EAST TAMPA — For months, Akiena Westbrooks left her job at a call center just in time to hit rush hour traffic and worry about being late to pick up her kids at Head Start.
She usually made it before the 5:30 closing time, and from there they headed home, or rather the only home the family knew: a 260-square-foot dorm-style room at Metropolitan Ministries.
It was an unconventional living, but Westbrooks, 25, knows how to live outside the norm. And homelessness wasn't exactly new to her.
She and her two brothers lived a transient life for years with their mother, Roxanne Hayes, who worked as a prostitute to support them.
They were always moving, "staying in hotels, on couches, even Metropolitan Ministries," Westbrooks remembers.
Then in 1997, Hayes was murdered by Lawrence Singleton in a case that made national headlines.
Years earlier, Singleton had raped a California woman and cut off her arms. The woman survived, but Singleton sparked outrage when he was paroled after serving only eight years of a 14-year sentence. He settled near his hometown of Tampa and, 14 years ago, was driving his van to Hillsborough Avenue, where Hayes worked the streets. Back at his Orient Park home, he stabbed and killed the 31-year-old mother.
Westbrooks was 11 at the time.
She continued living with her mother's longtime boyfriend, she said, although the constant moving and transient life continued.
Still, she developed higher aspirations for herself, graduating from King High School, then studying civil engineering at Florida A&M University.
From married to separated, broke
A couple of years into her college education, Westbrooks was married with a baby on the way. By the third year, she had dropped out. Not exactly what she had planned.
"Kids and a husband were nowhere in the picture," she said.
Westbrooks told herself she'd wait until her kids were older to go back to school. She had her insurance license, so she found work at an insurance call center in North Tampa.
After separating from her husband in 2009, Westbrooks said she "started to fall" emotionally and financially. He left the state and provides no support, she said.
Paying the day care bills for her two children, now 4 and 5, "was like a whole other mortgage payment," she said.
On top of that, she was paying rent for an apartment in the University Area. Things went from bad to worse when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
"I was so busy taking care of my kids that I didn't take care of myself," she said.
Soon she would lose her job, and the eviction notices started coming in.
Westbrooks certainly wasn't alone in her situation.
"The rising number of homeless women and children has been a trend for five to six years," said Lesa Weikel, the community relations manager for the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County.
The coalition reported in 2009 that children accounted for 23 percent of the area's homeless; women, 39 percent. Those numbers did not include the people who live in motels or with relatives and friends. The coalition counts the homeless every two years; results of a count in January are expected in May.
Westbrooks was already getting her groceries at the Metropolitan Ministries food pantry, so she applied for Uplift U, the organization's residential self-sufficiency program that addresses substance abuse, education, job training and placement, according to Ana Maria Mendez, the director of community relations. The program has "a two- to three-month waiting list," Mendez said.
Fortunately for Westbrooks, she got the call a month later. In August, she moved into Metropolitan Ministries housing.
Traveling lighter to move forward
Unable to afford moving costs or a storage space, she left many belongings behind at the apartment. She also gave up another, less material love: The active church member stepped down from her duties as praise and worship leader for Designer's Way Christian Church in Thonotosassa. She had to focus on returning to a life of normalcy.
At Metropolitan Ministries, she attended classes on parenting and interned at the main office. Various agencies provided job skills training. She eventually got a temporary job at another call center in Oldsmar.
Her case manager helped the family get on Medicaid, and Westbrooks now has medication to keep the multiple sclerosis from progressing.
Once a week she went to counseling. "It feels good to get it out," she said. "I've been holding it in since 11 or 12."
In a letter written shortly after her mother's death, Westbrooks wrote: "I don't think my mom should have died and I just don't understand why," according to a 1997 story in the St. Petersburg Times. "She was a good mom to me and my two brothers … She did what she had to do for us kids."
Westbrooks said she leaned on her faith to pull her through those times and the recent difficulties in life.
She dreams of a career as a neo-soul inspirational singer. In the meantime, she recently interviewed for a senior customer care position — a full-time job with more responsibilities and more pay. She got the job a few weeks ago.
Around the same time, Metropolitan Ministries' rapid-rehousing program helped her find a two-bedroom home for rent in East Tampa.
She had few belongings and little furniture when she moved in, not even a bed. But that was okay.
Her smile on move-in day indicated that she may have something more precious: a bright future.
Dawn Morgan Elliott can be reached at [email protected]