The New York Times
By: Mathew R. Warren
December 22, 2011
Blindsided by financial crisis, and trying to rebuild
To Tahesha Calder, her bond with her young son was slipping away. It seemed as if whenever she had a chance to see him, he was asleep.
"I would bring him to the day care sleeping and pick him up at my mother's house sleeping," Ms. Calder said. "It used to bother me so much."
It was three years ago, and Ms. Calder and her son, Orion Bakare, were living in an apartment in the Williamsbridge section of the Bronx. She was employed as a caseworker for mentally ill and homeless patients at the Interfaith Medical Center in Brooklyn. Though the work was satisfying, she said, the long commute from her apartment meant she had little time to spend with Orion, now 4.
Struggling to balance motherhood and work, Ms. Calder decided to make a change. Confident she would be able to find similar work closer to home, she left her job of four years in 2008. She was blindsided when the bottom fell out of the economy.
Ms. Calder, 31, said that the downturn had caused many programs in her field to lose financing, and that jobs became impossible to get. Her savings quickly dried up. She had been raising Orion with only minimal support from his father, she said, and could no longer afford her son's day care or the rent for their one-bedroom apartment. She moved in with her mother, nearby.
"You're living on your own and you move back into your mother's -- it was a drastic change," Ms. Calder said.
For a year, she and Orion made do, until the crowded conditions in the three-bedroom apartment -- her younger brother and younger sister also lived there -- put a strain on her relationship with her mother.
"I have a great relationship with my mother from a distance, but we can't be in the same house," Ms. Calder said. "My son needs his own space. I need my own space."
With no other options, Ms. Calder said, she and Orion entered New York City's shelter system. She recalled that at the Prevention Assistance and Temporary Housing Intake Center in the Bronx, where she awaited placement, she saw a woman wailing as workers from the city's Administration for Children Services took away her children. Ms. Calder said the experience terrified her.
She and her son were sent to a shelter in Manhattan that was teeming with rats, which stole their food, Ms. Calder said. But after three weeks, she said, the Department of Homeless Services determined they were ineligible to remain in the shelter and suggested they live with Ms. Calder's mother. Not wanting to return to her mother's apartment, Ms. Calder found her way to an abandoned building in the Bronx, where she and Orion lived as squatters for a few days. That was a low point, she said.
Another occurred when she returned to her mother's home to pick up some of Orion's things and she, her mother and her younger sister had a terrible fight, Ms. Calder said.
Ms. Calder received an order of protection against her mother and sister and was allowed to re-enter the city's shelter system. She and Orion were placed at Concourse House in the Bronx, where they have now lived for over a year.
"When I came here, I started to cry," Ms. Calder said. "It was like I was in the Taj Mahal compared to where I was before. Then Orion said, 'Mommy, is this our home now?' That almost killed me."
Orion, standing recently between the twin beds that take up most of the room he shares with his mother in the shelter, has one wish: "I want to move into a pretty house."
She has her mind set on getting them out, improving her résumé and completing the training to obtain certification in alcoholism and substance-abuse counseling. She also pursued an internship as a counselor, but could not afford the clothing required. Her only monthly income is $264 a month in public assistance and $279 in food stamps.
In May, she turned to the City Bar Justice Center's Legal Clinic for the Homeless, an affiliate of the Children's Aid Society, one of the seven agencies supported by The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund, and received $200 from the fund to buy clothes.
Ms. Calder has renewed her job search. She said she sent out more than 30 résumés in the past few months.
"The economy is hard," she said. "I need to do more networking. I know I'm capable of doing the job. I know I can convince a person to stop using; I'm pretty persuasive."
Ms. Calder and her mother have reconciled, and Orion is attending preschool. His teachers have told Ms. Calder he is academically advanced, she said.
"I'm pretty proud of him," she said.
She prays that their hard work will pay off.
"When your kid wants something and you can't get it for them," she said, "that is the most heartbreaking thing in the world."