The moment came at a wood frame house in west St. Petersburg on an overcast Saturday, the last day of March.
A property manager sized up Laurie Hathaway and decided to overlook her credit history, her eviction, her woeful tale of extended homelessness.
And just like that, Laurie got a key to a tan house.
It was a significant moment for Laurie and her 5-year-old son, Andre, who had spent two years bouncing between low-rent motels, sleeping in guest bedrooms and on couches, even curling up in the backseat of their car in the parking lot of a Walmart.
Laurie turned to her new boyfriend and kissed him. She picked up Andre and twirled him.
"Do you realize what this means?" she asked, smiling. "We have our own place. Finally."
Her son, who hadn't had his own room since he was 2, popped through a curtain of beads hanging in front of a bedroom closet. He gazed at himself in a gold-flecked mirror in the living room. He sized up a tiny back yard where he would later play with his cars. "This is our house now," he pronounced. "We live here."
Laurie smiled and allowed herself to not feel guilty. Her son's childhood had been a swirl of noisy wall air conditioners, plastic-covered mattresses and 11 a.m. checkout times.
She'd put so much effort into stitching their life back together, she hadn't thought about what it would be like to finally get here. But if she'd learned anything, it was this: As long as it had taken to get here, she knew all too well how quickly it could unravel.
• • •
The Tampa Bay Times profiled Laurie, 29, in November when she was living at the Mosley Motel in St. Petersburg. Motels up and down U.S. 19 have become home to families like hers on the verge of losing it all.
At the time, Laurie was staying in Room 88 with her mother and her son. She was working as a waiter and driving a cab nights. She had income, just not enough to stay off food stamps.
She caught the flu a few times, lost shifts at work and struggled to pay her motel bill. She called shelters and all sorts of government programs that help the homeless and ended up on waiting lists.
In November, a family shelter called RCS Grace House in Clearwater accepted her family. Laurie could stay there 60 days, rent-free. She had two months to save enough money for a down payment on a place of her own.
• • •
That first week at Grace House, Laurie met with her caseworker and set some goals.
In addition to saving money for a place, she wanted to fix her car. The beat-up 1995 BMW she'd driven before she was homeless had broken down six months before.
Grace House consisted of 13 apartments with 76 beds. Everyone there had kids who congregated on a playground at the center of the complex.
Laurie, her mother and Andre moved into a three-bedroom apartment that they had to share with a family of five. The couple had broken up six months before but were staying together temporarily to take care of their children, ages 3, 2 and 1.
They were noisy.
But it felt good to not have to worry about living expenses. Laurie took a bus to her job and stored the cash she earned in a bag that she left with her mother. As her cash reserves grew, she could see a faint path back to her old life.
At Christmas, Grace House delivered a large black garbage bag full of toys, one for each child.
In early January, reality set in. Laurie's case manager reminded her she had two weeks left. Laurie had fixed everything but the air-conditioning in her car with the help of some people who read about her plight in the Tampa Bay Times. She had also saved $1,500.
She'd started talking with her apartment mate, Isaias Rodriguez, a retail manager at Advance Auto Parts, about going in on a place together. The mother of Isaias' three boys was considering moving out on her own, and Laurie's mother was talking about returning to Utah. That left Isaias, 27, and Laurie and four kids. They would split the rent and help each other with their children.
"We're pooling together for economic reasons," Laurie said.
In mid January, their time was up. They'd looked for a home to rent, but most were not available until the beginning of February. A day before their departure, Laurie wheeled a shopping cart with backpacks and boxes stuffed with their clothes and toys out to her car. She was taking it all to a storage unit they'd rented.
A day later, they paid $280 for a week's stay at a Clearwater motel.
Laurie said she never got to do an exit interview with her Grace House case manager. She said she asked for an extension and was granted two days.
But Lisa Matzner, director of grants for Grace House, said it is not typical for someone to move from the family shelter into a motel. She said 90 percent of families that come to Grace House exit into stable housing. "We want Laurie to be successful," she said. "We will always be there for her if she needs our services."
• • •
One day toward the end of February, Laurie and her mother and Isaias got into her old BMW and headed out to look for places.
They were now paying $270 a week at the Continental Inn in Clearwater.
In the six weeks since they'd left the Grace House, they had blown through most of the money they'd both saved — about $2,500. They were both expecting tax refunds they planned to use for a down payment on a rental.
As they drove south on U.S. 19 with the car windows open, Laurie reached over and took Isaias' hand. She smiled.
They had initially pooled their resources for financial reasons. But it had turned into more. They had become each others' confidants at Grace House. When a longtime friend from Utah died, he listened to her reminisce about him. And one night when her mother, an alcoholic, took too much depression medication, he had Laurie stay with Andre in the car while he dealt with the cops and her mother.
Now they smiled at each other whenever they heard the line from one of Rihanna's song's: We found love in a hopeless place.
"You're lucky to find someone who has one or two attributes that you like," Laurie said. "He has all of them. Never in my life did I think I'd find someone like him. I thought I'd be a single mom until Andre was 18."
They were having difficulty, though, finding a property manager that would accept them. Both had evictions.
They pulled up in front of a four-bedroom house in Gulfport. Laurie had seen it on craigslist for $950 a month.
"It's rented," said a woman, peering out of the screen. Laurie looked at the tidy little lawn lined with a neighbor's yellow hibiscus and red roses. She sighed.
"That's okay," said her mother, Karen Dall. "God's going to take us where we want to go."
• • •
By late March, Laurie and Isaias and the four kids, Andre, Isamil, 3, Pablo, 2, and Isaias, 1, had become nomads.
From the Continental Inn, they had gone to the Suburban Extended Stay Hotel in Largo to Cedar Motel in St. Petersburg. Then back to the Suburban, then back to the Cedar, then to Intown Suites in Clearwater, then back to the Suburban, where they were paying $380 a week.
Rarely did they stay more than a week in any place. Either the motel abruptly rented their room to someone else. Or there were noise complaints with their four kids. Or the motel wanted them to rent two rooms because of the size of the family.
Meanwhile, they had gotten their tax returns and were blowing through those. They had about $3,000 left.
When Laurie got on the phone with David Halprin two days before March ended, she revealed all their handicaps up front. No use wasting everyone's time.
Halprin, a Realtor and property manager, said he would accept them as renters. But they would have to pay $2,600, essentially four months' rent, in advance.
"I do have compassion for them," he said, "but I hear many sad stories all the time."
The 1950s-era house, about 1,060 square feet, was in foreclosure, so they would only be able to get a six-month lease.
Halprin helped them move some of their belongings from a storage shelter into the house. They loaded up beds and a dining room table. Their living room was empty. They rented a 47-inch TV and Xbox game system and a washer and dryer for about $400 a month for three months.
Laurie hoped they would be able to stay after the six months. She wanted to "plant roots."
"As a parent you want to give your child everything," she said. "But I know anytime, things can change. I've learned during this experience how easy it is to be on top of things and then to lose it."
• • •
Four days after they moved in, Laurie came home from running errands. She passed through the empty living room into her bedroom and set her purse down. Then she saw it. The TV and Xbox were gone. They'd been robbed.
The police came, dusted for fingerprints. The company that rented them the electronics told them the insurance hadn't kicked in yet. They would have to pay for it.
But at least they didn't have to check out the following day by 11.
Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at [email protected]tampabay.com. Melissa Lyttle contributed to this report.