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EXCHANGE: Couple thankful for new start after living in tent

November 24, 2018

PEORIA, Ill. (AP) — On the cusp of Thanksgiving, Tiffany Bryant and Daniel Crowley were grateful for a roof over their heads.

Until recently, the couple spent three years in a tent near the Illinois River. Even in sub-zero nights of winter, they toughed it out, as they had nowhere else to go.

They do now. Although disbelieving at first, they accepted a nudge from Dream Center Peoria to move into The Village, the not-for-profit’s supportive-housing program. They’re on a path to permanent employment and housing.

“Somebody gave us a chance,” says Daniel, 40. “For that, I’ll be forever grateful.”

Until this year, life had been unraveling for years for the pair, the Journal Star reports .

Tiffany grew up in Peoria and attended Peoria and Limestone high schools, leaving school early but later earning a diploma. She married and had three children, working as a stay-at-home mom.

But after a divorce, she had no means of supporting herself or the kids. So the children went to live with her family, and (for reasons the shy woman prefers not to discuss) she ended up living on the street.

Daniel is a native of Kankakee, and his job history included bartending and warehouse work. He was married and had two children, but after a divorce his ex-wife moved to Peoria. He also made the move here so he could see the kids, who live with her. But stress prompted him to hit the bottle.

“I was kind of all over the place,” he says. “I was drinking a lot. That’s a recipe for disaster.”

Daniel also ended up living outdoors. One night, during a Salvation Army Christmas dinner, he met Tiffany. About eight years ago, they became a couple. Although they’ve never tied the knot, they’ve long considered themselves husband and wife.

They’d shuffle from shelter to shelter, often encountering challenges like “thieving and gossiping,” Daniel says. Other problems would pop up, like the time he got in a fight with a man who made a racist comment to his wife, prompting the shelter to toss the couple out.

Meanwhile, they often would get temporary jobs: She’d work carnivals coming to town, while he’d hold a street-side sign to promote retailers. They’d also do odd jobs, like shoveling snow.

But better employment eluded them for several reasons. They had no car, so they’d have to depend on buses and didn’t always have funds; he once had a bicycle, but it vanished. And while moving around, they’d often lose their identification and Social Security cards, needed for hiring.

Plus, Daniel has sickle cell anemia, which without medical care and medicine would leave him in debilitating episodes of pain. If in agony, he couldn’t work; if he couldn’t work, he could make money to get health care. And the spiral continued.

“It’s hard when you’re at the bottom,” he says matter-of-factly.

As their scenario worsened, three years ago they decided to get away from the troubles of the shelters and live on their own. So, they scraped together $30 and bought a three-man tent from Walmart. Daniel took discarded pallets and set up a base near a business by the river, then set the tent atop it.

The set-up was fine (if sometimes hot) during warm months. But the winter brought dire challenges. During the day, they’d visit warm public places like the Downtown library. At night, sometimes amid sub-zero temps, they’d wear thermal clothing and bundle together inside the tent.

“If you keep the wind off you, you’re all right,” Daniel says.

They sometimes would cook with a slow cooker connected to a nearby business’ outside outlet. But if they’d leave the tent to get warm during the day, they might return to find belongings missing, even those hidden in bushes.

“Homeless steal from other homeless,” Daniel says.

The hardest days often were Thanksgiving and Christmas. Although agencies provide meals, most public places are shut down, leaving folks like Tiffany and Daniel with no place to keep warm during the day.

“Everybody is celebrating, but we were stuck,” Daniel says. “There’s nowhere for you to go. It’s like a ghost town.”

Last Christmas was one of their worst. Huddled in their tent, then went to sleep when the temp was in single digits, only to wake up under a wind chill that was below zero.

“Holidays are hard when you’re homeless,” Daniel says.

But in January, their tent was spotted by a representative from Dream Center Peoria, the faith-based social-service agency at 714 Hamilton Blvd. (where I volunteer at times). Kristy Schofield, the Dream Center’s director of housing, was alerted about two people living outside.

It’s not uncommon to find people living in tents in Peoria, often under bridges — but not during the worst days of winter, not like Tiffany and Daniel.

“It broke my heart,” Schofield says.

The Dream Center invited the couple to The Village, the supportive-housing program that includes classes on job training (such as secretarial and auto repair) and life skills (such as budgeting and anger-management). The goal is to get residents prepared for a solid job and transition to traditional house.

At first, Daniel was skeptical: Other agencies had made somewhat similar offers over the years, but nothing panned out.

“Nothing moved ahead,” he says.

Still, the couple filled out an application. In August, an apartment opened in The Village, and they moved in. Since then, Tiffany has been learning administrative job skills, and soon she’ll begin a computer class; Daniel is about to start classes in culinary arts.

Meanwhile, a Dream Center caseworker has not only helped arrange for ongoing treatment for Daniel’s sickle cell anemia, she has accompanied him to each doctor’s visit to ensure everything goes smoothly. His pain is now manageable, which delights director Schofield.

Impoverished people have a hard time rising from their situation if beset by medical woes.

“How, when you’re living in a tent, can you remember a doctor’s appointment?” she says. “How, if you’re living in a tent, can you have meals adequate to take care of a medical condition?”

Routinely, Tiffany volunteers at the front desk for the housing area, while Daniel volunteers to sweep and clean floors.

“That’s just our way of helping, of saying thanks for pulling us out,” he says.

The pair doesn’t much celebrate holidays, in part because of difficulties holidays bring to the homeless. Still, as Daniel says, “I’m thankful every day of the year. I’m thankful to the most-high God.”

Yet they realize that this Thanksgiving marks a big change in their lives.

“I remember last Thanksgiving, where I was, compared to this Thanksgiving,” Daniel says. “We don’t have to be outside.”

Says Tiffany, “It won’t be like last year.”

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Source: (Peoria) Journal Star, https://bit.ly/2QhF6yD

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Information from: Journal Star, http://pjstar.com

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