September 1, 2014 Updated: September 2, 2014 at 11:46 am
As Josephine and Timothy Thill wrangle their three kids out of a store in Colorado Springs, the oldest stops in the doorway to ask what other errands they need to run.
"Next stop - the shelter!" Josephine says.
"You seriously said that out loud?" Amiracle says.
Josephine shrugs. It's just a fact: Home for now is the Salvation Army's R.J. Montgomery Center shelter.
The Thills are one of at least 110 homeless families with children in the Colorado Springs area, a number based on a one-day survey of the area's homeless population conducted in January. But experts say there likely are more, most of them victims of circumstances similar to those that landed the Thills in the shelter: Job losses. Minimum wage work. Bills. Bad choices.
The Thills didn't choose to be homeless, Josephine says. But they make the best of it.
At the crack of dawn
On a typical day, Josephine wakes up without an alarm at 5:30 a.m. in the family cabin at the shelter. She doesn't want the kids falling from the top bunk, so they sleep two to a bed on the bottom of two bunkbeds in a small bedroom.
Timmy, 4, still skips T, U and V when he sings the alphabet. Faith, 5, scribbles in a notebook and says she'll write a book one day. Amiracle, 11, wants to invent a cheaper bus pass because she says getting home shouldn't be so expensive.
"They're why I wake up in the morning," Josephine says.
Timothy, who sleeps in the men's section of the shelter, has to be at work at 6:30 a.m. He spends five days a week assembling screwdrivers and throwing the finished products in a box for $9.25 an hour.
"I just get up because I have to," he says. "I've got responsibilities. Plus, if I don't want to be here (in the shelter), I've got to do something to change that."
Josephine's job is also full time - 24/7 even. The kids have to be with her at all times, according to the shelter's rules.
"It's not easy," Josephine says. "But I do it."
The back seat of their 2003 Hyundai Accent is strewn with trash and kids' toys, but it gets Timothy to work and Josephine and the kids to Wal-Mart for their weekly grocery shopping. They make a wish list as they walk around the store when they see things they like. It's just something to pass the time. Today, they buy six bags of frozen meals, Ho Hos, chips and, for tonight's special dinner, pork chops.
Then they're back at the shelter, waiting for its Child Development Center to open at 8:30 a.m. The center is "nice enough," Josephine says. "They have A/C." Here, the kids spend the day under her watch, climbing, playing and wrestling.
10 places in 11 years
Josephine, 39, has never had a job outside of being a mom.
The month she graduated high school in Bloomington, Ill., she was pregnant with Amiracle Hodge. Amiracle's dad was no longer in the picture.
When Amiracle was 4, Josephine met Timothy in an Illinois Wal-Mart, where he was working.
In Illinois, Josephine had a housing voucher, which allowed her to use government subsidies to pay for private housing. When she and the kids came to the Springs with Timothy in October for his job, she thought she would qualify for a voucher.
She was wrong.
Instead, she found a shortage of affordable housing. For every 100 people making up to about $17,250 a year, there are only 16 affordable rental units available, according to Colorado Springs' 2014 Housing Inventory Count. Many families bunk with relatives or friends. Some live in their cars.
In her 11 years, Amiracle has lived in 10 places by her count: shelters, with friends, family members' homes, motels and a mobile home. Her family moved back to the shelter in June when they couldn't pay for a motel room.
Today, breakfast was a shared sandwich leftover from the day before, plus bags of chips and soda. By 10 a.m., the kids are hungry. Faith and Timmy eat cereal, and Amiracle has a TV dinner.
Josephine and the kids don't always eat at the shelter or Marian House soup kitchen, which would require a car trip. She likes to spend time alone with her kids, not in a big dining area where the family has to squeeze into whatever seats are open and might not get to sit together. When she can, Josephine makes their meals in the CDC's communal kitchen.
Faith and Timmy tire of the toys and start pulling every book off the CDC's single bookshelf, throwing them onto a circular kids' table. Timmy brings over two books.
Josephine haltingly reads aloud, struggling to pronounce the word "hexagonal."
She has dyslexia and is a self-described "slow learner." This, along with depression and anxiety, is what qualifies her for disability checks. Both of her parents were on disability, too, she says.
Tough to do homework
Getting ready for a day trip to a water playground, the girls parade around the CDC in an imaginary fashion show.
The kids don't have swimsuits, so they're borrowing clothes from the center - nothing fancy or for keeps but something different. Something Amiracle feels pretty in.
Amiracle says the kids at school make fun of her acne and her name.
"They pick on me because of my face," she says.
About 11:15 a.m., someone from the CDC takes Josephine and the kids to the Deerfield Hills Sprayground, a public park with spray guns, soak stations and a foaming geyser.
"It's going to be good for the kids to get out," Josephine says.
They picnic, eating bologna and cheese on white bread.
Amiracle sees a boy she knows from school and tries to say hi. When he just looks without waving back, she turns to her mom. "He's ugly, isn't he?"
Amiracle has a couple of friends at school but only one knows she's one of 99 students living in a shelter.
Being homeless "actually affects school pretty good," she says. At the CDC, she has to do homework during a set time every day. She says she doesn't like school and wants to be a nurse or invent cheaper bus tickets when she grows up.
As the shade recedes from the family's picnic table around 1 p.m., Josephine says it's time to go home.
What's the address?
Back at the CDC, Josephine distributes chocolate snack cakes and tosses Amiracle and Faith's borrowed wet clothes in the laundry. Josephine has to borrow dry clothes from the CDC for all of them.
Josephine and the kids leave at 2:45 p.m. to pick Timothy up from work. He gets off at 3:30 p.m., but it's a 25-minute drive north.
The family decides to run errands, driving with the windows down and arms resting on the windowsills. Amiracle likes running errands, doing anything outside the CDC.
"'Cause it makes us get away from that place," she says. "We don't have to be there all the time."
After Timothy stops at a pawnshop to make an interest payment on bikes that used to belong to Timmy and Faith, he holds a tray of free Blow Pop suckers down at Timmy's eye level.
"Pick whatever you want," he says.
He does this every time they stop in.
A few doors down, Josephine and the girls are figuring out how to qualify for a mail-in rebate for a new smartphone. The family is trying to switch from Cricket's services to T-Mobile to save money. Josephine needs the phone for the navigation and to keep in touch with Timothy when he's at work, she says.
She goes through the standard paperwork: name, date of birth, current number, address.
Address. Josephine pauses, pen held in the air.
"I'll have to ask my husband when he comes back in here about the address," she says. "I . I don't know it yet."
Rare day to celebrate
Josephine says they don't get to celebrate much, but today is one of those days.
At the CDC, they eat pan-fried pork chops with honey barbecue sauce and boxed macaroni and cheese. Faith stacks the empty plates and carries them to the kitchen.
"Thank you, Baby," Josephine says to Faith. "Give me a five."
The kids are each in charge of a chore after dinner, doing their part to return the CDC to how clean it was before the families came in at 8:30 a.m.
To live at the shelter, the Thills have to follow its rules. The Salvation Army recommends its clients save 70 percent of their salary, but that's not easy when Timothy has to pay $641 a month in child support, plus $400 in medical insurance, car insurance, storage, a phone plan and old bills.
Josephine wants to get a job like her husband's and a place of their own by August. But it's hard to find a three-bedroom place for less than $700 a month, Josephine says.
At 6:54 p.m., Josephine says she's tired, and it's time to start getting the kids ready for bed. They'll bathe in the family cabin's shared bathroom, giggle and fall asleep by 9 p.m. They have to get all of their clothes and bedding from the backpacks and trash bags labeled "Thill" that they pack everything into every morning.
Timothy will go back to his single bunk in the men's dormitory. He has to sleep away from his family at the shelter. It was hard at first, but he got used to it, he said.
"I'm used to Timmy up against me," he said. "I always knew he was OK because I could feel his little feet."
And it all starts over in the morning.
"Every day we wake up thinking, 'OK. What more can we do?' " Josephine says.
POSTSCRIPT: Since the initial reporting of this story, Timothy lost his job manufacturing screwdrivers. He also was asked to leave the shelter after a dispute with another resident over his reserved laundry time, he said. The Thill family moved into a motel in Colorado Springs. The family has since moved back to Bloomington, Ill., expecting better job opportunities through Timothy's old boss and to be closer to Josephine's parents.