The Hardest Job

Could you raise four children in a homeless shelter without spanking?

BALTIMORE—On a typical morning, the first to wake is 6-month-old Nathaniel. He doesn’t always sleep through the night, so by the time his mother, Cierra Thomas, sits up in the twin bed she shares with her husband, Tony Gardner, she’s already dreading the day.

“I’m mad that I woke up here,” she says.

“Here” is the Gardner family’s room in a 135-bed shelter for homeless families. Their space, bright and painted beige, is the size of a modest kitchen. It’s where the six Gardners have bedded down on a bunk bed, crib, play-pen, and twin mattress for the past three months.

Upon hearing Nathaniel’s first whimpers, Cierra will walk the four feet to his crib and feed him formula that was mixed in the sink of the shared bathroom. After he’s changed, it’s time for Noah, the 14-month-old who sleeps in the donated Pack’N Play wedged between his parents’ and brother’s beds. Cierra washes his face and changes his diaper. She tugs a pull-up on 3-year-old Sapphire, who’s been having accidents ever since the family lost their house. In the top bunk, 5-year-old Ma’lia pretends to be asleep until the last possible second.

In search of clothes for the kids, Cierra will rifle through two blue Rubbermaid bins that are stacked between the bed and the wire shelves. Sapphire, whom they call Fire for short, will probably struggle with her shirt: “Help peese, help peese!” Noah might start to cry, meanwhile.

Cierra and Tony cajole the kids into making their beds. Where are everyone’s shoes?

All told, the process takes about an hour. They usually miss breakfast, which the shelter only serves until 8 a.m. But that’s okay; the kids rarely eat their breakfasts anyway.

Cierra holds Nathaniel in their room in the shelter. (Noah Scialom / The Atlantic)

Cierra, small and round, looks older than her 23 years. She has chestnut eyes and a razor-sharp wit. Since her family settled into the shelter this past summer, they’ve had 120 days to find a new home—with no income, no credit history, and four kids.

At one point, Cierra applied for a $750, three-bedroom apartment, but she was turned down in favor of someone who had more money, she said. Another time, she was on the phone with a prospective landlady, but as they were talking she went through a tunnel and got disconnected. The woman didn’t answer when Cierra called back.

While they’re at the shelter, the Gardners have been part of an unusual parenting intervention. The program, called PACT: Helping Children with Special Needs, aims to strengthen the bonds between homeless parents and their children. One in 30 American kids is homeless, and the stress of street life assaults their bodies and minds. Kids who have no place to live are more likely to suffer from asthma, digestive issues, and mental-health problems.

PACT’s social workers believe that while these families may not have much materially, they can at least knit the loving family ties that protect kids from the ravages of homelessness. PACT’s hope is that its participants’ parenting will become less harsh, and that there will be fewer reports of abuse and neglect after they move out.

Cierra and Tony have been attending PACT as they anxiously plot a way out of the shelter. “I’m not the best parent in the world,” Cierra says. “For everything I’ve been through, I think I’ve done a damn good job. If I take some of this advice that they give me and put it into my everyday parenting, will it help?”

9 Weeks in the Shelter // Morning

At 9 a.m., Cierra, Tony, their kids, and dozens of other residents file into the shelter’s cafeteria. It’s a cacophony of crying and singing. At the front of the room, an energetic, middle-aged, white woman named Kim Cosgrove is deep into an interminable rendition of “Wheels on the Bus.” She’s up to butterflies on the bus saying “I am curious” and turtles saying “I am shy” before the room finally quiets.

On some mornings, the shelter hosts a free breakfast organized by PACT, which also runs the shelter’s free, therapeutic daycare. It’s all optional, but parents are lured by the eggs and hash browns, which are a step up from the standard shelter fare.

Kim is a licensed clinical social worker and leads many of PACT’s activities. After her song, she asks all the parents to describe their days so far in terms of thumbs-up and thumbs-down.

“I’m having a thumbs medium,” Cierra says. “I think I’m ready for thumbs up.”

After breakfast, some of the parents shuffle into another room and form a circle for a meditation session. It’s supposed to help the parents unwind—the idea being that they can’t take good care of their kids if they feel frazzled. Again, Kim asks how everyone’s doing.

“I had a pretty nasty morning,” Cierra admits. “This morning is pretty fuckish.”

The meditation, bookended by chimes, helped her relax. “It’s nice just to be calm and think to myself,” she tells the group. “My mind is on tomorrow, the day after that, the day after that, and stuff that happened in the past.”

Like most other homeless families, the Gardners followed a winding and tragic path to the shelter. Cierra first caught a glimpse of the tall, handsome boy, a year her senior, when she was in high school in Baltimore. True to love-story form, they hated each other at first.

Cierra was accepted to four colleges, she says, but she couldn't go because she got pregnant with her oldest, Ma’lia, by a different man. Ma’lia wanted a sister, so Cierra gave her one: Sapphire, by her next partner. That relationship didn’t last.

She and Tony reconnected, and they married two years ago. The union quickly produced Noah, and they swore off having more children. Financially, life was rolling briskly downhill.

Six months after Noah was born, Cierra had a routine check-up, and the doctor took a pregnancy test. It came back positive.

“Okay, I’m probably like a month pregnant,” she thought. “I can still go and get an abortion.”

“You’re about five and a half months,” the doctor said.

Nathaniel was on his way.

But now, she’s done. She smiles and pounds the underside of her arm, where the skin conceals a cylindrical birth-control implant. No more.

Tony did construction, and when she wasn’t pregnant, Cierra worked in restaurants. According to Cierra, the family’s home ended up in foreclosure because her father mismanaged the rent money. The couple bounced between relatives’ homes until Cierra had Nathaniel. Family members decided four kids were too many to house all at once. Her mother-in-law told Cierra she ought to start from scratch.

Shelves in the Gardners’ room (Noah Scialom)

“And the shelter,” Cierra says, taking a breath, “was starting from scratch.”

The shelter, a converted schoolhouse called Sarah’s Hope, is situated in a rough part of Baltimore, just a few blocks from where the Freddie Gray riots raged. But it’s spotless, safe, and well-run—a far better hand than many other homeless families are dealt.

If it was just her, Cierra would have braved the streets. But the shelter is best for the children.

Still, it’s depressing. She has nothing. Other shelter residents gather on the porch to eat fast food, one of the few treats they can afford.

“Mommy, I want an ice cream,” her oldest daughter, Ma’lia, would say.

“I can't give it to you,” Cierra would respond.

It makes a person “look like a bad parent when your child is sitting there asking for food,” she says. And Cierra does not want to be a bad parent.

12 Weeks in the Shelter // Morning

In a brightly lit room on the first floor, Tony forms a circle with a half-dozen other shelter residents for a parenting lesson organized by PACT. Crudely put, it’s a class for learning how to be better than your own parents.

The parents are turned toward a small TV at the front of the room, watching a DVD of a baby playing with her mother. “Our children depend on us,” an authoritative voice on the video says. “You are much more important than you knew. Can you see how much this 5-month-old and the mom delight in each other?”

On the video, a mother looks away from her infant, and the baby starts crying. When the mother doesn’t turn her attention back after a few minutes, the baby throws up.

From her seat in the circle, Kim explains it to Tony and the others: “Think about us, if we were having a conversation with someone, and suddenly, they went on their cellphone and started texting,” she says. “Don't you feel a disconnect? This little one is really not feeling connected. She physically became quite distressed.”

In the next episode of the video, an older girl is rough-housing and bumps her head. The mom extends her hand and asks her if she’s okay. The girl runs to her for comfort.

Kim hits pause.

“What do you think would have happened if the mom had said, ‘Oh, suck it up. Why were you playing like that?’” she asks of the circle, which is largely silent.

Kim knows few parents could pay this much careful attention to their kids. But if they can just try to do it 30 to 40 percent of the time, that’ll suffice. “This isn't about perfect parenting,” she says. “We just have to be good enough.”

Inside the PACT therapeutic daycare (Noah Scialom / The Atlantic)

The strategy of PACT, which is an affiliate of Baltimore’s Kennedy Krieger Institute, is based on a branch of child psychology called attachment theory. In 1965, the developmental psychologist Mary Ainsworth described an experiment that, she believed, could divide humans into three basic ways of relating to their parents. For the experiment, called the “Strange Situation,” she would bring toddlers and their mothers into a toy-filled room. She’d tell the mothers to leave for a few minutes. Then she’d watch what each child did when her mother left and how the child reacted when she came back.

In the first, and most ideal, reaction, called “secure attachment,” the child cries when the mother leaves, stretching her hands toward the door after her. When mom returns, the baby calms down and begins playing again. In the second variation, called “insecure avoidant,” the kid does not seem to care much whether the caregiver is in the room or not. Ainsworth considered this a sign that the child’s attempts to bond with the mother had been rebuffed before. Then there were the “insecure ambivalent” babies, who would cry before their mothers had even left the room and could not be consoled when they returned. That could be evidence the mother had been mercurial with her affections in the past.

A final and especially troubling category was discovered later by a student of Ainsworth’s, Mary Main. She dubbed it “disorganized attachment.” These babies, many of whom had been abused, would behave bizarrely when the mother returned. They’d make jerky movements, freeze in place, or seem afraid. The minds of these children stew with a lifelong, irreparable dilemma: Their parent, their safe haven, was also the source of their fear.

The insecure attachment styles are a strong predictor of nearly every social ill. Securely attached kids are confident and intrepid; the insecurely attached fall to pieces under pressure. At work, anxiously attached adults are cynical, easily exhausted, and mean to their colleagues. Kids with disorganized attachment struggle to control their emotions. They can’t get along with friends and disrupt class. By the time they’re teens, the disorganized-attachment kids are more likely to have a psychological break with reality.

PACT’s goal is to get shelter residents into that first category—secure attachment. It’s a struggle, because homeless parents hail from traumatic pasts. Their own emotional wounds are still raw, which makes it hard to be gentle with their children.

“You have this little baby who needs you, and you don't have the answer,” explained Carole Norris-Shortle, a licensed clinical social worker at the University of Maryland and a PACT consultant.

After the DVD session, Carole, Noah, and Tony all scrunch into a tiny back office with some toys for a “mindful play” activity. The goal here is for Tony to revel in how Noah plays.

“You're the curious observer,” Carole tells Tony in her urgent whisper, handing him a book. “You're going to narrate his play. It doesn't matter if [the book] is upside down, it doesn't matter if it's in his mouth.”

She wipes it off with a wet wipe.

Noah comes in wearing purple windbreaker pants and black t-shirt. He’s a happy baby, to the point where he always looks slightly guilty.

“How’s daycare been today?” Tony asks. “You just getting the hang of it?”

Noah grabs the book and presses it to his face. Then he puts it on his head.

“Is it a house now?” Tony asks. “Are you making the book different things?”

Carole pumps her fist victoriously.

After a few more minutes, Carole tells Tony to give Noah a warning that they’re almost out of time. She hands him her watch.

“Remember when we talked about time?” Tony asks. “Remember time? When this hand goes here, we're gonna be all done.” Noah gurgles.

Carole starts singing, “Cleeean-up, clean up. Every-body do your share.” (Singing is important for “transition times.”)

Tony high-fives Noah. “Enjoy the rest of your day, okay?”

Noah grins and drools as Carole carries him out.

Tony prepares for his mindful play session with Carole. (Noah Scialom / The Atlantic)

Some of the shelter residents roll their eyes at Kim and Carole’s oppressive niceness. The language of PACT veers toward treacly, with talk of “loving cups” and “little ones.” It’s not the way most people talk. Still, knowing the stakes, Kim and Carole press on, and surveys of their participants tell them that it’s working.

Kim and Carole say three to five sessions is how many it takes to make a difference, and Cierra has made it to two or three. Some of the PACT information has enlightened her. She has noticed, for instance, her own kids following a pattern Kim described one day: A child will pull away and explore her surroundings, but after a few minutes she’ll run back to her mom, seeing her as a “secure base” in a tumultuous world.

Some of the PACT tenets, though, ring less true. Like when Carole tries to get parents to “delight” in their children by narrating their activities—even if all they’re doing is grabbing a feather from a box and shoving it in their mouths.

“I’m sorry, dude, it’s a feather,” Cierra says. “I don’t have time for that.”

Another thing Cierra doesn’t endorse: The new-age style of discipline she’s been learning about ever since she arrived here. PACT and the shelter are both against spanking or yelling at kids.

“The way that we parent is an urban style of parenting,” she says. “We hit our kids. Period, point blank.”

If that’s true, she’s well within the mainstream. A large study of children from 18 U.S. cities in 2011 found that 15 percent of all 1-year-old children are spanked, and nearly half of children are by the time they’re 20 months and older. African American mothers, according to one study, are more likely to spank their children than are white or Hispanic moms, but mothers of all ethnicities who are under stress are more likely to spank.

Cierra is also trying to yell less, she really is. But as any parent might attest, sometimes it’s almost like her kids don’t hear her unless she yells. Or maybe they just don’t want to hear. They seem to be acting out more since they moved into the shelter, and she thinks the lack of discipline might have something to do with it.

She doesn’t spank her kids in the shelter, though, because she doesn’t want trouble with the authorities. She’s heard Child Protective Services can be called on moms who hit their kids in front of shelter staff.

“My kids are my everything. They're the reason I breathe,” she says. “To have someone come in and try to take my children away from me because I disciplined them so they don’t go around being blatantly disrespectful … I’ll do what I have to do while I'm in here.”

12 Weeks in the Shelter // Evening
Cierra rides the elevator with Audrey Leviton, the director of PACT. (Noah Scialom / The Atlantic)

Cierra’s days are looking increasingly thumbs-up. She got a job as a sandwich artist at Subway. After rounding up all the birth certificates and social-security cards that had been scattered across the family’s various domiciles, getting an income stream was the final piece of the couple’s move-out puzzle. Other than getting an apartment, of course.

Tony had a job when the family first arrived at Sarah’s Hope, but he’s since somehow lost it. That’s when Cierra started searching frantically for work.

The Subway job means brighter prospects for housing, but it also portends even less “me” time for Cierra. Her friends tell her to make Tony watch the kids in the evening, but Tony gets tired from babysitting all week. Sometimes she’ll take them on the stoop with her as she smokes Newports and gossips. But that doesn’t quite count as Cierra time, since the kids are still there, forever orbiting her like tiny satellites.

Outside, Cierra chats with the other moms, her support system. A 15-year-old boy, who also lives at the shelter, walks up and starts taunting Cierra, slapping her knee and grabbing at her phone.

“I’m going to make it so you can't have children!” she hollers, taking a couple of fake swings at his groin.

Shouting—both the parental, worried kind and the gleeful, childlike variety—is the predominant sound of the pre-dinner hours. There aren’t any toys outside, so the little kids play on the shelter’s cement lot and on a small jungle gym nearby. They climb on some orange railings that frame the rough cement steps. “You’re gonna fuckin’ fall!” one mom screams in her toddler’s direction.

Before long, Noah scampers off to a forbidden portion of the parking lot.

“Noah, get out of there!” Cierra shouts. “Come here! Stop playing, come on!”

He stalls.

“Ain't no ‘no!’ Come here!”

The teenager starts complaining about his younger sister. “She’s retarded,” he concludes.

Cierra furrows her eyebrows. “Why would you call her that?” she asks him, softly this time. “Let me tell you something: Don't go around calling anybody retarded.”

Noah returns to Cierra’s lap. She gazes out across the block’s technicolor rowhouses, then down at her son. “Where is your fatherrrrr?” she asks him. Noah looks up at her and smiles.

At last, Tony shows up. He had a long doctor’s appointment for glaucoma, and now he’s wearing dark glasses and sulking.

Cierra cross-examines him.

Nathaniel gets changed. (Noah Scialom / The Atlantic)

“Tony, did you send Nathaniel [to the PACT daycare] with three bottles already made?”

“Not already made—”

“Yeah, they have to be already made,” she says, meaning the formula powder must be stirred into the water.

“I know, I was running around—”

“I know,” Cierra interrupts. “But it has to be like that, or else PACT is going to say something.”

She hands Nathaniel to Tony, takes his cigarette, and takes a long drag. “I’ll be so happy when I get paid,” she mutters.

During the week, Ma’lia stays with her dad so she can go to a private school, where she’s already learning Spanish. (“I didn't want her going to public school, because they don't learn nothing,” Cierra explains.) But Cierra misses her terribly. Ma’lia is the only one of her kids she can really converse with. They do each others’ nails and talk about her schoolwork.

The families have a 7 p.m. curfew, and the evenings are the worst. The shared rec room grows crowded fast, and there’s no wi-fi. “You have to sit and stare at four walls, and that can drive you insane,” she says.

At 6 p.m., the shelter’s security guard bursts through the front door and out onto the stoop. “I need everybody in the shelter right now!” he yells.

Everyone files in through the doors, bewildered. The shelter goes into lockdown. There’s reportedly an active shooter nearby.

“No, no, no!” Cierra protests to no one in particular. “We've got curfew at 7. I'm not being in here.”

Sapphire wails. A group of older kids stare out the windows, mouths agape. A pack of toddlers steal Tony’s plastic glaucoma glasses and feud over their ownership.

Across the hall, Cierra counts her kids, lets out a frustrated sigh, and sinks into a chair.

14 Weeks in the Shelter // Morning

Cierra flashes a manager’s instruction sheet and a wide grin when I walk in the room. After just three weeks on the job, she was promoted to shift manager. That means there’s an extra $100 each month to put toward rent.

She’s been scanning apartment listings on her phone during breaks at work, and just the other day she got an email from a man willing to rent her a house for $700 a month. (It’s only two bedrooms, but she can make an extra bedroom out of a curtain or something, she reasons.)

Nathaniel starts to cry, and she spoons pear baby food into his mouth. After a few bites he starts to bawl again.

“Okay, that's fine, that's fine,” Cierra says, as though he’s a Subway customer unhappy with his tuna melt. “We can work this out, that's no problem.” She dumps the baby food into a water bottle and shakes it up into a slurry, which he prefers.

Tony stands in front of the corner store. (Noah Scialom / The Atlantic)

Tony has taken the older kids to watch DVDs in the dayroom. The transition to stay-at-home fatherhood has been difficult. He’s having what Cierra calls “man issues,” and when she’s not working, he wants time to himself. Cierra tries to entertain everyone within the four walls—going out costs precious future-rent money. But, “TGI Fridays has been calling my name,” she admits.

Being cooped up, the kids are getting rowdier and learning each others’ worst habits. Cierra says Sapphire will run up to adults and whisper curse words in their ears for a thrill.

The kids also get sick more, which means they skip daycare sometimes. That translates to even fewer breaks for Cierra and Tony. The lock on their door is broken, so people come in and out a lot, waking the kids up.

With nowhere to go, the family members eat at each other. Cierra yells at her kids more than PACT might recommend. But she probably yells less than many moms who spend their days with four kids within arm’s length.

When the family first moved into the shelter, they took a mandatory parenting class whose methods sound more direct than PACT’s. On a worksheet, Cierra was asked to circle everything she does to try to control her children.

Spank, yes, yell, yes, time-out, yes, take away a privilege, bribe, of course. Talk and reason, give choices. Listen. All yes.

Still, “according to them, I was abusing my children,” she says. Almost everyone in the class was.

But she doesn’t see it that way. On the worksheet, she also listed her biggest parenting fear: That her kids will end up like her. Spanking, she believes, is one way to make sure that doesn’t happen.

She sees parents being too lenient with their kids because they’re trying to be their friends. Little boys are skipping school, selling drugs. Middle-school girls post videos of themselves on Facebook shaking their butts. “Go record yourself doing some homework!” she says.

Cierra didn’t tell her own mother when she started having sex; she was afraid she would punch her in the throat. Cierra, by contrast, aims for what she calls “half-and-half” parenting: an authority figure who dispenses love and inspires respect in equal measure.

Most of all, she wants to preserve their innocence. “I'm not real with my kids. My kids still believe in Santa Claus,” she says. “When I was growing up, I believed in it, and I stayed a child.”

Sapphire darts over to her.

“Fire, is Santa Claus real?” Cierra asks.

“No,” she answers.

And then it’s time for lunch.

14 Weeks in the Shelter // Afternoon

Lunch is a bleak tray of canned peas, beige noodles, and an orange goo that’s supposed to be chicken. When she first got here, Cierra cried a lot because her kids wouldn’t eat the food and they’d go hungry. Today, a kitchen staffer takes pity on Noah and Sapphire and brings them brown, paper bags filled with white-bread sandwiches, cookies, and chips. Noah promptly crumbles his cookies all over the floor.

“You see I’m not yelling at him?” Cierra says. “You see what he’s doing? This is what I go through because I can’t yell at him and I can’t pop him.”

At one point, she thanks him for eating well—just like all the parenting manuals say to do.

When lunch is over, Cierra commences the unique ballet that is attempting to extricate a stroller, a 3-year-old, and a baby from a room simultaneously. Noah seizes this moment to make a break for it, running and diving under a table across the room. Cierra hollers for him to come on. He refuses, grinning.

She tries a tactic she’s learned from parenting instructors: Just ignore him and he’ll follow.

She walks out into the hall. Still no sign of Noah. She sits down on a bench. No Noah. Cierra grumbles. Finally, a woman who works at the shelter fetches Noah and, nudging him through the double doors, tells him it’s time to go. Noah throws himself on the ground, face down, and weeps.

“Uh-oh, that’s a special kind of tantrum,” the woman says.

Cierra rises from her seat on the bench and marches over to her son, who is still prostrate. He’s being blatantly disrespectful. Everyone’s tired. We just choked down a brutally disgusting lunch. This is it, I think. She’s going to hit him. Who wouldn’t?

Instead, she grabs Noah by an arm, like you would a fire log, and hoists him through the air as she walks toward the elevator. “Don’t yell. Talk to them,” Cierra says, summing up the takeaway of nouveau parenting. “How are you supposed to talk to a 1-year-old?”

Upstairs, there are no clean sheets for Noah’s crib, so she’ll have to put him down for a nap in his sister’s bed. The new bed is exciting. The excitement means Noah does not, under any circumstances, want to sleep. Until the kids pass out, it’s trench warfare between them and Cierra.

Noah sits up.

“STOP IT,” Cierra roars. “Bed, now.”

Noah cries. And so forth.

Carole might have recommended a different way of dealing with Noah’s impetuousness. One day, a toddler in PACT began melting down in front of Carole and the child’s dad. Carole sat the boy and his father down, took the man’s hand, and placed it on his son’s stomach. She held the father’s other hand in hers. In a soft, slow voice, she sang, “time to play with da-ddy. It’s time to play with da-ddy.” Within a few minutes, the boy was calm and happy.

“Often that’s fright,” Carole explained later. “He can be scared about dad leaving.”

As Noah poked his head through the slats of the bunk bed, Cierra offered a harsher verdict on PACT’s methodology: “That shit don't work. You have listened to me talk to Noah over and over and over again. Yet Noah is still about to fall out of the bed.”

Noah laughs.

“I want Ms. Carole and Ms. Kim to take my kids home with them for a week and see if they don’t come back with their hair pulled out.”

Cierra, Tony, Nathaniel, Noah, and Sapphire sit on the front porch. (Noah Scialom / The Atlantic)

When the kids wake up, Tony gives Nathaniel a cookie, even though Cierra had just put a clean shirt on him, and now she’ll probably have to wash this one, too. Cierra begs Tony to take one or two of the kids with him on a walk to the store. Tony demurs and slips out without them.

Within an hour, the kids grow restless, and Cierra bustles them outside.

Tony arrives bearing fast food, and also the mail. It’s a $620 bill for an ambulance ride for Nathaniel, who had pneumonia recently.

“That’s just for riding him to the fucking hospital?” Cierra says. “They’d better let me insurance that out or something.”

Cierra takes a bite of her hamburger. She needs to quit smoking, she says. She’s considered e-cigarettes, but she heard on Dr. Oz that they’re even worse than the real thing.

Cierra cradles Noah and sings him the ABCs. It’s cold out. There are supposed to be donated coats coming in, but they haven’t arrived yet. They need to go inside soon and see what horror is on the menu for dinner.

Suddenly, Cierra grabs Noah and flips him upside down. She’s beaming, delighted by her own mischievousness. She sticks his legs out like the muzzle of an AK-47.

“D-d-d-d-d-d-d,” Cierra says, imitating a machine-gun staccato and shaking  Noah’s legs with each round. Noah cackles uncontrollably. “D-d-d-d-d-d!”

Cierra sets him down next to her on the step. Noah puts his hand on her leg and looks up at her, smiling.

“Okay, one more time,” she says, tipping him back over.

When she releases him, he leaps back into her arms. They do it over and over again until it’s time for supper.

Olga’s reporting on parenting and childhood was undertaken as a project for the Fund for Journalism on Child Well-Being and the National Health Journalism Fellowship, programs of the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism.