Adrift in America

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Nick and Ginger Sweeney used the little saving they had in June bury their daughter Lauren Elizabeth, who was still born at six months into the pregnancy.

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A month later, Nick, 26, lost his $30,000-a-year job as a landscaper. The couple and their three school-age children-hers from a previous marriage-began a quick descent into homelessness. As he searched for work in three Missouri towns, they spent more than a month pitching tens in campgrounds. The Sweeneys had moved to Cameron, Missouri, after Nick’s discharge from the Army, where he spent eight months in Afghanistan and a year in Iraq.  The couple married since 2001, were expecting their first child together.  Because hers was a high-risk pregnancy and she felt ill, the Army let Nick go three months early.

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“We had a complete nursery done. We weren’t thinking about saving for anything else, “ says Ginger, 33.

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She knows now how quickly homelessness can happen to families that live paycheck to paycheck. “We got behind on the van (payments), and the rent money bought our daughter’s casket,” she says. Burial costs totaled $3,000.

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The Sweeneys had difficulty finding help. Nick says possible landlords, pastors and community aid groups all asked them: “Are you displaced by Hurricane Katrina?” He says some agencies said they could help only Katrina evacuees. Others said they could find emergency money if the family had a disability. Others hung up on them.

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“Honestly, if we lied and said we were from New Orleans, we would have all kinds of help,“ he says, “But we can’t lie. How would that look to our kids?”

Eventually, the Saline County Interagency Council paid one week’s rent for a motel room in Marshall, Missouri, where the family lived for thee weeks. The motel lowered its rate and the family’s First Baptist Church also helped.

The kids – Rusty, 13, Larry, 11, and Lisa, 10, – are back in school and both parents recently found jobs in Marshall. Ginger works as a convenience store cashier and Nick works at a plant making precast concrete.

Ginger says her husband believes everything happens for a reason. She says she was skeptical of the outlook for a while but now agrees with it. “Obviously there was something we needed to learn. We took things for granted,” she says. “As a family, we’re closer now.”

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