There were times Darlene and Arturo Sanchez wanted to give up hope, forced to sleep inside a 2001 Toyota Corolla separated from their son and never have a home again.
Darlene said she didn’t know how to be homeless, when they lost their jobs several months ago. “It’s an emotional roller coaster,” she said.
Arturo said they kept telling each other they were going to make it through this together. But some days the daily struggle to find work, food and a place to bathe themselves was just too much for the Modesto couple to handle emotionally.
“You feel demoralized,” he said in Spanish. “You feel like you’re not worth anything.”
You feel demoralized. You feel like you’re not worth anything.
With financial help from Arturo’s family and encouragement from a Modesto faith-based group, Darlene and Arturo now have a home. They both found stable jobs and can afford rent in a small two-bedroom apartment in west Modesto.
But the memory of living in their compact car for seventh months is still vivid in their minds. They remember how they became homeless and constantly wonder if it will happen again. “I fear it every day,” Darlene said.
No matter how hard it was for these parents, they made sure their youngest son wouldn’t be forced to experience life without a home. They scraped up enough money from temporary work and donations from relatives to keep their son housed while they spent seven months sleeping in parking lots.
“I didn’t want him to endure what we did,” Darlene said about her son. “I didn’t want him to be out on the streets.”
They spent $250 a month for the teenage boy to live inside a RV parked outside the home of his friend’s grandmother. He would sleep in the RV, and he was allowed to go inside the house to bathe or watch TV. The home was near his school, the Stanislaus Military Academy in Turlock, so he continued with his education.
The 16-year-old boy says it was difficult living alone, while his parents were homeless. He always knew life for his parents was much tougher.
“It was hard not being with them, but it was better than sleeping in a car,” said the boy, who asked that his name not be included in this article. He’s about a year away from graduating and enlisting in the U.S. Army.
He would get sad. He said he wanted to come home. I told him, I promise you, I’m not going to give up.
“He would get sad. He said he wanted to come home,” Darlene said as she fought back tears. “I told him, ‘I promise you, I’m not going to give up.’ ”
The couple didn’t become homeless overnight. The financial problems piled up gradually, they said. They had accumulated about $700 in unpaid electricity bills while renting a three-bedroom house in Ceres. So, they moved to a studio apartment in Stockton to save money and be closer to part-time work as security guards and janitors.
When economic hardships eliminated those jobs, the couple was left with no income. Arturo used to work steadily in construction, but those job opportunities had disappeared long before that.
They failed to pay the $600 monthly rent, so they were evicted from the Stockton home. Darlene had failed to make payments on a Pontiac Vibe, so the small sport utility vehicle was repossessed by the bank. Now, they were homeless and didn’t have a vehicle.
Arturo’s brother sold the couple the Toyota Corolla for $500, and he let them borrow money to make ends meet and pay for their son’s rent. They still have the Corolla, using it to drive to work. And they still owe about $1,000 from those loans. “We intend to pay everyone back,” Darlene said.
Their older son, Fabian Munoz, also provided financial help. He’s 20 years old and a private in the Army stationed at Fort Lee in Prince George County, Virginia. He would help any way he could, even offering to take in his younger brother.
Munoz remembers those bleak months when his family was suffering and he was so far away. “I felt mad and sad, too. Because I really couldn’t do anything about it,” he said by phone on Sunday.
Darlene said her older son would pay for her cell phone bill to maintain a constant line of communication. She often would call him, seeking encouragement. “He was like my counselor,” she said.
She would use the smart phone’s Internet service to look for jobs and places to stay and bathe. Darlene and Arturo first chose Modesto hospital parking lots to sleep at night. They figured those places were safe, because they had around-the-clock security.
They had heard some security guards would spot homeless people and ask them to move on. They would sleep in one parking lot for a few nights, sometimes only four hours a night. They kept moving around, hoping not to draw attention.
Eventually, they started sleeping at a truck stop along Highway 99. There were other homeless people there just looking for a place to sleep; some of them are still there, Darlene said. She still gets emotional when she drives by the truck stop.
“You think you’ll get over it, but that used to be our home,” she said.
They continued to look for work. Arturo would occasionally find work in landscaping. They did their best trying to clean themselves up, using sinks in public restrooms to wash up. Darlene calls them “bird baths.”
It wasn’t enough to walk confidently into a job interview. A few months ago, they discovered the Cleansing Hope Shower Shuttle in Modesto. The service operated by What Would Jesus Do Ministries — aka Church in the Park — since early August has provided hot showers to well more than 4,300 homeless and working poor.
“They just didn’t offer a shower; they offered a shoulder to cry on,” Darlene said.
In April, Darlene and Arturo moved into their west Modesto apartment. Arturo got a job in maintenance at the apartment complex that offered a discounted rental rate for employees. The couple can afford the $535 monthly rent with Darlene working in housekeeping for a mental healthy facility in the area. The couple had tried before to rent a home, but most landlords they encountered wanted three months rent, a large deposit or proof of a bank account.
They had each other. They had a son who they were working for.
Kelli Ott of Church in the Park
At the shuttle service, they met Kelli Ott and Church in the Park founder Dean Dodd. Ott is an administrative secretary for Church in the Park and one of its board members. The group provides outreach for homeless people in the Modesto area and anyone in need.
Darlene said Ott and others from Church in the Park offered them spiritual support when they really needed it.
“You lose a lot of faith when you get down like that. She restored that faith,” Darlene said about Ott.
Darlene and Arturo from time to time return to Beard Brook Park near downtown Modesto and attend the Church in the Park weekly service. They were there this Sunday afternoon after spending the morning remembering how far they’ve come. “Sometimes you have to get recharged, spiritually,” Darlene said.
Ott said the Sanchez couple had two advantages, and one of them was that they had a car. They could drive to find work, and they could drive away from the danger that lurks while living on the street. Many homeless people don’t have that.
The other advantage they had was Darlene and Arturo relied on each other while working toward their goal in getting a home for their family. They sometimes argued over their daily struggles, but they always had respect for each other. That means a lot when you feel like your prayers aren’t being answered.
“They had each other,” Ott said. “They had a son who they were working for.”
Rosalio Ahumada: 209-578-2394