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Homeless in Grand Haven: A local family shares their story

Marie Havenga • Nov 13, 2017 at 10:00 AM

Editor’s note: The following story chronicles the homeless experience of a Grand Haven family. This is the first in a week-long Tribune series. At their request, their names have been changed for the purpose of this story.

The Lee family never saw homelessness coming. They had a good life in Grand Haven, with a decent income.

John Lee brought home about $3,000 a month from his corporate job. He had another $1,000 a month pension income from a previous job.

Deb Lee worked as a stay-at-home mom for the couple's two children: Annie, 6, and Kayla, 17.

They owned their own home.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, disaster struck.

The Grand Haven company that supported the Lee's lifestyle eliminated John's position. And, with it, their way of life as they knew it.

“We never saved,” Deb said. “We could have helped ourselves a little more on the financial end if we had been more responsible and saved more and prepared for things to happen. But, we never did. We spent it as quick as it was coming in kind of deal. We always thought it would be there.”

When John first told Deb he was losing his job, she didn't panic. She tried to hang onto hope.

“I hugged him and said, 'We'll be OK, we'll be fine,'” she recalled.

But they weren't.

Within five months, they had lost their home. They couldn't come up with the $700 per month mortgage it took to stay there.

So, they moved in with friends in Hudsonville.

Kayla began her senior year at Grand Haven High School, embarrassed, humiliated, hiding a secret that she could tell no one. She had no bed of her own, no place to call home.

“Imagine the embarrassment for her, especially in Grand Haven,” Deb said. “That was terrible. We stayed with friends. We told them, 'It won't take us long, we'll be back on our feet soon.' It just didn't happen.”

Deb drove Annie to school every morning at Mary A. White Elementary School. Even the gas money became a burden.

But they couldn't tell the kids the real story.

“We tried to just make it seem like an adventure to her, that everything was fine,” Deb said of Annie. “Of course, my older one didn't take it so well. She left and moved in with some friends and didn't want to be with us. She ended up going astray for a while.”

When they wore out their welcome at their friends' home, the Lees moved into an extended-stay motel in Holland.

“We stayed there and tried to make it,” Deb said. “But all of our money was going to stay there. We got so far behind on little things. Our car insurance got canceled, so I'm driving around with no car insurance. Our cellphone was about to get shut off.”

When they moved from their home, they put all of their possessions in storage. With all of their income going toward their motel stay, they couldn't afford the monthly storage fee. They were about to lose everything they owned.

“We missed many meals because we had to make sure that Annie had what she needed,” Deb said. “We bought her peanut butter and jam and applesauce because it was cheap. You could get it at the dollar store.”

They filed for bankruptcy, which was not only a huge black mark on their credit history but an even darker mark on their sense of self-worth.

The emotional wounds became so painful that John ended up in the hospital while they were living in the motel.

“They thought he was going to have a stroke because his blood pressure was so high,” Deb said. “We ran out of money for food. We were getting ready to lose all of our possessions. It was awful. I can't believe I didn't explode.”

Like so many moments in life, just when the bottom falls out, an angel steps in to cushion the fall.

A lady from Deb's sister-in-law's church told the family about The People Center in Spring Lake. The center had helped her in the past. Perhaps they could help the Lees.

“The day I went into The People Center, my cellphone got shut off,” Deb said.

She spoke with Karen Reenders, director of The People Center. Deb and her family, minus their oldest daughter, moved into a small apartment at The People Center.

John started a new job at Shape Corp. Two weeks later, Deb took a job with the Grand Haven school district.

“I could have probably gotten one sooner,” she said. “I came from a place that was very cheap to live. Here, it was culture shock to me because it's a lot more expensive in this area. Karen pushed me. She said, 'You're depressed. I think you need to get out and do something with your life.' I loved her for that. I thank her all the time for that.”

The family stayed at The People Center, going through financial and budget classes, for more than a year. They had hoped to leave in six months.

But the dark cloud of bankruptcy hung over their lives, dampening their hopes and drowning their dreams.

“Because of the bankruptcy, no one would rent to us,” Deb said. “We have decent income now, but nobody would rent to us, so Karen kept us. I went to Karen crying one night, 'We can't find a place to live, no one will rent to us.'”

Reenders knew a pastor who had a property available in Ferrysburg.

The Lees moved in. Now, a couple of years removed from their darkest days, they're prepared to buy the home as soon as the bank deems them worthy of a mortgage.

“It literally would not have happened if it was not for Karen and The People Center,” Deb said. “They have a great, great financial plan they put you on. If you listen, it will work. It's made me more responsible financially. We have savings now. We're rigid about saving money and paying our bills and keeping everything in order. We're saving for emergencies.”

Deb said she never, ever wants to relive those horrible days.

“When you're at a low point, it just throws you into a terrible depression,” she said. “It's terrible.”

But Deb isn't blaming anyone except themselves.

“Some of it was our fault,” she said. “Nobody plans on losing their job within a two-week period. We had nothing saved for a rainy day. My advice is to save for emergencies and have a plan, because things happen quickly and everything snowballs. We just never saved and planned.”

Last holiday season, they were at The People Center. Their Christmas tree stood a mere 20 inches tall. The few Christmas presents they received came from strangers, as they had no money for their own.

“This Christmas, we are excited, very excited,” Deb said. “We're going to put up a full-size Christmas tree because we had such a tiny tree last year.”

Like their tree, things are definitely looking up for the Lees.

“God was sure on our side,” Deb said. “That's the only thing I can say.”

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