Van is home for young family
Jonathan and Stacey Leonard have been living in a van with their five kids as they search for housing that will accept them.
The cramped arrangement hasn’t been easy for the family of seven, whose children range in age from 1 to 7. In addition to being reluctant dwellers in their 2005 Dodge Grand Caravan, they’ve lived on and off in a variety of homeless situations in recent years, including tenting in Stratham, living week-to-week in motels in Hampton and Rye, and staying in shelters on the Seacoast and in Manchester.
“This is why people have mental breakdowns,” says Stacey, 32, an Allenstown native. “I don’t know where I’m supposed to go. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.”
While one of the most taxing parts has been spending entire days contacting landlords and scouring Craigslist ads for apartments that were already rented days ago, it’s their morning routine that serves as the big emotional sucker punch.
Every school day, Jonathan and Stacey make the drive from their parking spot to the bus stop right outside their old apartment on New York Street in Dover. At the time this article was written, their parking spot fluctuated between Rochester and Pease International Tradeport in Portsmouth. They say they do it so their children can have some normalcy and continue to attend the same school despite their transient lifestyle, but every second they spend at the stop comes with a visible reminder of what they’ve lost.
“(My daughter) says it all the time, ‘Can we go home?’ We’re right there in front of the house,” says Stacey. She says she “doesn’t have time to cry” because she can can’t think about what they’re going through at the same time as trying to figure out a place where the whole family can stay together. That last part is difficult, as most shelters are overburdened and can’t accommodate families of seven.
The Leonards were one of two or three seven-person families that Coordinated Entry, the state's centralized phone system for shelter intake and other homeless services, attempted to place into area shelters this fall. When combined with his firsthand experiences looking at apartments, Jonathan, 37, a Stratham native who has a criminal record, says that’s evidence the highly competitive housing market is squeezing out individuals who have several kids and imperfect histories.
“Some of the places we’ve looked at say they’ve got 100 people applying for the same apartment,” says Jonathan, adding one landlord told him they needed to make $3,600 to even be considered for a place on Rochester’s Lafayette Street. “You almost have to be the perfect applicant.”
The Leonards have found themselves homeless multiple times over the last several years, each time due to various circumstances. Those include car repairs they couldn’t afford, an eviction for withholding rent, having to move out of motels due to either the high week-to-week cost or the summer tourism season, and most recently, being asked to leave a shelter in Rochester due to a confrontation involving Stacey and another resident.
The Leonards get by on food stamps and $1,123 in disability payments that Jonathan gets each month, which Stacey says is for Jonathan's chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and his antisocial personality disorder. Stacey doesn’t work because there is no other option for taking care of their five kids, whom both parents say are the top priorities when it comes to money, food, clothing and comfort. It’s been a delicate balance for them for years, and one Jonathan believes could happen to anyone.
“My mother had a brain aneurysm, then my grandfather died," Jonathan said. "Obstacle, obstacle, obstacle. It’s not easy, but like I said my priority right now is to swallow my pride and do this and take care of my kids, same with Stacey.”
In addition to the eviction, which the Leonards want to fight in court even though they can’t afford an attorney, Jonathan’s criminal record and prison tattoos, they say, are working against the family.
Jonathan spent 15 years in jail after he was convicted at age 17 of second-degree assault for attacking another person with a box cutter. He says the assault came after that person broke Jonathan’s grandmother’s window. While in jail, Jonathan says he thought he was “a killer” and that he’d never amount to anything more than that because he “was surrounded by a bunch of killers” every day.
He says meeting Stacey while he was incarcerated changed his “outlook on life” and convinced him to change himself, as did having kids. Stacey says she fell for Jonathan because she saw a kindness in him, and she says that love only deepened once she saw how devoted he is to their children.
Jonathan and Stacey say they’re grateful for the various groups that have helped them thus far, including Operation Blessing in Portsmouth and Exeter Presbyterian Church. The latter gave the Leonards their minivan after the family reached out only to ask for help with diapers.
Without the generosity, Jonathan says, their housing situation could be far worse.
“They’ve helped so much,” he says.