Editor's note: Statewide counting efforts indicate more than 2,800 Utahns are homeless at any given time, more than a third of which are families with children. This story chronicles one such family's desperate struggle over the past several months for a place to call their own.
SOUTH SALT LAKE — There's no hint of complaining in Leo Hernandez Chilel's voice as he describes what it's like to curl up and sleep each night inside a beaten-up minivan, only the bluntness of a young man who knows it's no use to gloss over the distressing details.
"It's cold — your hands are cold, everything is cold," Leo says.
It's Jan. 4, 2018, and the 17-year-old is sitting inside the fogged up vehicle where he and his four younger sisters had lived and slept for the previous three months.
Leo gestures around to where he and each of the girls carefully laid themselves down at night, choreographing themselves to somehow sleep on the seats and the floor, fitted together like a delicate jigsaw puzzle.
The teen's demeanor is even, but his mother gives into tears as she describes the insecurity her children endured as the weather grew cold at the end of 2017.
"It's hard living in a van, never knowing what's going to happen at night," says Marcell Chilel, speaking through her bilingual son as translator. "It's dangerous."
As her kids stayed in the van, Chilel and her boyfriend, Rocael Perez, would sleep in the cab of his pickup truck, parked just feet away.
After being evicted from their apartment last year — the family was told they broke the landlord's rules by having too many people living there — they stayed for a few weeks at a KOA campground in northwest Salt Lake City.
But Leo said that situation fell apart, too, after the campground said their trailer didn't meet its standards because of the trailer's broken sewage system. By October the family was relegated to their van and truck as their only shelter.
It wasn't until just after Christmas in late December that the family moved into the Midvale Road Home homeless shelter.
Since he and his mom came to the United States from Guatemala when he was not quite a year old, Leo has lived with his siblings in several one-bedroom apartments, or otherwise crowded in with family friends who took them in.
But the family had avoided long stints entirely out on the street — until the fall of 2017. Leo described suddenly living on the street not just as a discouraging ordeal, but as a day-to-day logistical nightmare for simple tasks.
"Sometimes we (didn't) have a place to go to the bathroom," he said. The family wasn't hurting for food, with some of it given out at the siblings' schools, but they had "nowhere to heat (it) up," he said.
Regardless of where they parked, the family was often greeted in the morning by someone yelling at them to move their van, warning that they were loitering, Leo said.
Despite all of the turmoil of living in the van, transitioning to a shelter wasn't without its own uncertainties.
"We knew what we had in our van," Leo said.
The shelter is "way better," he said, but "sometimes things don't fall into place." In his first week there, another teenage boy living there stole his cellphone.
"I trust too much," Leo said, and he let the boy borrow the phone. The boy "didn't come back until the next day," at which point he claimed, "I got robbed, I got robbed!"
Leo never got his phone back. It was an easy decision for the family not to "really keep our valuable things" at the shelter, he said. Their modest collection of family valuables were kept inside the trailer, which a family had offered to let them keep in their driveway.
The Midvale Road Home shelter is designed to be an atmosphere more conducive to families than the facility in downtown Salt Lake City. Still, Chilel said, the family is troubled by the unpredictable behaviors by some of the adults staying there — such as those who don't bother to cover up when entering or exiting the showers.
"The people that's all coming in (to the shelter) don't all feel the same. We're grateful for help," Leo said, "but not everyone's grateful."
"And (they leave) and do drugs, even though they're staying there for free and don't always think about people's kids, sometimes don't think about their own kids," he said.
The family may have fallen on hopeless times, but Leo said he has had nothing but love for his mom and gratitude for her dedication to him and his sisters.
"She's never left us no clothes on our back, no food to eat, she's always been there. She says she wishes she could give us what we want,” Leo said, shooting an affectionate look at his mom, who is sitting with a defeated face in the front of the van, unaware that her son is praising her in English.
"We might not have richness, but we have the love of her."
Dec. 24, 2017
The days leading up to Christmas could be described as rock bottom for Chilel and her family.
With nowhere to stay, they had no plans for the holiday, remembers South Salt Lake police officer Chad Leetham, who worked as a school resource officer at Granite Park Junior High School this past school year.
"When I said, 'Hey, what are you guys doing for the holidays,' they said, 'Nothing,'" Leetham recalled.
Leetham had come to know Chilel's children during his time working with needy youth as a school resource officer. When he heard they had nowhere to be, it struck him as not right.
"It immediately just hit me that no one should spend Christmas in their van or their car, period. Especially seven of them," he said. "No one should have a Christmas like that."
Leetham knew the family had some instability, but it wasn't until then that he "kind of realized how severe the situation was."
Determined to make things right, even if it was only for a few Christmastime hours for the family to forget their problems, Leetham sprung into action. He rallied neighbors and others to donate a turkey, ham and other food for a Christmas dinner, as well as gifts to give the family of seven.
On Christmas Eve, Leetham, his wife and their three kids hosted Chilel and her family in their home for an abundant holiday dinner — an experience he says was "something my kids will remember a long time." Gifts were shared, and the families enjoyed several raucous rounds of a dice game called "Left Center Right" and visited an elaborate Christmas light show in Tooele.
"It was just the joy and fun of not having to worry about anything at that point," Leetham said.
The day couldn't last forever, though, and finally the families said their goodbyes. Though they had been cheered, it was back to reality for Chilel and her family, which Leetham would later say was eye-opening for his children.
"We had a lot of fun, but we had to go back to … where we were going," Leo would later recall.
Still, weeks after Leetham turned the family's Christmas around, it was clear Leo hadn't forgotten what it meant to them.
"I feel I can count on him," Leo said of the officer. "He's also a very nice person. He can make you go from sad to happy real quick."
Chilel's second oldest, 14-year-old Estrellita Chilel Hernandez, calls Leetham and his family "great people."
"We had fun that day," she said. "He is a good man."
Chilel is also all smiles when she talks about Leetham, who at one point also tried to set her up with a tutor to learn English.
"When we needed him most (he was) there," she said.
A resource for Leo
As a resource officer, Leetham has also been a main point of contact when Leo has run into trouble with bad friends, or as Leo puts it, when he "got caught up with them."
At a January meeting discussing some of Leo's run-ins with the rules, Leetham implored him to separate himself from those who would drag him down into harmful behaviors.
"You want this. You want this lifestyle change," Leetham told Leo then.
Swayed by Leetham's admonition — and likely, the officer's actions even more so — Leo afterwards admits, "He's right."
"It is hard … but I know I'll be able to do it. I can stay away from them," Leo said.
The meeting wasn't the end of the teen's problems at Cottonwood High School, which he had to leave temporarily in favor of a "safe school" to remedy his rule-breaking, including drug use, and struggling grades. At first, Leo and his family were disappointed about the move, but he would later say that "now looking at it, safe school's better to be honest."
"It helps you out a lot. I pulled up a lot of my grades. My grades (had gone) down. Credits too, they give you a lot of credits," he said. "The teachers there are nice — everyone's nice there."
To see Leo get himself in trouble was "frustrating," Leetham admits, mostly because he "could see the big potential of him wanting to change." He's also wary of Leo wavering on his path in school.
"I want him to understand that we love him, that we care about him, that we care about his family, that we care about him succeeding," Leetham said. "Trials and tribulations make us who we are. This is not something somebody should have to do by themselves."
Leetham's experience reaching out to Leo acted as a small preview to the next stage of his career. At the end of the school year, he switched from serving in the school to his department's homeless resources unit.
"I'm really looking forward to the new position because of this experience," he said.
Jan. 19, 2018
Despite living a life of scarcity for many years in the United States, Chilel said she is under no illusions about how much worse conditions are for the poor in her home country. In Guatemala, she says, any form of shelter — even inside a van — is most often not an option for those living on the margins.
"Here in the U.S. … we have shelters that people can stay in. In Guatemala, kids and families have to stay out in trash cans (to) sleep," Chilel said, speaking through her daughter Estrellita as her translator.
It's Jan. 19, and the family is sitting inside a barren conference room near the front entrance of the Road Home in Midvale. They are still getting accustomed to their stay there, which has not been without complaint, but they're quick to add that having a safe, warm place to lay their heads at night overrides any other concerns.
"In the (van) it was cold when we were staying there," Estrellita said. "Here, it's warm and we can take showers and all that."
Adds Perez, also speaking through Estrellita, "Staying here, there's a roof to stay under."
"It's way different, because in the van (and truck) it's not that safe … and it doesn't feel comfortable," he said.
Not worrying about how to stay warm each night has also helped Estrellita to focus more on school.
"Here we can do our homework and we have more space," she said. "Here we have a lot of time to do our homework."
Weeks earlier, Leo said his sisters' grades would sometimes dip "because of what they're going through." When you're living in a van, he said, your thoughts "aren't in the homework."
But that's exactly where Chilel wants her children's minds to be: focused on school. Leo, who is finishing his junior year and helps support the family by assisting with landscaping work in the summer months, is already feeling pressure to leave school completely and work year-round to help support them. His mother would like him to reconsider.
With more schooling, she said, Leo and his sisters will be able to provide a better life for their children than what they are currently living through.
"The kids might not have what they want, but once they get older and the kids actually go to school and learn … they might end up getting a good job," Chilel said. "And when they have a family, too, they might be able to give their kids what they want."
Leo and his siblings, who continued attending their South Salt Lake schools in the Granite School District after moving into the shelter, are among 1,400 Granite students in poor living conditions who qualify for special assistance from the district, thanks to the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.
Those who can legally qualify for such assistance include students who are staying in temporary housing such as hotels, living with friends after being kicked out by parents, sleeping in vehicles, camping, living in housing with inadequate utilities, or those whose families are "doubled up" with relatives in cramped conditions. That's according to Shannalee Otanez, the homeless student liaison for Granite School District.
Otanez declined to speak specifically to the situation of Chilel's family, citing student privacy considerations. But for qualifying students who attend the district's schools but live outside its boundaries, it provides bus cards, gas vouchers and, for special education students, bus service.
Otanez explained that under federal law, homeless and otherwise indigent students who wish to remain at their old school, despite moving into a shelter or otherwise changing living situations, must be allowed to do so.
"We do have kids that will travel quite a distance to remain at the school that they've been at. Our goal is to provide them as much stability as we can," she said.
"We try really hard to make sure kids can stay in school," Otanez added. "My personal goal with older kids to is make sure, despite the circumstance, they're still making goals for the future."
Chilel agreed to share her family's story, she said, out of a desire to reach even more young people in poor families and help them understand the importance of getting an education.
"(In Guatemala) they have to pay for their school. Here, they can just go," she said. "Kids over there want to learn and have their (better) life, but here (even though) they can just go to school … some kids don't really want to."
Besides keeping school top of mind for her children, she says she is straining to stabilize their life by moving out of the shelter and into a place of their own.
But that path isn't so easy.
The family has been moved onto various waiting lists for help with housing. Chilel says she's trying to hunt down an apartment, but also muses that a working camping trailer might be a more realistic option "for us to have a stable place to stay … where no one's telling us to leave."
Chilel's difficulties keeping her apartments in prior years have led to a miserable credit score that make finding another one even more elusive than it would be otherwise. Adding to that, many landlords are loath to rent one or even two bedroom apartments to a family of seven.
"Some parents … abandon their kids and just go by themselves to get houses," because of that rule, she said. But given the choice, she would rather be "staying on the streets."
At the pinnacle of winter, the family getting back on its feet is further complicated because landscaping jobs dry up entirely by then. It's not as profitable, but Perez seeks out day labor by waiting outside a Home Depot hoping for job offers.
"Sometimes there's work, sometimes there's not," she said.
There are times, though, when those odd jobs don't work out so well. Perez said he spent 10 hours on a job shortly before Christmas, breaking up a floor that was being removed. But instead of getting paid the promised $14 per hour, he wasn't compensated at all.
March 23, 2018
After spending nearly three months inside the homeless shelter trying to find a better situation for her children, the optimism Chilel felt when the family first moved in is beginning to wear thin.
It's March 23, and Chilel and her children are spending a few moments inside the most vibrant room in the shelter: The children's play room, with its conscientiously cheerful design. However, the family's mood — boisterous and light minutes before — dissipates into preoccupation as the subject turns to their housing search.
"Every time they ask … 'How many people in your family?'" Chilel said. And when she tells them they are a family of seven, "They're like, 'Oh, wow, we can't get you an apartment because there's too many people.'"
Chilel is talking about her fruitless visits to various apartment complexes — an errand she runs every Friday, so far without success.
For now, Chilel has given up on finding a trailer as an alternative.
"The trailers they accept at campgrounds — they don't accept older ones, but the ones (they do accept) are too expensive to buy," she said.
One reason for hope: Chilel has reached out to Utah Community Action at Leetham's suggestion. A case manager there, Fatima Sandberg, has started to accompany her in her apartment hunting — and helping her exercise more confidence when she applies.
The nonprofit is able to use grant money to help Chilel and others in her situation get into an apartment — but it cannot force the hand of a landlord unwilling to take a chance on them.
"They are helping us with housing, but it's the same thing — the number of people and then (credit)," Chilel said.
In other efforts, too, Chilel feels like she is spinning her wheels. She's been trying to learn English — another effort Leetham had helped her start — but wasn't connecting well with her tutor.
"When you're learning English, it's harder, but that's not my problem," she said. "My problem was they weren't explaining to me how to pronounce (words)."
Chilel decided the instruction wasn't helping her much, so she opted to stop going and do some self-teaching.
"Every night she stays up on her phone, she just (learns) it by herself," Leo said.
Chilel is also anxious to work, and has been looking for opportunities. But she feels smothered by the strict schedule at the Road Home, which has stringent safety regulations requiring children at the shelter to be accompanied by an adult at all times.
Even if she were able to leave work to drop off her kids from school, she said, they couldn't stay at the shelter without her. If they tried, she said, she would be forced to exit the facility for a period of time with the exception of overnight hours.
Those hoops to jump through, she said, make it feel like she's "stuck in four walls."
A 2017 study commissioned by the Crossroads Urban Center found that 85 percent of homeless or nearly homeless Utah mothers who were interviewed didn't have child care access. The report recommended building a second homeless shelter for families, similar to the one in Midvale, but with the addition of child care services on site.
Though three new shelters — called resource centers — are being planned for Salt Lake County, none of them will be designed specifically for homeless families.
The actual task of finding work doesn't intimidate Chilel. Though a disproportionate number of immigrants who find themselves in poverty are undocumented, she is a legal resident with a protected right to work. She's also experienced with landscaping thanks to her work with Perez.
She is convinced that finding a place to live is the first domino that must fall as she pieces her family's life back together.
"Once we get an apartment, that's when (I'm) going to start working," she said.
Her outlook is not inconsistent with a philosophy championed by Utah's homelessness services community for several years called Housing First. The philosophy relies on the idea that getting people into their own place will naturally stabilize their life, and make it significantly easier to receive case management services such as mental health treatment and substance abuse help if needed.
Leo, too, feels the weight of his family's financial pressures. As the uncertainty of their homelessness stretches on, the 17-year-old has grown more convinced that his future in school can wait. Though at the moment he is still attending classes, he says he feels a compulsion to bring in income now.
"'Cause you can go to school anytime here in the United States. … I feel like I should leave school for a couple months and then just get back in it, you know?" he said, his voice equal parts uncertain and defiant. "That's what I'm planning on doing."
May 14, 2018
It's May 14, and the scent of dinner overwhelms the senses as Chilel bustles around the kitchen of her new three-bedroom apartment close to I-15 in South Salt Lake. Her children, who have friends over, laugh and talk over each other as they eat, swapping quick bursts of conversation between bites.
This is a throughly ordinary apartment, but it's a happy one, and Chilel and her family are happy to be here — happy that as of a few weeks ago, it became theirs.
Estrellita says she and her siblings are finally in a place where her mother "feels good going to work, knows we're going to be somewhere safe."
Until recently, this kind of stability had appeared elusive. After months of trying without success to qualify for an apartment, they had moved into their derelict trailer in early April.
Chilel said the family decided to move out of the shelter after, citing facility rules, staff threw out all of their belongings when vehicle problems prevented the family from getting back to the building for an extended period.
She said the family was incensed because they weren't warned ahead of time, and decided together they were better off without the shelter — even if it meant staying instead in a decrepit trailer.
"After they threw our things away, we didn't want to return," Chilel said.
Shelter officials said if they can't contact a family, the rules are they throw away belongings after one day to make room for other families in need, but didn't address Chilel's claims specifically, citing privacy laws.
An urgent three weeks followed, in which some promising leads found while apartment hunting with the help of Sandberg had fallen through at the last minute, discouraging the family.
"It was a big struggle," Sandberg would later recall. One day early in the search, Chilel was "close to signing the lease, and then (the landlord told) us somebody else took it."
That day in particular, Sandberg said, was "so sad" and demoralizing. "Back to nothing. It was just a struggle."
In that moment, Chilel felt like giving up. But Sandberg remembers telling her, "We have to do something. We can't just leave it like this."
Finally, it was Estrellita's conversation with a friend that led to a breakthrough. Her classmate, she said, "told us about about this apartment (where) they accept seven people."
Doing her due diligence, Chilel visited the apartment complex to see if the landlord would take a chance on her. And after being told no so many times, Chilel at last got an elusive yes — given that she would pony up a little more up front, due to her poor credit score.
The deposit was set at $1,500. Sandberg told Chilel she would check with her organization and ask if "we (could) spend a little more for this family."
Though it would mean Utah Community Action couldn't help the family for as long with rent, Sandberg got the green light to go ahead with the payment.
By April 23, Chilel and her loved ones were no longer homeless.
"I wanted to cry," Sandberg said. "They were so thankful for what I did, I was like, 'Oh my goodness … this is what it is to be a case manager, to be able to shelter families. … This is what it means to work in this field.'"
Chilel said her family's fortunes would not have turned around if not for Sandberg's help.
"We felt pressure, because we didn't have (anywhere) to stay. We did at the shelter, but it would be difficult for us," she said. "She helped us out through a lot. That's how we got here."
Now, Estrellita lives right above the friend who gave her the pivotal advice to try to get into the apartment. "We're always hanging out," she said, an earnest smile animating her face.
"We get to sleep better than we used to — no noise," she said, comparing it to the shelter.
Chilel adds that here, it's not easy for her children to run into problems unless they "go out looking for them." The family has signed an eight-month renter's contract for now, but the hope, she says, is to make this home for a long time.
"It's just calm," Chilel says. "It's just good here."
Sandberg praised the funding stream used to help the family, which came from the Siemer Family Foundation, calling it "more flexible" than most.
"(It's used for) anything for the family to be more stable in their housing situation and to keep their child in their school," she said.
Aside from the deposit and first month's rent, Sandberg said the grant also helped pay for repairs keeping Chilel's van operable. In other cases with fewer other expenses going toward helping the family, she said, it can pay for up to three months of rent.
On May 14, inside their brand new apartment, a sense of normalcy clashes with a few telltale signs of the family's existential fight for a stable roof over their heads.
In one corner, under some artwork on the wall, sits a stylish new sectional sofa the family managed to buy. In the other is a three-seat bench that the family removed from the van they once slept in, now used as furniture.
One of Chilel's daughters is busy perusing a smartphone. For the young kids, a cartoon also plays in the background — a Care Bears episode from the 1980s, played from an old VCR over a bygone TV that the family had stowed away in their trailer since the last time they were in an apartment.
Many of the family's possessions come from a hodgepodge of generosity. Chilel said Estrellita's friend's family had given them chairs and good Samaritans who had been contacted by the school district had donated beds and a table. Sandberg said one of the family's landscaping clients donated dishes.
As the day is long
As they come together for dinner at the end of an idyllic spring day, the family is generous without a second thought in sharing with the children's friends, and there is plenty of food to be had. They're just settling in to eat at 10:40 p.m., following an all-day landscaping job that Chilel and Perez had returned from just a short time earlier.
It's a normal sight, considering how busy life has become.
As the weather turned favorable, the couple's livelihood returned, and their workweek has become relentless, using up nearly every moment they have in summer sunlight to make themselves profitable.
Chilel and Perez have scoured neighborhoods everywhere from Draper to Bountiful, knocking on doors, giving out business cards, and offering to carry out various intensive landscaping projects for homeowners.
In some ways, though, the work itself is the easy part for them. Hunting down each job can be fraught with hazards, Chilel said. Sometimes those whose doors they knock on will "yell (that) there's not a job there," though that abrasiveness pales in comparison to those who call the police or even personally follow them.
"They get cameras and take pictures of (our license) plates," she said.
It's upsetting because she and her boyfriend are "not doing anything bad."
But among those who have been taking up their offers in the past several weeks, Chilel believes she and her boyfriend are dealt with equitably.
"They're fair," she said. Some offer drinks, and a few even invite them to dinner.
Sometimes a landscaping project will take up to three or four days at a time. Chilel's children also sell candy and a special homemade ice cream out of the apartment, she said, for a small side income.
At $1,500 per month, the rent is unforgiving for a family clawing its way back from homelessness. Sandberg, concerned that the family keep its apartment, said she had warned Chilel that "next month you're going to have to pay the rent."
But Chilel and her family are confident that the abundance of work available during the warm weather months will be enough to keep them viable in their current apartment long-term, even after their initial financial help fades away. In survival mode, at least — knowing what alternative awaits — she believes the window of opportunity will be enough.
"We're actually going to keep this for a long time," she says in a declaration of confidence, and hope. "When we work (we can) save some money."
Estrellita says being in an apartment has helped her and her little sisters focus better on school — and attend more easily. Though school help with transportation options went a long way, logistically there's no replacing simply living close by, she said.
And "now we live so close (to) the bus, it can just pick us up and drop us off," rather than their mother running them there and back, Estrellita said. The kids' schedules now aren't subject to emergencies with Chilel's work, and vice versa.
Escaping a bad dream
The family likes to laugh together as they look back on their memorable, even terrifying experiences.
Late one night, Estrellita said, a random "guy came to the van (and) tried opening it." She and her siblings were all in the van at the time.
"My mom started beeping from the (truck)," she said, and the man ran away.
The family believes the man was probably trying to burglarize the van. But rather than react with somber faces to Estrellita's account of what happened, her siblings laugh heartily, as though to throw their hands up at the absurdity of what they've endured.
"It's like a sad story, with funny parts," Estrellita said simply.
"We don't want to pass through it again."
June 21, 2018
After just two months in their apartment, the family's future is tilting again toward uncertainty.
For now, they are still in their apartment.
Perez has been languishing in jail since May 30. He was arrested by South Salt Lake police after being pulled over for allegedly having an open beer can inside his truck. Perez "acknowledged drinking two beers," a police affidavit says. He was later charged with four misdemeanors.
"At the moment we are not having a good time," Chilel told the Deseret News. "I'm sad."
Perez's third arrest in two months, with his other two cases being DUIs, led to his truck also being seized by police. All the cases remain unresolved in court.
The arrest has been a devastating financial blow for the family, Chilel said. Losing his truck, which they use heavily in their landscaping jobs, has made things even more difficult.
"I do not know if I can continue paying (for) my apartment," she said.
After months of devising ways to wrench her family out of homelessness, Chilel admits, "I don't really have a plan." Her landscaping work has continued without Perez, but has slowed significantly because she doesn't have as much expertise.
There is an emptiness, an emotional exhaustion in how she describes her own state of mind. "Sad and depressed," she sums up simply.
Perez is "sad (too), because he wants to help us. Because he doesn't want us to be ending up in the road," she said. "He's sad because he wants us to be happy."27 comments on this story
But there are still some signs of hope. In a few days, she will be meeting with Sandberg to go over her options — though she doesn't know what those are yet. And Leo has found a job with a landscaping company, so he is still bringing in money.
It's a moment of her life without much clarity. But Chilel has beaten the steep odds of homelessness before. And while the path getting there is uncertain and bumpy, there is no ambiguity about their long-desired destination: Exactly where she already is, safe and secluded with her children underneath a roof.
"We don't want to go back to shelter," nor the van, she says. "We don't want to go back."