It's 6:30 a.m. and they're already late. Paulette Duclos rouses her kids from their bunk beds: Zechariah! Kaianna Yve!
They brush teeth and pull on clothes.
Breakfast is at 7 a.m., but there will be no eggs and grits before prayer.
They pause at the door of their room at the shelter to ask for the Lord's blessings.
"I put it in God's hands," said Duclos, 28. "Everything is going to work out."
These days, divine intervention may be the only hope she has.
• • •
Duclos moved to Tampa this year for a fresh start. The daughter of Haitian immigrants, she grew up in Naples with her mother and stepfather, who taught her to work hard.
But there were always secrets.
And when they got too heavy to bear, she sought refuge with her father, with whom she'd last lived when she was a year old, she said. But instead of a loving family reunion, she found hostility. She bounced from one shelter to the next — the Spring of Tampa Bay for victims of domestic violence, then the Amen Outreach Ministry and now Metropolitan Ministries.
Here, a therapist told her to write the secrets down.
She started with the day she was raped.
She was 7. He was a relative. She had felt like a rose before he tore her to pieces. Afterward, she doubted she would ever be whole again.
She got pregnant at 15. Her dreams of an athletic scholarship to college turned to visions of a better life for her baby. She moved in with an understanding aunt and then a church that sheltered pregnant teens.
When her baby's paternal grandmother took the daughter away, Duclos said she had thoughts of suicide.
Through the church, she learned to lean on the Lord in times of trouble. But the troubles kept coming.
In her journal, she counts four men who beat her. One pulled a knife on her and put a gun to her head. She told him to go ahead. "It was a way out of the pain," she said. But he didn't.
She feared for her life in her last relationship, and so did her children. Her 6-year-old, Zechariah, started sleeping with her. She and the kids stopped eating food the boyfriend cooked out of fear. He stopped buying groceries.
Her teeth started breaking. She thinks it was the stress.
For Thanksgiving 2008, she invited 27 family members and baked two turkeys at her home in Miami. In front of them all, her boyfriend choked her, she said. Her brothers had to pull him away.
She began plotting her escape. She sent her son to live with his father for a while. Kaianna, 9, stayed with a teacher.
Before she left, she rounded up the two children to come along with her. They thought they were headed to a new life.
"I never thought I'd be homeless," Duclos said. "I never imagined it. I lost everything, all at one time."
• • •
In their last home, Zechariah and Kaianna had bedrooms with TVs. Duclos painted their walls with glow-in-the-dark princesses and wild animals. They had a pool with toy frogs in a big back yard.
Now they all share a room smaller than Kaianna's old room.
They covered it recently with clipped pictures from advertisements of toys they want for Christmas. They watch movies while Duclos crochets a blanket for her eldest daughter, whom she hasn't seen in years.
And Duclos writes her thoughts in her journal.
"I feel like I'm going through a healing process," she said.
Last week they walked to a nearby park where they played a game of sharks and whales on playground equipment. She is a shark, they tell their mother. She reaches out to grab her son as he runs by.
"Missed me, missed me, don't you want to kiss me," he sings.
On Sundays, they go to New Millennium Community Church. Duclos says she feels at home there. They gave her two gifts, a WWJD pin that she refers to daily and a Bible, where she stows pictures of her three children.
Last week, pain in one of her broken teeth flared. Her cheek swelled from her ear to her neck. She fears that her teeth or gums have become infected and could be dangerous to her health, but she can't find a dentist to take her Medicaid.
She said she has applied for many jobs, including at places where she worked in the past. She has worked as a supervisor at Burger King and a CVS pharmacy, she said. She sold Herbalife and Avon and cleaned houses.
In Miami, she completed a certificate in medical billing and coding, hoping to find work at a doctor's office. She likes art, though, and her dream job would be in interior design. Art, she says, soothes the soul.
After prayer each morning, Duclos texts her friends: Have a blessed day. God has a plan. Somebody cares.
"It's a way of meditation," she said, something she would do whether she is in a house or on the side of the street.
She remembers hearing a sad story about a Miami businessman who had become homeless.
"Now I'm in that situation," she said. "It could be anyone. But you never know. God works in mysterious ways."
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3431.