He and his young family were once homeless. Now he works for the agency that helped them.

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In 2004, White was working full-time at a local Walmart while attending school online to earn his bachelor’s degree in security management and criminal justice from the University of Phoenix. His wife, Betty, worked as a pharmacy technician. They had just welcomed their third son and were renting a two-bedroom basement apartment, living paycheck to paycheck and barely getting by. They had applied for income-based housing, but were told it would take “at least” a three to five year wait.

And then a thunderstorm hit. Their sump pump stopped working and water spilled out.

Home insurance may have covered temporary accommodation, but they did not own their home. Renters insurance might have covered damage to their personal items – if they had it. Instead, the young family of five was alone.

“I had a brand new baby and one that was just learning to walk,” White recalled in a recent interview. “You can’t even drop off your kids.”

But they only had $80 in their bank account. Spending it all in a single night in a motel room was out of the question – they had to feed their children. They turned to the only local family they had: White’s mother, who lived in a small one-bedroom apartment. Adding five more people to the space, including three boys under the age of 4, made staying there for long out of the question.

“What are you doing? Where are you going with five people?” White asked. “You’re in this situation you never thought you’d be in.”

His wife’s name was Crossroads, formerly known as Travelers Aid of Rhode Island. They had apartments in North Kingstown that were reserved for families seeking shelter. The white people were lucky: they were able to get in that day and stayed there until supportive housing, also through Crossroads, was opened to them shortly thereafter.

For the White family, having affordable housing prepares them for their future. They started volunteering at Crossroads, and eventually they both started working for the agency full-time.

“We were so grateful that we were able to get help when we needed it most, so we volunteered and helped in any way we could,” Betty White said recently. Coordinated Entry System (which directs families and individuals to shelter) and then into housing stabilization case management until she moved to another local agency a few months ago.

Steve and Betty White (bottom left) at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Crossroads-owned Kingstown Crossing developments in 2011.Rhode Island Crossroads

She and her husband earned their college degrees while working for Crossroads and living in supportive housing with their sons.

“I had my own judgments and stereotypes about what homelessness looked like,” she said. “But then it happened to us. And then I started to work daily with the population.

She said there were people who had no significant income, or no income at all. Others were highly educated, with master’s degrees, who lost their jobs. And there were plenty of mothers going through divorces, ending relationships, or finding themselves in abusive situations, she recalls.

“In all the programs I’ve worked in, and through our own experience, I’ve really learned that it doesn’t matter what your socio-economic, family structure, job, education, or any other background marker looks like” , said Betty. White. “I’ve seen all types of people and families become homeless.”

“I’ve seen people who had everything, then have nothing at all,” she said.

Steve White, left, chats with Crossroads resident Darell Forbes. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Team

Steve White rose through the ranks to become the tower manager of Crossroads, overseeing the nearly 200 one-bedroom units and a few full apartments in the agency’s tower on Broad Street. SROs, which were once a popular form of housing for residents with low or minimal income, are small rooms furnished with a bed, desk, and chair. There is a common kitchen and the bathrooms on each floor are shared.

He gets to know many people, mostly men, who live there. He calls them “tenants” instead of “customers” since they pay 30% of their income, if any, to rent their rooms.

“Some of the guys come in here and say, ‘What did I do to get to where I am here? “White said as he walked from his office to the lobby to meet a new tenant, a man in his thirties who was moving in that day. “You just need to be a friendly face and say, ‘I know. I went there too.

White assists tenants with various day-to-day issues. We can complain about a neighbor who had turned on the TV too loud the day before. Another may be behind on rent that month. When he goes outside for a smoke break, he chats with the staff members and the homeless people who pass by call out his name. He knows them and their life stories. On a recent afternoon, a man in his fifties who lives in the tower said, “Steve, man. He always listens. He always watches over us. He knows we.”

“Everyone comes with their own baggage. But in this line of work, you have to put all your judgments aside,” White said. “Homelessness doesn’t sound like a thing. Everyone has reached this point in their life in one way or another. And I’ve seen it all. »

The White family is also proof that families can return from homelessness. At the end of this year, they will own their own home for the first time.

“Getting flooded out of that basement apartment was almost 20 years ago. It was a long time ago, but at the same time, it wasn’t,” White said. Being able to buy your own home, for the first time, is something I never thought could happen. I give back through my work, every day. But I never lost sight of how fast things can turn.


Alexa Gagosz can be contacted at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.

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