A year ago, shortly after Thanksgiving, readers of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel were treated to a photograph of the merry and hopeful faces of Anthony and Charmaine Nelson and their four children. Anthony, in a bright white T-shirt, smiled broadly and revealed his missing eye tooth. Two-year-old Immanuel squirmed in his lap. Charmaine grinned, a swath of black hair swept stylishly over her right eye and cheek, while holding a docile 1-year-old Joseph. The couple's other kids, Marquitta and Alexus, 9 and 7, clowned for the camera.
Headlined "Making a dream come true," the accompanying article was one of numerous installments in the Sentinel's holiday Children's Fund drive, which collects cash for the McCormick Tribune Foundation. Each piece recounts the travails of struggling families and children and how they've been helped by a nonprofit agency in South Florida.
The Nelson's "dream," as described by staff writer Noreen Marcus, was twofold: establishing Clean It All, a residential and commercial cleaning business, and moving into their own home. The former was to be the ticket to the latter.
You see, until February 2001, nine months before publication, the Nelsons had been homeless. Then, the Salvation Army helped the family by allowing them to rent for two years at Plymouth Colony, its Hollywood apartment complex.
The story described the investments the Nelsons were making to get their modest cleaning service off the ground as they slept on bunk beds in the subsidized two-bedroom apartment. The article concluded with Charmaine's optimistic forecast: "It won't happen today, but tomorrow's a different day. Always think that you're gonna have it."
Well, 'tis the season once again, and the Sun-Sentinel has brought on another batch of uplifting stories tailored to tug at hearts and loosen purse strings. But what of the Nelsons?
The Salvation Army unceremoniously ousted the family this past December 1, and they once again joined the ranks of Broward County's homeless.
Not long after the expulsion, the couple dropped in at the New Times office, having coaxed their battered, two-door 1988 Nissan to make another trip. Charmaine and Anthony wore identical dark-lavender, short-sleeved uniforms that bore their company's logo. Anthony, with a slight build, looked as he did in last year's photo, though considerably less cheery. Charmaine's hair was pulled straight back in an utterly utilitarian style. Both 31 years old, the two have a habit of finishing each other's thoughts when speaking.
Anthony explained the family's routine during the days after their ejection from Salvation Army housing: "We've been doing hotels. We'd get up in the morning from the hotel, drop the girls off at school, then drop the boys off at daycare. We'd sneak the kids into the hotel at night. We'd rake and scrape together money, and sometimes we'd only have $37 and a coupon, and we'd have to go to the worst motel, with dirty sheets."
Charmaine interjected: "We try to find a place where you don't have to go through the lobby with everybody."
The Nelsons gained little personally from the Sentinel article, and they feel shortchanged by the donation-seeking collaboration of the newspaper and the Salvation Army. "When people gave, they looked at my children's testimony, my wife's, and my testimony, and they said, 'You know what? I'd like to give to that,'" Anthony says. He contends the Salvation Army made an implicit promise that the Nelsons would share in readers' generosity if they told the world their story. "They need to stand up and start making things plain," Anthony declares.
The Salvation Army denies the claim. "We don't do that," says Joni Farrus Baker, the organization's executive director of social services for Broward County.
Anthony and Charmaine attended the same high school in Hartford, Connecticut, during the mid-1980s but didn't become romantically involved until after meeting once again in church in 1996. By then, Charmaine had two daughters. They married in 1998. Anthony worked as a truck driver, but both wanted to live in warmer climes.
When they learned that a friend in Sunrise, Florida, was filing for bankruptcy and selling his four-bedroom townhouse, they thought they might get a good deal. With their $3,000 savings, they boarded a train south in April 1999.
The townhouse deal fell through, and for a year, the couple strived to pay rent on a small apartment. Eventually, they were evicted. They lived briefly out of the car they had at the time, a 1986 Toyota Camry, until Charmaine called a homeless hotline in November 2000. Then they moved into an emergency shelter at Shepherd's Way in Fort Lauderdale. During a three-month stay there, she began working as a cashier at a car dealership; he became a janitor at Publix.
Clean It All was born during that period also, and the Nelsons started circulating business cards to advertise it.
Because they were employed, the Nelsons qualified to move into the Salvation Army's transitional housing. They moved in on February 8, 2001. Some time in November, Charmaine recalls, the program director broached the subject of the Nelsons doing a "success story" for the Sentinel. "She said, 'You and your husband are working together, and y'all could use more work than you've got now,'" Charmaine says. "They said, 'It'll help you as well as help us.' They said we'd get donations."
Indeed, Clean It All did receive more calls after the article appeared November 30, 2001. The business, however, was dogged by the dilapidated vehicles they could afford. "We had to turn a lot of the work down because we couldn't get to Boca," Charmaine says. "We had no help to get out there. We were on our own completely." Once, after earning $65 cleaning one day, their car broke down. It cost $55 just to get it towed.
Calls from sympathetic Sun-Sentinel readers didn't last long. And the economic slump wasn't friendly to start-ups. "When the economy gets hard, really hard, the first thing that gets cut back is the cleaning service," Anthony says. "We advertised, but after a while, there was no response."
On September 5, 2002, Plymouth Colony management announced that residents would henceforth be limited to one-year stays. Extensions would be allowed only if a family member had entered an education or vocational program. On November 5, case manager Lillie Johnson denied the Johnsons additional time. She scheduled a "move out" meeting and advised via memo that failure to attend meant "your locks will be changed and you will be terminated from the program."
Although the Nelsons had only two months before their two-year end date, they say they needed the time to file tax returns, which would provide evidence of two years of financial history for landlords and mortgage companies. "When they pulled the rug out from under us," Anthony laments, "it completely threw our plan out the window."
The Salvation Army's Farrus Baker explains the notice this way: "We really try to make way for new people to come in once a family has achieved self-sufficiency. I know it's pretty comfortable to stay in that apartment and only pay $300, which takes care of basically all your needs except for food. We need to look at the bigger picture." She added that the Nelsons routinely left their children unattended in their apartment, a charge the couple vehemently denies.
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Baker was unaware that the family was now living motel to motel.
When the Nelsons recently received their $500 deposit back from Plymouth Colony, they rented a minivan and drove their four children to Charmaine's mother's home in North Carolina. Anthony recalls his mother-in-law saying, "The help you guys could really use right now is for me to take all four kids."
Since then, the couple has received a few cleaning jobs by day and rented cheap motels by night. "Whatever coupon we find for that night is pretty much where we lay our heads at," he says. "This is the wicked cycle we go through."
On December 11, the Sun-Sentinel ran a new success story from within the walls of Plymouth Colony, this time about a 30-year-old single mother of five who's working full-time and takes classes to become a nurse. The Nelsons suspect Plymouth Colony managers wanted last year's "successes" out before a new cast was ushered in for the holidays.