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— The kids' mom "is strung out on drugs and on the streets. I never deny them to see her. I never deny that that's their mom. I would like them to see her more often. It's just every now and then, she'll go off into her own little world, and she'll start talking about weird things. Sometimes she'll say some really hurtful things, and it bothers the kids a lot. I've just got to tell them, 'Mommy's just sick right now, and we've just got to pray for her.' "

What happened? "I was a real jerk, and I treated her bad, and then we got involved in drugs. She eventually got fed up with it and she left. It got a little bit worse on her side, and she started getting more into drugs. But I went into Victory Outreach and started changing my life around. I knew I had to, [for] my kids."

John was released from jail three months ago, after serving six weeks for a crime he doesn't care to name, which has made finding a new apartment and job difficult. The children stayed with a friend, who was evicted just as he was released. He stayed a week with his sister, who also watched the kids for nine months while he went through rehab. But her house is small, one bedroom, and she has hepatitis C besides, so he couldn't remain there. He receives about $700 a month from AFDC, but that was gone after two weeks at a hotel in East San Diego.

"I didn't know where we were going to spend Christmas. I'm just happy this place opened up. I was wondering where Christmas was coming from. I told the kids, 'Christmas is like, at least we've got each other. We've got a roof over our heads now.' They're just happy Dad's back. We have a clock radio upstairs in our room -- music seems to help a little bit, makes the time go by faster, makes it a little bit easier. I prefer 90.3 -- R&B, hip-hop. The girls were dancing in the middle of the beds; they were just happy that they had a bed to sleep in tonight."

With regard to the drugs, he says, "I still have trouble every now and then. I know I need to [quit] for my kids, because I don't want to lose them. I know if I end up going back to jail, I'll lose my kids, and I really don't want to. That's the only thing I have left now is the kids. I don't know what I would do without them. I probably wouldn't care. It's the kids that keep me going right now."

John is proud of his children, happy that he has been able to keep them in school, grateful that they are well-behaved. "My boys go to Hoover. My oldest boy is in ROTC. My girls go to Rosa Parks Elementary. I wish I was able to get them presents. My girl wants a bike, my other little girl wants a Walkman. My boys, they're not really picky, they're just happy with anything they get. I'm glad for that."

A Christmas tree stands in one corner of the room, decorated by a strand of colored lights. Another strand runs along a wall behind the tree. The cord angles upwards from an outlet. Other cords radiate from the outlet, lighting a Santa, an angel, a snowman, and a star, all fastened to the wall. Dark green strings, hung with pine cones, entwine a square white pillar, obscuring a cardboard Santa head.

* * *

Sheryl, a husky-voiced blonde, has been homeless since July. A mother of three, her second, aged eight, has Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), for which he takes generic Ritalin. "When it gets time for his next dose of medication, he gets real wound up. He was climbing trees where he shouldn't have been climbing, riding toys where he shouldn't have been riding them. They said he got into too much trouble" at the complex in Santee where she was renting a two-bedroom, $570-a-month apartment, and she was evicted.

"Donna at the Crisis House in El Cajon got me a two-week stay in the Days Inn Motel," she recalls. She left her two oldest children with their father, "temporarily, so he could get them to school and stuff while I got situated." She was with their father for 12 years; she has been separated from him for 8. Since then, she has had another child, Richard, now aged 5. Richard's father is in jail -- "We aren't together."

While she was living in a motel, her ex served her with custody papers for her two oldest children. "I guess he felt the children would be better off with him. They've been with me since they've been born. They don't want to be there now, but it was better at the time, you know? I didn't think he'd pull an underhanded move like that." He has remarried, "someone he had an illegitimate child with when I left him."

Just before the custody hearing, Sheryl got caught up in a warrant sweep for an offense she insists she has satisfied. "It was a failure to appear. I was supposed to do ten days of work service, which I did do at the El Cajon courthouse. I needed to go to the East Mesa Detention Facility to get a verification, because it didn't come up on the computer." She spent 18 days in jail, the custody hearing came and went without her being able to attend, and she lost custody of the children.

She also lost her Section 8 status, which had required her to pay only $142 of her $570 monthly rent. "They give you 120 days to find another place, and that expired while I was in jail. I had leads on apartments in El Cajon. I have to make a request that they review my situation and hopefully reopen my case. That's the only way you can afford a place, especially now that I'm getting AFDC for only one child -- $302."

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