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"Jeramia's been the most important thing'

Life, for William Selvidge, has been a series of carnivals.

He left home, and a father who threw him out, when he was 16 by going to a carnival passing through town and asking for a job. For five years he worked on the road, setting up rides, running rides, taking rides down, moving on. For this he would get $160 a week and a truck berth for a bed. A rough life, "but you get used to it," he said.

Between carnivals he would go back to Streator, his home town in Illinois. He married a woman there last May, a childhood friend who had a baby boy. In the fall they left for Florida, hoping to find an easier life. They didn't find jobs. They found a shiftless life, a landlord who evicted them on Christmas Day and emergency shelters that had no room for a couple with a frightened child. Finally they found their child would not talk any more.

On Jan. 4, William Selvidge, his wife September and 2-year-old Jeramia found emergency shelter at the Metropolitan Ministries program in Tampa. For the parents, it was a refuge that promised free lodging and hot meals. For Jeramia, it was one more temporary stop in a life that had been more or less homeless for months, a life from which he had retreated toward infancy.

This is the story the Selvidges told:

They left Illinois, where September had been living with her mother, because they were discouraged by the local economy. Jobs were scarce, and factories were laying people off. They decided to move to Florida because September's father lived there. In Florida, they thought, they could have their own home.

With the money William earned from a carnival that finished its season in Tampa, they rented a mobile home in Thonotosassa. They were evicted a month later, after the landlord learned William was a carnival worker. "He told us carnival people can't be trusted," September said.

Homeless, jobless, without a car and without much cash, they crossed the state and moved in with some friends in Hollywood. In December they paid $200 to rent a trailer there for a month, or so they thought.

Their rent receipt, which they kept, was signed by co-owner Linda McCormick and described their $200 payment as rent for 12, Hollywood Mobile Home Park, from Dec. 11 to Jan. 12.

Nine days later they were handed an eviction notice by Thomas McCormick, Linda's husband. It ordered them to leave unless they paid $325 rent plus a $200 security deposit "on or before Dec. 25."

According to Thomas McCormick, the Selvidges, along with another man he thought was Jeramia's father, moved into a trailer with another family and stayed there until the park owners objected to the number of people living in it. He said he offered them a trailer he owned, but they didn't work, didn't pay their rent and moved out in the middle of the night, leaving him with a messy trailer and an unpaid light bill.

As to their receipt for a month's rent, "my wife must have made some mistake," he said.

Homeless again, the Selvidges stayed overnight with friends and slept in rundown hotels. September called six shelters in the area, and none had a room for them. She called her father, who works as a trucker, but he was away on a trip somewhere. William walked from Hollywood to Fort Lauderdale and back, looking for work and finding none. They went to a place that gave them emergency food, and when they ran low, they skipped meals and fed Jeramia.

"Jeramia's been the most important thing. He still is," September said.

What worried her most was the way homelessness was changing her child. She watched his behavior regress in ways that researchers say is common even among small children confronted with the instability of a homeless environment.

Sometime after his second birthday, Jeramia stopped talking. He seemed to have no energy. He forgot his potty training and had to wear diapers again. Strangers scared him. "He would just cling and stick his face in my neck, and hold me as tight as he could," she said. Bitten in the face by fleas, his skin erupted in red splotches, leaving scars that lingered a week after his family came to the Tampa shelter.

"It's affected him a lot," she said. "When a child decides to give up, he gives up."

The shelter that took in the Selvidges is a locked complex with bunk beds and an 11 p.m. lights-out rule. In exchange for this loss of freedom, they were given free lodging, free day care from a state-licensed center, free meals from a cafeteria and free medical care.

Families usually stay in this emergency shelter a month or more.

Many families need this time to set up appointments and gather the information they need to seek assistance from Florida social service agencies. For welfare assistance, they need to produce information about their assets, the value of their car if they have one, and all sources of income; if employed, they may be asked to provide their last eight pay stubs. If they have a Medicaid card, it must be renewed every month, and whenever they move it must be transferred to the new address.

Secondly, their departure may be obstructed by the initial costs of getting an apartment. These costs can exceed $1,000, because leases commonly require prepayment of the first and last month's rent, a security deposit and utility deposits.

Thirdly, many parents in emergency shelters lack marketable job skills. William has no high school degree, no car and a list of carnivals as his previous employers. September has worked as a nursing home aide, another minimum-wage job.

After a week in the Metropolitan Ministries shelter, William said he was having trouble finding work, even with day labor programs. He wanted to go back to the carnivals, "but she don't want me to. It's basically the only way I know to find work," he said.

"You can't raise a child that way," September said.

After a month, they left. They didn't leave a forwarding address.