There was no stove, a tiny refrigerator, two beds and absolutely no privacy — hardly the ideal lifestyle. But it was all the family could do after a landslide forced them out of their home.
Slyenia’ two school-aged children and her younger sister are three of nearly 300 homeless students in Haywood County, a number that has risen nearly 20 percent compared to last school year.
The county uses the McKinney-Vento Act definition of homelessness — any individual who lacks a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence, including those staying temporarily with a relative, in a hotel or at a shelter.
Michelle Mull, a social worker with Haywood County Schools, attributed the dramatic increase to a continued shortage of work. Unemployment in March was 8.8 percent.
“We have lots of people moving into the area with no jobs because they have family and friends here,” said Haywood County Social Worker Michelle Mull.
When Mull and other social workers find out a student is homeless, they can refer the family to certain nonprofits for help, set him or her up with free lunches, provide transit (when needed) and give him or her school supplies. But Mull said she wished they could do more.
“Unfortunately, we don’t have a fund. We don’t have money we could give them,” Mull said.
Given the stress that goes along with an unstable home life — not knowing what you will go home to or where dinner will come from — social workers and school counselors look after the children while at school and let teachers know if a student is having a particularly hard time.
Although some children end up homeless because of abuse or financial struggles, there are also outliers like the Rheins’ situation. Families who are doing OK but suddenly find themselves down and out.
“It’s not our fault we are there, but it’s stressful,” Slyenia said.
In early May, Western North Carolina was drenched in steady rain for a few days, causing several landslides in Haywood County, including one on Pigeon Road near Waynesville Mountain where the Rheins lived. The family of seven lived in a trailer home a few yards below where the slide occurred.
Fearing that the slope would slide more, emergency officials evacuated the Rheins. They were given only minutes to grab some clothing items and their pets.
“They gave us no time,” Slyenia said.
However, it could have been worse, said Michelle Rhein, Slyenia’s mother.
“A house you can lose and replace, but your children you can’t,” Michelle Rhein said.
The family was put up at the Days Inn in Canton for two days and expected that officials would allow them back in their home soon.
But officials deemed the house unsafe for the children to return until Pigeon Road, part of which fell with the slide, was repaired. If the adults wanted to resume living in the trailer, they could, but the Department of Social Services would have taken the kids to live elsewhere, so the Rheins decided to take up residence at The Lodge in Waynesville.
Slyenia said they originally expected that the N.C. Department of Transportation to complete its road repairs quickly. As of June 3, however, the family had spent exactly a month living in a hotel.
Both Slyenia and Michelle Rhein said the family received help from a number of great sources. The American Red Cross, Sunny Point Baptist Church in Canton and Open Door Ministry in Waynesville covered a few hotel nights each. The Vine of the Mountains in Waynesville donated a Crock-pot, so they could prepare hot meals. The Red Cross was also able to give the family food and clothing vouchers.
“We have talked to everybody (trying to get help),” Slyenia said.
The schools gave the kids new backpacks, shoes and other supplies.
“They were just amazing,” Michelle Rhein said.
With the exception of some clothes and random knick-knacks, Slyenia said everything else in the house will have to be trashed since moisture got into the trailer, creating mold. Since they are living off food stamps, disability checks and money Slyenia receives from child support and random odd jobs, there is little money to go around.
Within the last week or so, Michelle Rhein, her husband and her 14-year-old daughter moved out of state to live with a third daughter. Slyenia, who is required to stay in the state until her 1-year-old turns 18, has found a temporary place at a friend’s house for her and her children.