From storage unit into motel
Maria Maior, left, her fiance, Shane Palmer, her 12-year-old son, Brandon, and their two dogs in their room at an extended-stay motel in Itasca, Ill., Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2009. The family was the subject of a Tribune article in October, chronicling their homelessness, which included living in a storage unit. Since the article, readers offered support, including money and a job for Maria. The family now has the means to stay at the motel until they can save to rent more stable housing. Read the story. (David Pierini, Chicago Tribune / November 18, 2009)
Maria Maior, her fiance Shane Palmer and her 12-year-old son Brandon were featured in an Oct. 28 story on the spike in homeless families and students.Their plight sparked an outpouring of donations, from dog food to cash, allowing the family to move out of the cold 10-by-24-foot unit and into an Itasca motel. "I never dreamed that so many people would care," said the 39-year-old mother. "They didn't even know us, and yet they were willing to help us out."
To most people, squeezing two adults, a pre-teen, a chow and Rottweiler into a no-frills motel near the interstate would hardly qualify as luxury lodging.
But Maior pronounced the accommodations "heavenly," ticking off a long list of amenities -- starting with heat, a refrigerator and a bathroom.
"I'll never take those things for granted again," she said, while Brandon watched cartoons.
Maior also started a new job Wednesday as a machine operator, earning $9 an hour -- her first full-time employment in about 18 months. Contributions, along with her paychecks, will make it possible for them to stay at the motel at a reduced rate through December. "We have a real good shot of getting back on our feet," said Palmer, who did a brisk business installing carpeting before the housing market went belly-up.
After layoffs, falling behind in their bills, getting evicted from their apartment and losing their transportation (an uninsured drunken teen plowed into their parked van), the family teetered on the edge.
Their solution: hunkering down in a $179-a-month storage unit, along with their household items and furniture.
"We're not real good at asking for help," Palmer explained, "which is probably how we got into this situation to begin with."
With Americans reeling from foreclosures and unemployment, the family certainly has lots of company. And Brandon is one of thousands of students in the Chicago area classified as homeless.
In the first quarter of the school year, the number of transient students was at an all-time high, with suburban Cook, Will and McHenry counties all posting increases of 70 percent or more compared with the same period a year ago.
"The more affluent towns can no longer say, 'We don't have homeless here.' Now, it's undeniable," said Maggie Dempsey, homeless liaison coordinator for School District U-46, where Brandon is in the seventh grade.
If there is an upside, it is increased awareness, said Dempsey, whose efforts also benefited from the public's generosity. She received about $200 for the Project Access Fund, which helps buy supplies for the 230 students in the northwest suburbs living in motels, campers, shelters or doubled-up with relatives.
The family's dire straits touched Berneice Woodson, a soldier serving in Iraq, who read the story in Stars and Stripes.
"I can't do much, but I can at least put them in a hotel," wrote Woodson, who is with the Ohio National Guard and one of more than 65 people who contacted the Tribune with offers of assistance.
Jeff Charnogorsky of Hawthorn Woods recruited a buddy, Kevin Ritter, and treated the family to dinner. Together, they sat down at a Denny's, trying to plot a turnaround strategy.
"I think it was Brandon's statement, 'As long as I have my parents, I'm fine with this,'" said Charnogorsky, a small-business owner, explaining his motivation. "It takes a special kid to be able to look at his current situation with that attitude. As the father of a 13-year-old boy, I guess it hit me even more."
As a fellow animal lover, Lori Stein felt compelled to reach out, especially because she also owns two large canines.
"You obviously treat them as members of the family and are fighting to keep them with you," wrote the North Side resident, who responded with a gift card for dog food.
The story also tipped off relatives and former neighbors who had no idea that the family's life had capsized.
When Brandon's football team, the Bartlett Raiders, met the Bloomingdale Bears, his former team, this year for the Super Bowl title in the Bill George Youth Football League, the Bloomingdale parents gave the family an envelope of checks, cash and gift cards, drawing them into a circle of warmth and community. (Bartlett is planning something of its own this weekend.)"We just cried," Maior said.
Folks on both sides of the field admonished them for being so secretive about the downward spiral.
"There's just no easy way to drop this into a conversation," said Palmer, stretching out on the motel bed. "You just can't say, 'Hey, I'm glad you're doing well. By the way, we're homeless.'"
The family still faces daunting obstacles, including repairing tarnished credit. But for now, they have gained some traction and hope for a better Thanksgiving than in 2008.
"We had no idea that people could be so good," he said. "And we're grateful."