by Olivia Ingle
Photos by Dave Weatherwax
‘We’re going home.”
It’s words James and Melissa Knox couldn’t say for a long time. Too long.
The Jasper couple, both 43, and their two children — Katie, 13, and Chris, 17 — were homeless for more than a year.
“That word ‘home,’” James reflected while sitting on his living room sofa at a house he now rents on the southwest side of Jasper. “We can actually say, ‘We’re going home.’”
The journey to get that home wasn’t easy. And keeping it hasn’t been easy either.
Despite working extra hours at multiple jobs, the Knoxes have struggled to keep their family afloat. And, just when they think they’re getting ahead, something happens that pulls them behind again.
The Knoxes aren’t alone.
While they made well above the federal poverty level of $24,250 for a family of four in 2016, they’re part of a group of Americans who live below what the United Way has identified as the ALICE threshold, which in Dubois County is $46,368 a year for two adults, one infant and one preschooler. ALICE stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed and includes families who make more than the federal poverty level and less than the cost of living for the county. Many times these ALICE households fall short on basic needs such as child care, food, transportation or like in the Knoxes’ case, housing.
The most recent ALICE report, which includes data from 2014, shows that 21 percent of Dubois County households (about 3,344 of the county’s 15,926 households) are ALICE households that don’t earn that household survival budget for the county.
“I do the best I can with what I’ve got,” James said of providing for his family.
The Knox family moved to Jasper in June 2016 after living with Melissa’s brother on his 25-acre farm in Tennyson for nearly two years, during which the kids went to Boonville schools.
James had knee surgery while living there and was out of work for about a month, causing the family to fall farther and farther behind with their finances.
“People say he should get on disability,” Melissa said. “He said, ‘No. I will work until I drop.’”
Part of the family’s financial troubles were also on Melissa. She had a job but struggled with an addiction to Lortabs and Percocet. She also had several run-ins with the law because of her addiction.
“It was pretty much a nightmare,” James said. “I never knew how she was going to act or react.”
“I did what I had to get my fix,” Melissa said, adding that she’s been clean since she went to rehab shortly before the family moved to Jasper. “I look back now and think, ‘So stupid.’”
James couldn’t make money fast enough when the family lived in Tennyson.
“It was hemorrhaging out faster than I could get it,” he said.
Melissa’s addiction and the family’s financial problems caused some tension with her extended family.
The Knoxes’ stay in Tennyson ended one morning when the family returned from church to find they had been locked out.
“It was a forced situation,” James said. “We had to do something. We were thrown out and had to go somewhere.”
They stayed with a friend for about a month and then searched for a reasonably-priced hotel. James had been working at Jasper Engines and Transmissions and commuting daily to Jasper since February 2014. When he saw the Jasper Inn was offering a discount, he decided to move his family to the area.
Upon arriving in Jasper, the family stayed in a room at the former Jasper Inn (now the SureStay Plus) at about $950 a month. They wanted to rent an apartment or house, but knew they wouldn’t be approved because of finances and rental history.
In addition to working at Jasper Engines, James worked evenings and weekends doing maintenance at the hotel to help cover the family’s bill there. Melissa also worked some at the hotel and took a job at Hardee’s this past March.
When asked in March if the hotel felt like home, Melissa replied, “It’s a roof over their head.”
At that point, it had been nine months. Nine months of four people living and sleeping in one room.
They cooked their meals in a microwave and on an electric skillet; they had a mini fridge and borrowed a deep freezer the hotel’s owners weren’t using at the time. They washed their dishes in the bathtub and their clothes in the hotel’s laundry room at first and then at the laundromat in Huntingburg.
Chris made it a point to be in the cramped hotel room as little as possible.
“I was always out of the room because I couldn’t stand it there,” the Jasper High School senior said.
The family was trying to save for a home, but kept dealing with one unexpected expense after another — things like medical bills, Melissa’s court costs and restitution for her drug offenses and various bills that come with day-to-day life and raising children.
Even more important on their wish list at that time was a car. The car the family brought to Jasper was impounded because of insurance issues, and James was borrowing Chris’ scooter to get to the work. James and Melissa, who married in 2000, laugh now at the thought of them both riding on the scooter at once, which they did several times.
But, typically, the family relied on the hotel’s owner, Gagan Singh Basra, as well as fellow First Baptist Church members to get where they needed to go. When options failed, they would walk.
“I remember me and the kids walked once from the hotel to the schools (Jasper Middle School and JHS),” James recalled, saying it was “dreadful” relying on others for transportation.
One time, he needed a phone card from Walmart and decided to walk the nearly 4 miles to the store. He got to Dubois County Tire on U.S. 231 when a man and his daughter pulled over and picked James up. The man gave him a ride to the store and then back to the Jasper Inn.
“One thing I love about this town is that the people are so friendly,” James said.
The Knoxes were able to buy a 2000 Dodge Grand Caravan with $2,000 from their tax check in March, and after that, 100 percent of their focus was on finding a home.
When they thought they’d found a place to rent, somehow it never worked out. James suspects part of the problem was two past evictions Melissa had.
“It was very frustrating,” James said. “People tell us we got a house and then they snatch it out from underneath us.”
The couple continued to work, well over 40 hours a week each, but still weren’t earning enough to cover their basic expenses.
The family was forced to move out of the hotel in late May as the Jasper Inn was becoming a SureStay Plus. The building they lived in was eventually torn down.
Not having anywhere else to go, they found themselves at the Camelot Inn, paying about $1,000 a month.
Work and the house search continued.
Melissa and James know their living situation has impacted their kids.
Chris has changed school districts three times and Katie twice. And, before moving into their home in September, the teens hadn’t had a permanent residence in nearly three years.
According to federal law, youth without a permanent residence are homeless.
This includes students who are sharing the housing of others because of a loss of housing, economic hardship or a similar reason (such as when the Knoxes lived in Tennyson with family). It also includes students who are living in motels, hotels, trailer parks or campgrounds; are living in emergency or transitional shelters; those who are abandoned in hospitals; and those living on the streets.
James doesn’t like hearing the word “homeless.”
“I knew my kids had a roof over their head, food in their mouths and they were warm,” he said.
Part of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, a federal act established in 1987 and reauthorized several times since, is meant to help those youth deemed “homeless,” by addressing the challenges they face in enrolling, attending and succeeding in school.
The act enables schools, states and the federal government to have a rough count (counts are only taken at the beginning of the school year) of homeless youth and sets guidelines on how schools address issues the homeless students face.
Deepali Jani, Indiana’s McKinney-Vento homeless education coordinator, said the Indiana Department of Education also provides training for school personnel to learn how to identify homeless students and how to address their unique needs.
“We work with schools to make sure there’s a sensitivity attached to it, not to embarrass the student,” Jani said. “We don’t want someone to feel singled out.”
According to IDOE records, there were nearly 20,000 homeless students in Indiana during the 2015-16 school year, many of them in urban areas. During that same school year, the Southwest Dubois School Corporation had three students considered homeless, Greater Jasper Schools had one, North Spencer Schools had two and Pike County Schools had 17. The Northeast Dubois and Southeast Dubois school districts had none.
“There’s a lot of stigma attached to homelessness,” Jani said. “Emotional and social. It’s a very, very tough subject for a child to talk about.”
Chris doesn’t talk about it. He keeps his personal life private when he’s at school and doesn’t like to interact much with his peers.
Katie, a seventh-grader, will talk to anyone, James said. She’s involved in extracurriculars like Community CHEW, Mentors for Youth and WyldLife.
Glenn Buechlein, the assistant principal at Jasper High School, met the Knox family at Jasper High School’s student registration in 2016 after they had walked from the hotel, to the middle school for registration and then to the high school. He ended up giving the family a ride to the hotel and getting them something to eat afterward.
“Right away I could tell they were good people and not trying to take advantage of me,” Buechlein said. “Dad’s working. It could happen to anybody.”
He’s stayed in contact with the Knoxes ever since. Sometimes he and School Resource Officer Jason Knies will pick up Katie and Chris and bring them to school when they miss the bus. Buechlein’s seventh-grade daughter is also friends with Katie.
Buechlein said Chris has a lot of pride and doesn’t like much help, but said “Chris has done well here. We’re proud of him.”
The assistant principal recalls a time when a teacher helped Chris by wanting to give him a warm jacket. Buechlein knew Chris had too much pride to take it, so he and Knies drove to Jasper Engines to give it to James.
“We knew Chris and knew we had to frame this the right way,” Buechlein said. “I don’t know how James did it, but he gave him the jacket.”
He said Katie is usually pretty open and talkative and always has a positive attitude.
“She thanks us repeatedly when we pick her up,” Buechlein said. “She said, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you. I love school.” Well, who’s your favorite teacher? ‘I just love them all.’”
Greater Jasper Schools has several programs to help students like Katie and Chris. Katie participated in one, Caring Cats, in mid-March when she went on a shopping trip with two school staff members to Carson’s department store in Jasper and got to pick out whatever she wanted.
The Caring Cats program was established in 2012 and students are nominated by teachers. The program has raised more than $18,000 through donations from local organizations and fundraisers. About $15,000 of that $18,000 has been dispersed to students like Katie for various things like Katie’s shopping trip, aiding families after house fires, purchasing diapers for students with babies, buying hygiene products and eyeglasses, and paying for students’ meals in the cafeteria.
Buechlein said he and other staff occasionally come across situations like the Knoxes’ where families have fallen on hard times.
“I always tell the kids, ‘Everybody carries their own backpack,’” he said. “‘They come to school, and they certainly have their own backpack. You need to know their story.’”
Help is there
Leaders with Tri-Cap, a local community action agency, said those struggling above the federal poverty level — such as the Knoxes — often get overlooked, but help is there.
Joyce Fleck, Tri-Cap’s executive director, always tells potential clients that there’s not one income limit for the agency.
“I always say, ‘If you need help, ask. If you’re in doubt, ask. Don’t be too proud to ask. Don’t be too embarrassed to ask. If we don’t have a program to help you, we’ll do what we can to find something,’” Fleck said, also saying that many of the area’s nonprofits work in this way and will do anything they can to help someone struggling to meet their basic needs.
She said word is spreading about what kind of help is available for these struggling families and the amount and kind of referrals her agency receives show it.
“It’s been eye-opening just in the last year,” she said. “That tells me that either we’re doing a better job at communicating what we’re doing or somewhere there’s more need in which people are more willing to accept help.”
The Knoxes have received more assistance in Jasper than anywhere else they’ve lived.
“People backed us here and prayed for us,” Melissa said.
The first help came when the Jasper Inn owner took them under his wing. Basra gave James a maintenance job working nights and weekends and Melissa worked in the hotel’s laundry room for several months.
Once a week or so, Basra and his family would give Melissa a ride to Walmart so she could buy groceries.
Basra said he wanted to help the Knoxes because he knew they were struggling.
“James had a family and he was a responsible guy,” Basra said. “He was doing his best.”
When the Knoxes were forced to move out of the hotel, Basra told James to call him when they found a place to rent and he would help them get into it. Sure enough, when the family found a house in September, Basra paid the $500 deposit.
“I feel so happy that I’m helping somebody,” Basra said.
The Knoxes have also found support from their church family at First Baptist Church on Portersville Road in Jasper. “I love that church to death,” James said. “The people are just awesome.”
The family has also been given hand-me-down clothing from friends and co-workers and food from local food banks.
“We really appreciate everything Dubois County has done for us,” Melissa said.
The Knoxes were able to move into a three-bed, one-bath home on the southwest side of Jasper in September and pay far less per month than at the hotels. Their rent is $595, plus the cost of utilities.
Melissa proudly gives a tour, showing off what the family has worked for.
“We don’t have much but what we do have, we’ve worked our asses off to get,” she said.
Now that they’re finally home, they’re quick to say what they like best about their new living quarters.
Privacy. Freedom. The kids have their own rooms.
“The first night it felt weird to not just crawl out of bed and take two steps to the bathroom,” Melissa said. “I would wake up and think, ‘Oh my god, my kids aren’t next to me.’”
The kitchen is a big perk.
“I love cooking and having a freezer,” Melissa said.
Something else the Knoxes have that they didn’t have before is space for company.
For a while, the family took in Melissa’s cousin, her husband and their two kids. Melissa helped her cousin get a job at Hardee’s and the husband got a job at Jasper Engines. The house guests paid the Knoxes $100 a week.
“Some of our family were in the same boat we were,” Melissa said. “We know what it’s like.”
James is no longer helping out with maintenance at the SureStay Plus because he said working so many hours left him no time with family. Melissa recently got a second job at Subway, but quit after a few weeks for the same reason.
“It was just too much,” she said of working two jobs. She’s looking forward to her probation for her drug offenses ending in June.
While James admits he and Melissa are still not stable financially, he said they’re better than they were. They’re working to pay off medical bills (Melissa and James have both struggled with back problems and James has had kidney stones) and to build up their credit again. They’re hoping some appliances they’ve acquired through a rent-to-own contract will help.
“We’re making all our payments on time and working on increasing our credit,” James said, also admitting there’s some “luxuries” the family chooses not to live without, like their cellphones and television. Melissa and James also both smoke cigarettes.
When asked what their next goal is, Katie interjects “getting more food and a lot of money.”
But, James is hopeful to become a homeowner.
“I’ve always been of the mindset that when you rent, you’re paying someone else’s mortgage, not your own,” he said. “I’ve also always wanted to own my own home so when something needs fixed, I can fix it.”
Things are looking up for the Knox family in more ways than financially. James and Melissa recently started talking to Melissa’s family again. They hadn’t spoken since the Knoxes were locked out of the Tennyson home.
The rekindled relationship offers the Knoxes more of a support system.
“We went there (Tennyson) for Thanksgiving,” Melissa said. “I’m glad we’re talking.”
When looking back on everything his family has gone through, James realizes they’ve come a long way. He knows they have a long way to go but is proud of where they are.
“My advice for people is no matter what life throws at you, don’t give up,” he said. “There’s always a way out. Fight forward and never give up.”
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