Family on the Corner

Eight months in front of Costco, with a pair of 3-year-olds



Around noon on Oct. 19, a Tuesday, she sat on the curb near the corner holding her cardboard sign so that people in the cars could read it before heading into the Costco gas station. She was young, fair-skinned, with a little bit of makeup and long, wavy, blonde-highlighted hair. She wore flipflops, black capris and an unzipped clean white hoodie over a white blouse. Her sign said, in felt-tipped pink, purple and blue letters, "Willin' 2 Work! Lost Home. Need Motel. Please, Anything Helps."

A young man, his brow furrowed, stood beside her. He was pale and thin, with short sandy hair and neatly trimmed facial hair, and he wore clean jeans, a crisp white T-shirt and blue-and-white athletic shoes. He, too, faced north, ready to leap out and answer the question from the lowered window, or retrieve the offering -- advice, cash, food, lecture, whatever.

A blue-eyed girl, her cheery face smeared with juice and her blonde hair slightly tousled, leaned against a double-seated blue stroller sipping from a fast-food soda cup. A blue-eyed boy, his head shaved into a wispy mohawk, hunkered on the sidewalk drawing on a piece of paper with crayon; he kept scooting his butt into the street so he could use the curb as a table, and the woman kept scooting him back onto the sidewalk. "You can't be in the street!" she scolded.

Cars streamed past. One, a black pickup, lingered at the stop sign and the driver talked briefly to the young man, then drove the pickup around the corner and stopped. The man ran over to talk to the driver, then came back. "That guy offered me some work tomorrow," he said to the woman. "Just a one-day job, but...."

A dark blue car drove past, giving a friendly beep, and the young couple waved.

A beat-up red truck rattled up to the stop sign, revved its engine and peeled out, the driver shouting, "You're exploiting your kids!"

Then a small white car pulled to the curb.

They met in 2007 in the Hoopa Tribal Civilian Community Corps, a room-and-board AmeriCorps program for 18- to 24-year-olds combining practical education with community service. Cheyanna Long was 18 and had spent the last half of her life in Willow Creek and the Hoopa Valley as a loved, adopted child -- and trying to recover from the rocky first half. Her parents lost custody of her when she was 3 months old, after which she'd been tossed between aunties and foster homes, had occasional scary encounters with her needle-waving dad, and witnessed the death of her beloved grandpa.

Timothy Howard was 20 and had lived with his grandparents his whole life -- his dad was in prison and his mom was unable to raise him. His first 15 years were in Fresno, and the rest mostly in Hoopa, where his grandparents had relatives.

In the TCCC, they were learning all sorts of commendable skills: swift-water rescue, CPR, first aid. But then Cheyanna got pregnant by Timothy. She wasn't being a stupid teenager; she was on DepoProvera.

They quit the TCCC and Cheyanna's adoptive mother, Viola Long, let them live in a trailer on her property in Hoopa. Things soured fast between Timothy and Viola, and after the twins, Janice and Timmy, were born, on Sept. 29, 2007, the young family moved in with Timothy's grandparents -- a household, unfortunately, known locally as "the pill house." Two years later his grandma died and his grandpa moved to Crescent City. Cheyanna, Tim and the babies moved to the coast to live in the Multiple Assistance Center in Eureka.

Three weeks later Timothy was kicked out. He was hooked on painkillers. He entered a detox program, and Cheyanna and the kids stayed in the MAC. When he got out, they went together to the Eureka Rescue Mission where, one by one, they each got a staph infection that required hospitalization. After two months, the city's winter shelters opened, and for 45 days, on the county's dime, the family stayed in the Broadway Motel.

The 45-day period ended in late March of this year. Tim hadn't landed a job. They were on waiting lists for further assistance. They would need $50 nightly for the motel room.

"Omigod, babe, what are we going to do?" Cheyanna asked Timothy on their last free night in the motel. Then she answered her own question: "We could try flyin' a sign."

Their first sign said "Stranded." It was embarrassing. It was degrading. But they told themselves they were good parents and they wouldn't be doing this forever.

And now it was mid-October.

The guys inside Honest Engine, an automotive repair and parts shop on the northeast corner of West Wabash and Short Street, had a clear view of the family on the corner from their shop's front windows.

"They've been out there a long time, and sometimes almost every day," said Steve Talmadge, the manager. He sat at the long, L-shaped counter with paperwork spread before him. "They come in here and ask for change for our soda machine -- they give us dollars and we give them change."

A few months ago, a woman was calling the shop every day to complain about the begging family. "She was really upset about the kids, and she wanted me to call the newspaper, the police, child welfare services," Talmadge said. "I didn't. It's none of my business. And it's not illegal, what they're doing."

One time, he said, the young guy came over to help the owner's wife pick up garbage that somebody else had strewn about.

Monte, a technician, frowned. "They yell at the kids," he said. "I've heard them cussing in front of them."

"They'll use the f-word," added Steve. "But I think they yell at each other, not the kids."

"It just bothers me," said Monte. "Here's a guy who can work. He never came in here for a job application." He fell quiet. Then he added: "But they're not hurting anybody. They don't make any trouble. I don't have a problem with them; I just feel sorry for them."

"I don't believe that there aren't jobs out there," Talmadge said. "You always see help wanted signs at the fast food joints. When I moved up here in 1985, I took a job, minimum wage. I didn't want to do just nothing."

Technician David Sugg came in from the back. "I heard they were run out of Hoopa because they were big-time druggies," he said. "And I remember one Saturday I came down here to work and he, the guy, was standing over there screaming 'Help! I need help!' He acts erratic. ... I think they should jerk the kids and make [the parents] pee in a bottle. It's a little depressing, because the kids seem so sweet."

They took in $200 the first day they panhandled, back in March. After that, on the best days, they brought in $100, tops. Usually, they could make the 50 bucks to pay for their motel room in a couple of hours. And people brought them all kinds of stuff. A retired sheriff came by every first of the month with a bunch of McDonald's for the kids. He said, "Hey, I'm a grandpa, and I'm going to be your kids' grandpa today." People brought them blankets and food. One time, Cheyanna put up a sign saying they needed camping gear, and they were flooded with gifts: tent, sleeping bags, food, foldable camp chairs.

Another time, Cheyanna and the kids were sitting on the grass next to the stop sign. Timothy was making a few dollars helping a guy unload a truck down the street. And a guy who takes care of Costco's landscaping came over and told her and the kids to get off the fucking grass. Then he turned the sprinklers on them. Cheyanna and the kids ran, soaking wet, to the entrance of Costco to complain. A manager came out and apologized but said he couldn't do anything about the groundskeeper because he was a contractor. He went back in.

But then he came back out and asked if they wanted a pizza, went back in, and brought the pizza out. He told them the rules: Stay off the grass, don't block the sidewalk, don't litter.

Lately, people seemed to be giving less. Maybe they thought it was a scam. Some people yelled, "Social services is right down the block!" Or they accused Cheyanna of doing heroin. She didn't! And don't say that word around her kids!

Also, the cops seemed to be coming around more often, telling them they were endangering their children. Cheyanna invoked the name of one of them whenever one of the kids misbehaved: "You better come back here. Sgt. Sanchez is coming!"

The kids thought he was scary.

So did Cheyanna's newfound Auntie Kathy.

"He's rough, he's a very domineering male and he's prejudiced," said Kathy Anderson, sitting in a pink chair on her back porch on Fairfield Street one recent afternoon. "Especially toward the homeless."

Storm-filtered sunlight lit up her pretty garden and the clay suns and clocks hanging on the fence -- gifts from some of the homeless people she'd helped. A bamboo chime hanging from the awning clonked. The late-afternoon traffic on Fairfield grew louder as more cars darted off Broadway into the neighborhood. She said she'd been homeless once. She'd run away from a bad home when she was 14 and was raised by a group of homeless hippies on Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco.

Kathy belongs to CopWatch, a group that monitors police actions, and runs her own street ministry to help the homeless. One day a month or so ago she ran into Cheyanna and discovered she was the adoptive daughter of her sister-in-law, Viola Long. She and Viola hadn't spoken in years, not since Kathy's husband, Viola's brother, died, and Kathy hadn't seen Cheyanna since she was a child.

She eventually invited the family to come stay with her awhile, and for the past few weeks they'd been sleeping most nights on a couch in her tiny downstairs Victorian apartment.

So, yes, they had a safe place to stay for the time being. But Kathy didn't think they'd stop panhandling immediately. They were used to the money. Sometimes, they brought food home to cook. They were trying. But they still had some growing up to do. Give ’em time, she said.

Eureka Police Sgt. Rodrigo Sanchez arrested Cheyanna once, for shoplifting at Winco. Timothy, too, had been apprehended by another cop one time when he seemed under the influence.

"The only reason I haven't arrested them for child endangerment is I'm reluctant to split up the family," Sanchez said over the phone.

But he'd told them repeatedly that what they were doing wasn't safe. The car exhaust was bad for the kids' young lungs. The kids needed some sunscreen. And just a week or so ago, two cars had collided at that very intersection.

"The biggest concern I have is for the children," Sanchez said. "And it's my personal opinion that they're using them to make people feel sorry for them and give them money. And I know that Cheyanna has a drug problem -- ask her to show you her arms. And I know he does, too. I've told him to be a man and take care of his family. ... I'm also of the opinion that we should help people. I've actually contacted them and provided them with phone numbers to agencies. And I've told her there is shelter for her and the kids at the women's shelter."

The county's Child Protective Services division apparently hasn't determined they're endangering their children; otherwise, why would they still be out there? (CPS won't talk about specific cases, but Cheyanna said CPS opened a case on them in May, checked out their motel room, examined the kids for abuse or neglect, and then closed the case.)

Sanchez said people in similar circumstances that he'd booted from the street often came back later to thank him.

But what about people who said he was hostile and scary?

"Have you seen what I look like?" he said, gruffly. "I'm 6'2" with a bald head and a mustache and my happy face is probably scary."

Solomon Williams may be a well-fed 53-year-old, living easy in Petrolia. But when he was a kid, his family was one of the poorest in his community in Detroit. They ate powdered eggs and canned meat. But he and his eldest sister, after getting an education, helped their family get out of the ghetto and then, through the church, they told people how they did it.

That is why he pulled over, that Tuesday, when he saw the young family on the corner. He'd also worked as a case manager for a local homeless services outfit. He knew there were people who were desperate. Who might turn to prostitution if their children went hungry one more night. It didn't matter to him what Cheyanna and Timothy's story was -- they'd say what they felt they needed to say in order to appear worthy. But whether they were deserving or not, the end result was the same. Their reality was still just as screwed-up. Their kids were still hungry. She might be a beginning tweaker, and if he gave them money they might use it to get her a hit that night. But maybe there'd be a positive shift in their thinking if he stopped to help.

He parked his small white sedan in the red zone and got out: a middle-aged black man in green pants and a green shirt. He walked up to Cheyanna and handed her several 20s. "Thank you!" she said.

Did they have a place to go at night? Solomon asked. Had they sought services? Did they have a plan?

Timothy and Cheyanna told him their story. They said they'd been robbed several times. They stayed in a motel most of the time. And, recently, a woman gave them an apartment to live in in Arcata, but it turned out she was attracted to Cheyanna and wanted just her and the children to live there, not Timothy.

Little Janice, growing restless, made a chubby-legged dash down the sidewalk. Cheyanna and Timothy shouted at her to come back; then Cheyanna ran after her and picked her up. Then Timmy did it. Finally, they strapped the kids into the stroller: Timmy, in the back seat, played with one of his shoes, and Janice, in the front, clutched a bald baby doll dressed in a white onesy.

But Timothy was excited. Just today, he said, his social worker told him there was a job for him, through the welfare-to-work program, at the Humboldt Botanical Gardens. He started work the following Monday, or as soon as he got his lost social security card replaced and signed the contract.

"Do you smoke?" asked Solomon, unimpressed.

"No," said Timothy.

"The Petrolia volunteer fire department is usually looking for somebody with training, but is willing to train," Solomon said.

"I've always wanted to do that, too," said Timothy.

Well, said Solomon, if he got on with the volunteer fire department, that would impress someone farther down the line who might hire him for pay.

"Yeah!" said Timothy. "Right on!"

Go to the Sun Valley bulb farm, Solomon continued. They often are hiring.

Cheyanna said she'd finished high school in just two years. "And people don't know that I have two years toward a psych degree," she added. She'd done the coursework online. She also had an in-home supportive services certificate to be a caregiver, but she was too busy caregiving her own children to work.

When she was ready to work, said Solomon, he'd help her put together her resume.

"That'd be awesome," she said. "That'd be great. Because I know I can do it."

Solomon said he would put together a packet of information and send it to them. They exchanged e-mails. Then he pulled out his wallet, extracted several more 20s, and gave them to Cheyanna.

"They are too young to beg!" said Betty Chinn, over the phone. The well-known local homeless advocate sounded upset. "They can work. They even can volunteer."

She knew the family. She knew they'd been kicked out of the Multiple Assistance Center. They don't want to change! She tried to help them, but every time she talked to them Timothy told her he had a job. He never had a job.

"They can tell many, many stories," she said. "I only help people who help themselves. They can have breakfast with me, dinner with me, lunch with me. I tell people, don't give them the money. It encourages their lifestyle. They choose the lifestyle, the easy money -- OK. But the kids, it's not good for them. I had a friend from Ferndale call me who said she almost hit one of the kids!"

She said getting back into the MAC would be the best way for them to return to society.

Or, Cheyanna could just come on home with the kids, said Viola Long, Cheyanna's adoptive mother, that same day on the phone from Hoopa. People had been blowing up her phone with reports of her daughter begging on the streets of Eureka. It dismayed her.

"Cheyanna does not have to be in that position," she said. "And I do not want the community to feel sorry for them. I'm actually very upset with her. For a mother to drag her children out into the rain is bullshit."

She said Cheyanna and the kids could come home any time. Without Timothy. He was not welcome. He'd stolen from her, she said, and lied, and she'd taken out a two-year restraining order against him. He was a total prescription drug freak, she said. They both were, and they did heroin -- look at their arms, she said. One time, she said, when they were living with her in Hoopa, one of the twins got hold of one of Timothy's methadone pills and had to be rushed to Mad River Hospital.

She won't support Cheyanna's drug habit, she said, but she can come home.

"I miss my daughter," she said. "Him, I don't give a damn. He says the same thing over and over, that he's clean now, that he'll get a job. Let me tell you, this guy will blow smoke up your butt."

A cop had pulled up and was quizzing Timothy. After the cop left, Timothy came back over to Cheyanna, agitated. "He said, everytime I see you you're high," he told her. "I said, I'm not high now, am I?"

He sighed. "I'm not gonna lie," he said. "I've messed up. I know I'm not perfect. But we're good parents and as soon as I'm working we're not going to panhandle anymore."

But the cop encounter had affected his mood. He was supposed to go sign a contract for his new job, which started in a few days. But now it was too late, he said, defeated. He and Cheyanna packed up the kids and walked over to the Eureka Natural Foods shopping center and Timothy disappeared. Cheyanna, whose glittery eyegloss made it look like she had teardrops in the corners of her eyes, said, "Tim likes to hang out with people who do bad things. But once you have kids, everything is different. I have to do what's right for the kids. At the same time, I love Tim. And if he does wrong..."

She trailed off. Then she said, "People say, 'Why aren't you leaving him? Why don't you raise your kids with someone else?' But it's not about 'someone else.' I want to raise them with Tim.'"

The county Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the welfare-to-work program, doesn't talk about specific cases. So the details of Timothy and Cheyanna's case remain theirs alone to tell.

They might still be panhandling. He may or may not be working. They're young. Cheyanna's Auntie Kathy wants to give ’em time. Not everyone agrees. And with winter coming, and with the children nearing a third of their lives on a corner, that time could be running out.

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