April Goode awoke shortly before 7 a.m. after a night of restless sleep atop two sleeping bags and a blanket on the floor of her hotel room. Her four children were asleep on the two full beds. Ms. Goode turned on the television and kept the volume low.
More news about the coronavirus.
On a normal weekday — if anything about being homeless and living in a Quality Inn in northern New Jersey could be considered normal — a van would have picked up her children and taken them to school 45 minutes away in Chatham, N.J.
But the schools had shut down a week earlier. The children had not left the hotel in 10 days.
Even before the pandemic, Ms. Goode was counting the days until she could get a job, find an apartment and move out of the cramped room at the end of a long second-floor hallway. There was a bar downstairs, and she worried about letting her children, who range in age from 9 to 14, wander by themselves. The hotel in Ledgewood where they have been living since mid-February is sandwiched between two highways. There are no sidewalks. The family had no car.
The coronavirus outbreak has only amplified those challenges, as it has for homeless people nationwide. People living in crowded shelters or doubled up with other families are more likely to contract the virus. They are less likely to have access to health care. Many who work low-wage jobs are likely to be laid off.
Ms. Goode said her situation was relatively stable. The family had clothes. They had temporary shelter. But the outbreak brought a new layer of anxiety and uncertainty to their lives.
“I’ve just been laying here, watching CNN, trying to understand that things are not going to change very quickly,” she said.
An unsteady job hunt
The children were still not awake. Maybe it would be better for them to sleep, Ms. Goode thought, than be bored.
She propped her laptop on her pillows — a makeshift desk on top of a makeshift bed — and started her midmorning routine. She fine-tuned plans for a nonprofit she wants to start to help people navigate situations like her own. She perused posts for apartments she could not yet afford. She applied for jobs online.
The job search website Indeed indicated that she had applied for 514 jobs since November, when she left her husband in Florida over financial disagreements and moved in with a friend in a house in Chatham. Weeks later, the owner of that home suddenly died and a relative sold the house, leaving Ms. Goode and her children with nowhere to go in the dead of winter.
For two weeks, they slept in the friend’s Nissan Altima, until Ms. Goode was approved for state assistance and placed at the Quality Inn.
Her résumé reflected a versatile work history. She was a culinary services director at a senior living facility in Tampa, Fla. Before that, an operations manager at a hotel. And before that, an outreach specialist at a health center in Baltimore. But of 514 applications, only a few had resulted in a meaningful response.
One promising response came on March 12 from a before- and after-school program in Morris County, N.J., asking Ms. Goode to come in for an interview.
Then, last week, another email arrived. Because the schools were closed, the program had “suspended in-person interviewing.” The message included an offer to set up a telephone interview.
Ms. Goode replied, saying she would like to do a phone interview. A week later, there was still no response.
‘I can’t take them anywhere’
Two of the children, Jazmyn, 14, and Dakota, 10, were still asleep — no school meant no routine. It also created new headaches.
Ms. Goode’s daughter Miriah, 12, had not taken a required quiz, one teacher said in an email. Ms. Goode found that the quiz was never sent to the laptop the school had issued Miriah. The teacher said she would resend it. Then there was another issue to resolve involving her son, Ethan, 9.
Many homeless children, who already face additional challenges at school, do not have access to reliable internet service, meaning they will not be able to effectively learn at home during the outbreak, said Jennifer Erb-Downward, a senior research associate at Poverty Solutions at the University of Michigan.
“The gap that we already see educationally is really going to be magnified,” she said.
Ms. Goode said her children could access wireless internet in their room. But without a physical school as an outlet, she said, they are growing frustrated.
“They can’t do anything, they can’t go anywhere, they can’t go outside,” she said. “I can’t take them anywhere, because we’re on this quarantine.”
The school recently called Ms. Goode, asking why she had not been picking up free meals for the children. Ms. Goode said she could not afford the Lyft ride.
“It will cost me more to get there to pick them up than it will to just buy them something to eat,” she said.
Cooking with no kitchen
All the children were awake and Ms. Goode started to prepare dinner. She moved her houseplants from the room’s only table to the window sill to make space for an electric skillet that she would use to cook pork chops.
During a typical dinner, Jazmyn and Miriah sit at the table while Ethan and Dakota spread out pages from the hotel’s free USA Today newspapers and sit on the floor.
There is not much space in the small hotel refrigerator, so Ms. Goode goes grocery shopping at least twice a week.
With no car, the cheapest way to get there is a shared Lyft — joining with other riders to split the cost. But to slow the spread of the virus, the company stopped offering shared rides.
A few days ago, Ms. Goode wrapped a scarf around her face and donned a pair of winter gloves as she walked the aisles at the closest Walmart. The shelves had been largely emptied by panicked shoppers.
So Ms. Goode took another ride to the closest ShopRite, doubling the cost of the trip.
Retreating to corners
The family has scattered, seeking as much alone time as their confined quarters allow. Jazmyn sat on the bed, finishing her homework. Ethan played computer games near the door. Using the toilet as a chair, Dakota watched YouTube videos. Miriah sat in the tub, the shower curtains drawn shut.
Cooped up in a hotel room, they all needed to find their own space, Ms. Goode said. The family has retreated to their corners even more in the days since school shut down.
Ms. Goode had just watched Monday’s news conference at the White House about the coronavirus response. President Trump floated the possibility of easing social-distancing measures in two weeks. That could mean schools would open. But it could also mean a greater likelihood that someone in the family would get sick.
“I can’t afford to get sick,” Ms. Goode said. “I can’t afford for either of these kids to get sick. Because if one of us do, all of us are in trouble.”
A glimmer of hope
CNN was back on the TV at a low volume. The children were sleeping, except maybe Dakota, who insisted on sleeping on the floor and was tossing and turning.
Ms. Goode couldn’t sleep. Through her anxiety, there was a ray of hope from Family Promise, a nonprofit that had helped her with food and credit for rides in the past.
They had found her a car. And she could be driving as early as the next day.
Service reductions at the New Jersey’s Motor Vehicle Commission had threatened to keep her from getting the car registered. But Family Promise had found a workaround.
If all went well, she would pile her kids in it and, for the first time in more than a week, take them somewhere. Anywhere.
Next day, 4:30 P.M.
An escape at last
Ms. Goode drove back to the hotel in her sea green 2009 Toyota Corolla. There are only 70,000 miles on it, Ms. Goode said. It’s clean.
“No cracks, nothing,” she said.
Dakota called her on the drive, asking when she would be back. Soon, Ms. Goode replied.
Her first order of business: searching online for a park to take her children.
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