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The number of homeless students in Missouri has doubled in the last decade. And in rural school districts the problem is well-hidden, leaving many schools to pick up the slack.

Living in the Shadows: Homeless Family Finds Stability Through Pastor

Marissanne Lewis-Thompson/KRCU
Joanne plays the piano after choir rehearsal. Like many youth in Cape Girardeau she's homeless.

Members of the choir meet for their weekly rehearsal at this Cape Girardeau church. One by one, they’re filling the pews--waiting for their cue to sing and cut loose.

The choir’s director is “Natasha” - we’re changing her name for her protection. Vocally she’s a force of nature singing with power and conviction. But behind that voice is a single mom of three who is currently homeless. Her life now is a stark contrast from the nuclear family she was raised in.

Growing up she had both parents in the home. She went to church every day.

“I thought life was good and everything was peachy keen,” Natasha said.

Fast forward some years later and her dream life started unraveling. Her parents split-up, she was pregnant, and eventually she and her mom moved to Sikeston. Later she went back to school and got her degree. She rented a house and soon started teaching. Life was looking up for her.

“Then Mr. Wonderful came in about 2007," Natasha said.

For a while things were okay. She got married. They had two kids together. In December of 2014 they moved back to Cape Girardeau directly across the street from her childhood home.

"I'm like 'okay this is this is it, you know,’” Natasha said. “‘We're going to get two dogs and he's going to go to work every day and I'll be home taking care of the kids until the little one starts school and I'll go back to teaching and ah everything will be great.'"

That picture perfect life started to fade. In May of 2015, Natasha left her tumultuous and volatile marriage of 8 years. Ultimately that decision left Natasha’s now teenage daughter who we’re calling “Joanne” homeless. For months they bounced from place to place staying with relatives and friends.

She got an apartment and a job delivering newspapers to Blytheville, Arkansas. But that was short lived.

“I tried to go one night like when I first [started the job] and I just couldn’t do it,” Natasha said. “I shook all the way to the car. I was literally shaking. I’m like if I’m this nervous there’s no way I can you know? Just think, what if something happened.”

By January money was tight and she couldn’t keep up with the rent. She moved back to Sikeston to live with her mom and her two young sons. But Natasha wanted her kids … and especially Joanne ... to stay in the Cape Girardeau Public school district.

With the looming weight on her shoulders she confided in her pastor who we’re calling “Lana.”

"We started talking,” Lana said. “And she shared with me how her housing situation was vulnerable. And she had not lost housing yet, but she was really just in this place of I don't know what to do next. And so I just listened.”

The plan was for Joanne to live with her at the parsonage--that’s where the pastor lives.

“So, I offered,” Lana said. “Here's what I know I can do, and this is available if you want this. This is what I'm willing to do and what I can do.”

Natasha accepted the offer.

“I was like, 'okay cool, but this would be not cool because that's my baby,’” Natasha said. “I don't want her to feel like I'm saying, 'here you know. I can't do it so, here's someone to help us get through this.”

For Joanne, the news rocked her world.

"I was a little in a way kind of shocked [and] surprised,” Joanne said. “Like 'I'm going to live with my pastor?' But at that moment I didn't realize what kind of situation we [were in]."

Life for Joanne now is different and sometimes it’s just the little things she has to get used to.

“She would always say like 'goodnight' and stuff like that,” Joanne said. “You know 'mom can you turn the light off? Mom can you put my glasses up?' Something like that. But now, I don't hear her voice whenever it’s time to go to school.”

Joanne is like a lot of 14 year olds. She’s introverted, reserved and guarded in her feelings. Sometimes it’s difficult for her to tell her mom how she’s really feeling.

"Sometimes it just kind of breaks your heart sometimes to see that your mother isn't truly--isn't truly [and] fully relieved, because all of her family isn't together," Joanne said.

Like for most mothers it’s a hard pill to swallow knowing your child is hurting.

“She's like 'you know I don't want mom to see that this could possibly be bothering me, because that's just going to be one more thing on her,’” Natasha said. “‘So, I'll be strong so it's one less thing.’” I don't want her to have that much weight on her shoulders, because she's just 14.”

As her mom was talking, Joanne was sitting there focused. She was fighting desperately to hold back the tears. Her shoulders were tense. Her jaw was locked. It was in that moment when her eyes glossed over that a scared 14 year old emerged.

“If she wants to cry,” Natasha said. “If she wants to say 'mom I'm scared.' I promise you I'm just going to hold you until you don't feel that way no more."

Currently, Natasha drives back and forth daily from Sikeston to Cape Girardeau getting all three of her kids to school, home and after school activities. With all that moving around it makes being a family even more difficult. But for Lana, when they step inside her house all of those secondary distractions are put on hold.

“You get to be family here,” Lana said.  “And so, they can have family dinner here and do homework here. And just have a place of respite if they just need a place of respite. And just a place to be family without the intrusion of any other family members.”

Natasha and Joanne said it’s their faith that has gotten them this far.

“It is basically faith,” Joanne said. “Like my mom said that's how she raised me to always have faith.”

At the end of the night they jumped behind the piano and started singing. And all of the pain, frustration and sadness was lost in the music.

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