Happy Ending for Homeless Family of Six

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"Home," Crystal says, drawing one hand to her chest as the other catches a welling tear before it spills down her face. "Just speaking that word now is enough to make my heart flutter." After four months sleeping on fold-out cots and air mattresses at a succession of different churches, Crystal, husband Robert, and four children--aged four through thirteen--have finally found their way "home." Of course this story holds elements of heartbreak, exploitation, and outrage, though their own indelible recession memories will more likely recall fires of adversity forging familial bonds as strong as steel, and the boundless endurance and faith these times compelled them to discover within themselves.

Crystal and Robert Daneri could be considered refugees who fled the fall of Reno. As renters, they escaped the foreclosure epidemic claiming 28 of 30 houses on their street, but after layoffs hit their household, the skyrocketing cost of living reached unaffordable heights. Who can afford to pay $6 for a gallon for milk?

Robert is an independent software programmer and full-time dad, who was working to launch his own small business when he wasn't caring for their six children (four from Crystal's first marriage). For the past year-and-a-half he has been developing Dungeons and Dragons character management software, often doing his programming work between midnight and 4 am, the only quiet hours available in a full house of children. He and his two business partners tried to secure a loan for HeroForge Software LLC just as the national credit crunch dried up potential sources for financing, which means Robert will not earn income from his efforts until the product begins to sell.

In Reno, Crystal used to work for the type of business one might assume would flourish during an economic downturn: a "title loan company," in the formal nomenclature. "You'd really call them loan sharks," Crystal clarifies, explaining her employer would charge between 9.9% and 31% interest per day for short-term loans. Though not the most ennobling employment, it paid the rent on their 2000-square foot house and financed a comfortable standard of living.

In late 2007, as foreclosure signs began sprouting through Reno neighborhoods, the Nevada legislature passed measures to reign in predatory lending, particularly that of payday loan sharks like the one who employed Crystal. With his business practices constrained by the new law, he adapted to the reduced margins of profitability by laying off all his employees in June 2008.

For two months Crystal hunted for any kind of job, competing with increasing numbers of newly unemployed Reno residents scrambling to secure even the most menial paid work. Unable to pay their bills, a repo man eventually came for the family car.

Out of desperation, Crystal accepted a job working the nightshift, alone, at a Chevron station just off the interstate. Though she never had to face a demand for money with a gun in her face, the nightly news seemed to report an increasing frequency of armed robberies. "It was scary," she recalls. The time had come to leave Reno.

Robert's mother lives in Post Falls, Idaho, a small town about 20 miles east of Spokane, Washington. She loves time with her grandbabies, and her help with childcare would free up both Robert and Crystal to work until they recovered from an increasingly precarious financial situation.

A little online research turned up a help wanted ad for satellite installation, which both Robert and Crystal had experience doing. As an added incentive, the company offered use of a work truck for all employees, which would solve their transportation problems.

After reviewing resumes and interviewing them over the phone, the boss told them he'd have jobs waiting for them when they arrived in Idaho. "It took us three days to decide, execute the decision, pack, and drive to Idaho," Crystal recounts. Only one thing made the sudden move a painful decision--two of Crystal's children decided to stay behind in Reno with her ex-husband. 

The Daneris arrived in Post Falls late one October night after a thirteen hour drive from Reno. "We're coming from a cement city in the middle of the desert. The kids woke up the first morning, looked out the windows and said: 'What's that on the mountains?," Crystal says. "They'd never seen mountains with trees before," Robert adds, laughing.

The first couple of days felt idyllic, until they went to claim their new jobs and were informed they'd have to provide their own truck since all the company vehicles were already in use. But they didn't even own a car, they explained, or money to finance the purchase of one. The response that garnered was along the lines of: "That's too bad. Come back when you do."

The few weeks they expected to crowd into Robert's mother's house stretched into months. In January, Crystal finally landed a job managing the Post Falls Jungle Pizza--a jungle-themed Chuck E Cheese-style joint.

One month later, their slow financial recovery hit a setback when 13-year-old Dakota suffered a heart attack during a strenuous workout at school. A heart murmur led to congenitive heart failure after a school coach challenged Dakota to push himself beyond his limits of exhaustion.

Aside from some lingering lethargy, Dakota recovered fairly well, and the family's finances had stabilized enough to start looking for their own housing. In fortunate happenstance, they learned a neighbor planned to move out of her rental house. The house's owner, Jaquie Sentio, came down from Montana to meet them, and they signed a lease to move in at the end of March. The $900 rent was above market rates for the area, but Jaquie said there'd be no negotiation on price because that's what she needed to make her mortgage.

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Christina Davidson is a writer, photographer, and book editor who specializes in national security, terrorism, and war. She also writes for the food blog Feed The Masses. More

Christina Davidson is a writer, photographer and book editor based in Washington, D.C. She specializes in editing books about national security, terrorism, and war, but writes for a broad array of publications, including the popular frugalicious foodie blog Feed The Masses. She is working on a book based on her Recession Road Trip project for TheAtlantic.com.

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