Life in public housing

An elephant picture hangs on the wall, the mother’s trunk curled around her baby. A Bible verse is printed across the bottom in a smooth script. “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.” Isaiah 66:13. The brown leather sofa and chair sit empty around the opposing walls, an electric keyboard waits to be played on the fourth side of the room and a television hides in the corner, next to the artificial Christmas tree hidden behind the keyboard. The room is maybe 10 by 15 feet, if we’re being generous. The family is gone.

“When we do things as a family,” Judith Young said, “we like to go out.”

She sits in the West Acres mall by Lighthouse Coffee. Curly, brown hair hits her just below the shoulder as some gray shows near crest of her forehead. Her oldest daughter, Adele, 22, sits next to her, each holding their steaming drinks in blue styrofoam cups. Her son, Evan, 17, sits across from them, mostly silent but gently offering responses to their direct questions. He draws in a sketchbook, working on a warrior at first until his sister says, “draw me some broccoli,” and he works on the three-inch-by-three-inch sketch for 45 minutes.

This single mother of three has lived in public housing for nearly eight years, and it has allowed her to care for her children’s special needs without sending them into foster care. She has used the system so her kids can escape it, she said.

Her two youngest kids, Amber, 14, and Evan, are still in high school, and Adele is preparing to graduate from Concordia College on May 6. Adele will become the first person in her family to obtain a four-year degree, and she will be the first child to follow mom’s rule that all of her children must attend college immediately after high school and obtain degrees in four years. She made that rule because of her own struggles with career and finances.

“If you have a college degree, that’s something that can never be taken away from you,” she said. “Not getting that degree, especially when [my] kids are so intelligent, and with our limited means, not having it in your tool box is just not OK.”

After high school graduation, Judith’s dad died, and she moved to Grand Forks to be with family. She struggled in college because of his death and ended up dropping out. She completed a two-year degree and had her first child all within a few years of leaving high school. And yet, she dreamed she would find a husband to raise her daughter.

“I thought I would be able to do ‘middle class’ for Adele,” she said. “I really thought that would happen.”

Adele would never need to know the difference, Judith thought. When Adele was one year old, Judith met Jeff. They were married four years later.

Adele had always been a unique and irritable child, but as she was the oldest, Judith had no point of reference. She assumed Adele’s actions were normal. Adele wouldn’t learn until her senior year of college that she was allergic to nearly all meat proteins, but she knew at an early age that meat made her feel sick. One daycare provider required the children to eat all of their food, so Adele pocketed it in her cheeks. At the end of the day, Judith would bring her home to find meat in her mouth from lunch.

A few years after Evan and Amber were born, and the divorce finalized, Judith got her dream job at the as a surgical assistant and returned to Fargo. But what seemed to be a dream job turned out not to have hours conducive for a woman to care for three kids. Judith’s mother had just died two weeks prior to their move, in the same hospital where Judith would be working, and transplanting kids, ages 3, 5 and 10, was a complicated issue.

“I was as much of a mess as an eighth grader could be,” Adele said.

Combined with puberty and anxiety issues, Adele’s lack of comfort in social settings manifested itself in “not so sociable ways,” she said. Her school in Grand Forks valued individualized education, she said, but Fargo was different. It wasn’t as much of a priority, she said, and anxiety about doing the new type of homework resulted in it not getting done.

One day, a math teacher who habitually ignored Adele’s individualized education program made fun of her in front of the class for not completing her homework. That’s when Adele threw a desk at the teacher.

“[Adele’s] favorite game in school was ‘how much can I piss these people off so they tell me to leave?’” Judith said.

“It was a good strategy,” Adele said, shrugging her shoulders.

When Adele received medication, she slept for three days, Judith said. She woke up a whole new person. She no longer crouched or hunched over into herself. Her voice was different.

“There’s no other way to say it,” Judith said, “but it’s like in the Bible when a demon is cast out.”

As Adele began to recover, however, Judith began to see some of Adele’s mysterious behaviors in Evan, and Amber’s physical health continued to be poor. Amber had had the stomach flu and chicken pox within her first few months of life, and she always had any sickness for three times as long as the rest of the family, Judith said.

These growing health problems plus the nearly $30,000 Judith spent every year on child care eventually required her to pull Evan and homeschool him for the year he would have had Adele’s non-IEP-believing math teacher. Not to mention Judith’s awareness of the risks for unwatched teenagers in their neighborhood.

The people who live in their public housing community are genuinely nice, hard-working people, Judith said. Rent is proportional to income, but getting a raise at work is still worthwhile since rent only increases by a fraction of that raise, she said. Parents work, but pre-teens and teenagers often go unsupervised. They can’t be in child care, and they get bored. That’s why she gets her kids away from home: not because the once-innocent faces have turned dangerous, but because kids without a guiding hand more easily find trouble. They drop out of high school. They lead difficult lives by all standards. So Judith has used the system for her kids to be free of it.

“My real job is being a parent,” she said. “I’ve done what it takes to get through.”

She credits her children’s success to scholarships to Trollwood Performing Arts School, financial and emotional support at church, social services in schools and through the government and Concordia’s support of Adele. Public housing helped them pay rent.

Food stamps helped buy food. Trollwood gave Adele an outlet. Every step of the way, they’ve needed everything they’ve had. These three kids would not be graduating from college or consistently lettering in academics. Judith believes they would not even be alive.

“We have pieced together a life,” she said, “and we’re piecing together a future as a family.”

Judith now works at Bank of the West, where she has worked since May 2011. If she can move into a full-time position, she plans to utilize the education benefits to return to school and finish a four-year degree like she requires all of her kids to do. After years of counseling and rebuilding their family, they are finally in a better place. Judith is finally able to pay her bills.

Adele’s recent allergy testing revealed she is allergic or sensitive to wheat, eggs, corn, dairy and most meat proteins as well most environmental allergens, such as trees and mosses. She also has a high-functioning case of Autism Spectrum Disorder, but on May 6, 2012, she will receive the same bachelor’s degree as any other English writing major at Concordia, and her family will be there to see her walk.

Judith pulls out her EBT food stamp card. The outline of North Dakota sits in the upper left corner, filled with pink wild prairie roses, the state flower. Using the card was the biggest source of embarrassment while she needed the aid, she said. But now, she keeps it in her purse as a reminder of the social services that saved her family.

“The whole world can end, and we’ll figure it out,” Adele said. “I’m seriously not afraid of a zombie apocalypse.”

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