Four paint-chipped walls in a tiny motel room are all that stand between Wanda Filson's family and homelessness. A newspaper taped over the bathroom window can't keep out the glare. A towel tucked under the spray-painted door can't keep out the cold. And all the distractions the 57-year-old creates for her three grandchildren - games of UNO, a plastic basketball hoop hanging from the door, cartoons on TV - can't keep the kids from whispering their worries when they think she's asleep. "I don't think we're going to have a Christmas this year," she heard 12-year-old Janell tell her 9-year-old brother Isaiah while Filson lay in bed one recent night. The grandmother kept her eyes shut, but she couldn't keep in the tears.
The whirlwind of lost jobs, evictions and temporary addresses began 17 months ago on the steps of her mobile home, with one brick that was a hair higher than the other.
In a hurry to get to her cashier job at Wendy's, Filson caught her toe, landed on a car and shattered the bone connecting her shoulder to her elbow. An 11-inch metal plate and 11 screws later, Filson still can't feel her pinky and ring finger.
Filson's return to her job wouldn't have been so bad if she got to work behind the register. But a new manager confined her to french fry duty, and with all the turning and lifting at the grease tub, she couldn't stay long.
Meanwhile, she had been scrambling to make rent, giving as much money as she could. The day Filson mustered the money she needed, she found out her landlord had already started the eviction process.
Filson and the kids moved into an apartment and she got a job, but she suffered two more freak accidents. She tripped over a box and broke her elbow, which required an 8-inch metal plate and 8 screws. Then, after a mysterious bump on her back burst into brown goo, she learned she had been bitten by a brown recluse spider, which put her in the hospital for more than a week and later on intravenous medication.
Amid the medical chaos, they were evicted again.
"We had nowhere to go," Filson said. They stood in line for homeless recovery services in Tampa Heights, where she struck up conversation with folks in similar situations.
"Some of the nicest people in the world are homeless people," Filson said, dabbing at tears. "They still call and check and see how I'm doing, which is a whole lot more than any of my so-called friends did."
Doing well in school
Filson got some vouchers to help pay motel room costs, and they stayed at her daughter's friends' homes whenever they could. But by this time, they had shed most of their belongings. The kids had to give away their bikes and their dog.
Through it all, the kids remained optimistic. Nine-year-old Mariah said her favorite place they stayed was the Motel 6, because it had a swimming pool. Her favorite day this past year: "When we went to the all-you-can-eat buffet and we had pizza, ice cream, chicken, mashed potatoes and we ate - until we were full."
Filson, Janell, Isaiah and Mariah have lived at the Lamplighter Motel on N Florida Avenue for a month.
Despite the many moves, the kids have managed to keep their grades high at school, Filson said. She knew Isaiah was smart when he figured out how to administer her IV when a nurse didn't show up at the motel. Now, she thinks the 9-year-old with dreams of becoming a doctor may even skip a grade.
Isaiah and Mariah take a school bus to Shaw Elementary every morning. Janell takes a public bus to Van Buren Middle School and Filson takes a different bus to her job making pasta at the Olive Garden, where she makes more money than she's ever made: $8.50 per hour.
Everyone has wishes
Barring another accident, Filson hopes the family has survived the worst. But holidays are still luxuries on their incredibly tight budget. Janell didn't get her birthday wish this fall: to eat seafood at Red Lobster. And Isaiah doesn't know if he'll get any presents for his birthday this Sunday.
A Nintendo DS or a remote control race car would be nice. He's also never had more than one pair of shoes at a time. Mariah would love art supplies, makeup and a bike. Janell wishes she could have a computer with an Internet connection, so she could actually do her homework at home - whatever home means.
All Filson wants for Christmas is a miracle: a landlord who will take a chance on someone who has been evicted and a house that will fall from the sky, where Isaiah could have a room of his own, Janell could bring in animals she rescues and Mariah could ride her bike.
Filson just wants that - and a new year.
Alexandra Zayas can be reached at 226-3354 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
How to help
Donations can be made by check in the name of Wanda Filson and sent to:
Homeless Education and Literacy Project
c/o Project Manager Kathy Wiggins
2100 E 26th Ave.
Tampa, FL 33605
For more information, contact Wiggins at 272-0673 ext. 226.
About Holiday Hopes
Holiday Hopes is a four-part City Times series profiling people in need. City Times will update readers if and when wishes are granted.