1 in 9: Single Father Lifts Family Out of Homelessness

Ed. Note: Between the years 2007 and 2011, the percentage of people living below the poverty level in Clark County was estimated at 12.9 percent. For a single person in 2012, this is an annual income of $11,170. The following story is part of 8NewsNow.com's coverage of the Las Vegas valley's poor.

LAS VEGAS -- Sherwood Wade-El sits on the full-size bed in the rented weekly apartment he and his four children call home for now.

His youngest son d'Artagnan -- a name borrowed from The Three Musketeers -- kneels on the floor, using the bed as a makeshift desk while reading a math problem aloud. His father guides him as the young boy's pencil makes its reply on the worksheet.

"I like the way you attacked that problem," Sherwood says to d'Artagnan.

Sherwood is a relative rarity as a single father to four -- including Jayden, a boy confined to a wheelchair by spina bifida -- as he struggles to provide shelter for his children during this winter's cold nights.

Five years ago, Sherwood ran a travel agency and raised his children with his wife. Today, it's just him and the kids surviving on the fringes of dignity.

"A part of it is the economy," Sherwood said. "When we were in Pennsylvania, we made this major move, there were six of us (and) their mother was in the home. At some point, we didn't work it out and she decided she needed to move on, but with her went a significant part of income. We lost our home and things."

In Clark County, just 3.2 percent of families are led by single fathers and according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics from 2010, 23.7 percent of single father-led families with children under the age of 18 lived in poverty nationwide. In families led by single mothers, the poverty rate was 38.5 percent.

Before securing what amounts to a motel room, the family stayed in shelters, splitting up because Sherwood was originally told he could not sleep in the same area as his children because he is a man.

He and his children soon after moved into a complex located at the seedy north end of the Las Vegas Strip. With one room and one bed, the five inhabitants somehow have learned to move around each other with ease.

On this night, the Christmas holiday approaches and the children giggle in the bathroom as they practice the season's festive songs. Shortly after, they emerge, beaming as they sing "The Twelve Nights of Christmas."

They know this year, there will be no gifts under a Christmas tree that's not coming. With just enough room to squeeze around three sides of the bed, a tree -- even if they could afford one -- would be just another obstacle in the family's quest to build a new life for themselves. The children understand, the father said, that this year he simply cannot give them gifts.

"They all had risen to a standard of simply saying, we're going to do what we have to do," Sherwood said of his children, whom he affectionately calls "the monsters." "We do what we have to do, so we can do what we want to do. I borrowed that from a movie, 'The Great Debaters.' … That's become our little mantra: do what we have to do."

For dinner, Sherwood's only daughter, a tall 12-year-old named after the great Egyptian goddess, Isis, said she looked forward to their meals of instant ramen noodles, cooked downstairs in the motel lobby's microwave. If she could have any meal, though, she said she'd want shepherd's pie, as she described its savory ingredients.

As the only girl, Isis often struggles without a female role model, Sherwood said. Isis said at times it can be difficult.

"I miss being with girls," she said. "(But) as long as we have our privacy, it's OK. They're easy men to live with."

The bed is not big enough for the family of five. Sherwood, a husky teddy-bear of a man, and his oldest son, Niger, will use the sleeping bags rolled up in the closet to rest on the narrow floor space. Isis, d'Artagnan and Jayden will crowd onto the mattress.

"(It's) not tough," Sherwood said of the sleeping arrangements. "Uncomfortable. … Everyone's learned to make do and they understand that this isn't forever. This is a transition. We'll work through it."

Another obvious struggle in a space not suited for more than two people and a bulky wheelchair is Jayden's care. Because of his disability, Jayden not only can't walk, but is incontinent. This required Sherwood to outfit his son with specialized underwear and catheters. The bathroom, with garments hanging to dry, shows evidence of his recent cleaning. His medications include a muscle relaxer and antibiotics.

Jayden, a sociable boy who likes to talk, still smiles. He jokes with his father and siblings, even chiding them at times. His memory is clear as he described a recent bus trip when a part of the bus' interior fell on him and the bus driver showed little empathy.

Sherwood cannot be told his family's fortunes won't turn. He's weary, yes, but far from broken. Embarrassment shakes loose from his eyes at the temporary home he's providing for his children.

He once ran a travel agency in Pennsylvania, but when the economy tanked in 2008, he lost his business. Next, his marriage fell apart. Eventually, he and his children made their trek to California. Their luck still fell short, and they came to Las Vegas with little more than hope in their pockets. Today, the family owns no more than they can carry in their backpacks.

Throughout the family's bout with homelessness and tending to Jayden's extra needs, Sherwood struggles to finish his schooling to become a certified semitrailer and bus driver. Getting Jayden enrolled in a full-time school program for children with disabilities is Sherwood's focus at the time, which would give him time to finish his certification and start earning a living wage for his family, he said.

In December, the family has been working for four months through Catholic Charities' Homeless to Home program to secure subsidized housing. He provided the paperwork and documentation the charity required months ago, and at the time, Sherwood said he had no idea when they might be able to move out of the weekly motel. He's also struggled with Clark County Social Services and the state of Nevada for assistance because of an earlier application with the state of California for help and his son's meager disability income.

He also felt he had to push against a perception that a father can't be a child's sole custodian.

"We've even gone so far -- it's humorous, but it's sad -- I recall one intake worker gave me a list of written questions, the very first question on there was, 'How long has the father been away from the home?'" Sherwood said. "But I'm sitting here with the application, and I'm explaining, 'I'm Dad. I'm not the parent missing from the home.' And it was downhill from there. It was just a wash out from there."

Sherwood said he ended taking himself off his children's application so their application wouldn't be denied because of the closed California application. But in a bureaucratic Catch-22, his children can't apply for assistance themselves, so the family had to make do until January when he could reapply for assistance.

"The system's not working," Sherwood said. "The system doesn't work. There's a lot of duplication and there's a lot of, I'm just going to say it, failure. But being fair, there are some successes, but I think we see more people who are not being adequately served and we hear more about it, and it's more your base than those who are counted as successes."

It also took Sherwood more than half a school year to enroll Jayden because, he said he was told, the school district didn't have the ability to serve him. While his other children went to school, Sherwood spent his days with Jayden, commuting to a nearby library to homeschool him or running errands slowed down by his son's wheelchair.

Still, he makes sure all his children's needs are met.

"I make it a point that they won't leave here in the morning hungry," Sherwood said. "If they do, it's with the understanding they have lunch at school. …When they get back, we'll have dinner. (It's) creativity and ingenuity on my part, because I'm not going to let them go to bed hungry."

"The monsters do very well," he said. "They've done a very good job -- admittedly, not always -- but they are still very supportive of each other."

Niger never told his friends at school he was homeless. Instead, the 14-year-old named after a river in western Africa, would give vague answers about where he lived, telling them, "Oh, I live up north."

"I've had a couple of times where people have poked at me and I have gotten angry," Niger said. "To where I said something, maybe have done something, to get myself suspended, because of my anger."

Just a few days after Christmas, Sherwood received word his deposit had been accepted at an apartment, and Catholic Charities would pay the bulk of the rent for the first three months.

Now, in their new apartment, Niger feels more secure.

"It's made easier communication now that I have a specific address," he said. "All that's changed now. I have a permanent place to stay. I've gotten myself, my person, together. Things are different."

The family had no furniture to fill their home. The only chair was Jayden's when he wasn't using it. Kitchen countertop became tables, carpet a poor substitute for a sofa. Their source of entertainment is a basic 5-inch radio set to an AM channel playing jazz songs no one knows.

When a room is not in use, Sherwood asks, in his sometimes-booming voice, if anyone is in the room and, if not, why the lights are on. Although the charity is helping with the rent, he is responsible for all the utilities.

The next day, Sherwood said, he expected a truck full of furniture, the arrival of which came after a chance meeting with a Metro Police officer who also happened to be a community liaison.

Before moving into their home, Sherwood began discussing with his children the option of placing Jayden into a home where he would have 24-hour care. All decisions are discussed as a group and the children's input is considered, he said.

After much thought, Sherwood, who was raised in foster care, decided against it.

"My sister, for example, I didn't know until I was 14 because we were split up," he said, adding he also has three brothers. "I decided I'm not going to let that happen with my children. I'm not going to have two over here and one over here and so, it took some changes in plan, but it's worth it."

Jayden was finally signed up for class and by mid-January. A school bus would pick him up to transport him to class. The others ride the public bus together.

This frees Sherwood to complete his education.

"We need to finish school successfully, build up some savings, and squeeze in a vacation," he said. "I think that they definitely earned a vacation. Wherever they want to go."

They have a one-year lease on the apartment, and then, if the family decides to stay in Las Vegas, Sherwood said he would like to buy a house.

"The first thing is you really have to keep the faith, because it's easy to give up," Sherwood said. "It's easy to fall into despair."

For Niger, he already lost so much, but he finds a sense of security in the metal key he carries around with him.

"You have to leave a bunch of things behind and you're not going to get it back," Niger said of losing his home in Pennsylvania. "That hurt, and everything else that went along with it."

He is leaving that all behind. He is considering magnet schools for the upcoming school year to focus on a career in culinary arts, aerospace engineering or audio arts.

"If I go somewhere, even just walking around the house, I like to have my house key on me," Niger said. "I like the feeling … like a security blanket."

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