Conner Ford is 7. And he is the king of this ditch — a concrete monstrosity under the crumbling North Nevada Avenue bridge, where the old railroad is rotting back into the earth.
This strange and slightly unnerving environment is undeniably a boy's paradise. The concrete pillars covered in graffiti. The remnants of homeless camps, abandoned couches and shopping carts. Broken glass and huge chunks of concrete that have broken free and crashed to the ground.
Conner loves to gather the rocks and fit them into the slingshots his dad and brothers craft for him. At times, despite their mother's nagging, Conner and his two older brothers will use the ditch like a foxhole and do battle with Nerf guns. Other times, Conner spends hours digging his tiny hands into the dirt beside the tracks and pulling out huge nails for his collection.
To the south of this kingdom, just a couple blocks away, sits a 2,000-square-foot, block-shaped beige house. That's the house where Conner used to live.
North of this sprawling divide is a motel. This is where Conner lives now, along with his mom, dad and brothers.
It's a harsh reality. An adult reality that leans into big problems like the economic downturn, or the constant march toward outsourcing, toward finding a cheaper way to do business.
Conner understands that invisible forces can shatter our worlds. But perhaps not in the way his parents do.
"I like fighting aliens with whisks!" Conner says, his big eyes genuine, his blond hair catching the breeze.
"So every one of my whisks is all straightened out," says his mother, Dawn Paiz, laughing and shaking her head. "He takes 'em — you know, the ones that are all curly — he stretches it way out and he goes around like it's a gun. And he fights aliens. And then he puts them back in the drawer, so when I go to use them I'm like, 'What happened to my whisk?'"
The aliens, Conner's 19-year-old brother Victor Macomb explains helpfully, are gelatinous, and can therefore be "whipped."
"They're invisible," Conner says. "But I can see 'em ... 'cause I have special eyes."
Housed, but stuck
Dawn, Conner, Victor, 14-year-old Rafael "Gabe" Paiz and patriarch David Ford have lived in this motel for more than a year now. There's a tiny living room, a kitchenette with no oven, a bathroom with no tub, and a small bedroom.
The boys sleep in the living room on a fold-out couch and chair. David and Dawn sleep in the bedroom, where the queen-size bed takes up nearly all of the floor space.
Rent here is $195 a week. That exhausts any money the family earns. Groceries are bought with food stamps. For Christmas and special occasions, David, who's the resourceful type, bakes hams and casseroles in the barbecue.
Across the city, you could take similar snapshots. Parents feeding kids out of mini-fridges, cooking meals in microwaves, carving out strips of carpet for sleep, play, storage and more.
"It's kind of a forgotten demographic," says Bob Holmes, executive director of the homeless services umbrella agency Homeward Pikes Peak. "They don't really show up. They're housed, but they're just stuck."
Think about it, Holmes says. Affordable motel rooms cost around $150 a week. If you're making $8 an hour, that's $320. Minus taxes. Then there's food, things for the kids. You'll never be able to save up $1,200 to slap down first and last month's rent on an apartment.
And there's no guarantee of finding even a minimum-wage job in this economy. In February, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment in the Colorado Springs area hit 10.5 percent, meaning around 32,000 people are without jobs here.
This year, for the first time, El Paso County attempted to count those living in motels, when it performed its annual homeless headcount for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The local number isn't out yet, but it's got to be high, Holmes says.
For this story, the Independent talked with workers at more than 20 motels who said they had families living there long-term.
Two weeks of moving
David Ford, 48, is a big man, sturdy from years of hard work. These days, he's an "innkeeper in training," doing some hours at the front desk and stuccoing the motel for extra cash. Victor works alongside him. The cash they earn "just about" pays the rent on this place every week.
David worked for the same stucco company for 13 years. He traveled with the company, lived out of motel rooms for months at a time, did whatever it took to get the work done. It was David's job that kept the family above water when Dawn fell sick.
The illness was a slow downward spiral. She lost weight, and got so weak she couldn't cook. In 2008, she had to stop working at a pawn shop. It only got worse from there.
David couldn't convince Dawn to go to a doctor, but he could work. And he did.
"It was a year ago, a week before Christmas, that [my boss] came in and said, 'As of Friday there'll be no more hourly, everything's going to [subcontractors],'" David recalls. "So we got amongst ourselves, and one crew got funding and insurance and everything, and everybody else went to unemployment. And since I had seniority, there were a few jobs that he called the hourly guys for. And then I got called in July last year for three weeks and ended up going to just about Christmas this year ... And we just haven't had anything [in 2011] because of the economy. And then I found out last week that a couple of the guys went back to work and I wasn't one of them. So ..."
David pauses, and stares at the ground for a moment, before continuing.
"But I spent 13 years there, you know," he says. "So I went from $15 an hour to $8.50 an hour, and I do side jobs to make ends meet."
When David lost his job, the family was suddenly faced with what Gabe simply describes as "two weeks of moving." David had a friend who worked at the nearby motel, and offered to set up a room. With time running out and nowhere else to go, David accepted.
The place met David and Dawn's basic requirement — to keep the kids as stable as possible. Since it was close to their old house, Gabe and Conner could easily go to their same D-11 schools, and Gabe would stay near to his best friend of many years — important to someone who tends to keep to himself.
Still, the boys didn't take the news well at first.
"They got mad, and they would storm away when it was time to pack," David says. Pointing to Gabe, he adds, "This one just wouldn't."
The family had lived four years in that house. That was the longest Dawn, a military-brat-turned-military-wife (her first husband was in the Navy) had ever spent in one place. The boys loved it there.
"We liked our room trashed!" Conner remembers fondly.
"They would dump all the clothes out — [all the] boys shared a room, and that's a lot of clothes — and then they would take all the backpacks and build a fort with them," Dawn says. "We'd tell them to clean it up, but they wouldn't. They'd scoot it all under the beds. ... The thing is, when we moved the beds, I looked at that room like, 'What am I supposed to do with all of this mess?' There was school papers and dirty socks and underwear and toys, and it was all shoved under the bed."
The boys laugh. It's a good memory. They only have one box of toys now, and their bikes outside. It's not like it used to be.
But it's enough for now.
"We've lived here a long time, so I've adjusted to living in a small area," Gabe says. "And I know it's going to take a little while before we get a house."
Besides, Victor says, "It's not the worst thing that's ever happened."
It took Dawn three years to go to the doctor.
First, she couldn't work. Then she couldn't stand over the stove long enough to cook dinner without getting dizzy and nauseous. Vacuuming was simply too exhausting. Her body ached. She lost more and more weight. She couldn't even leave her bed.
"She was really weak," 7-year-old Conner offers. "She couldn't even carry me!"
"I got up to go to the bathroom one day, and I ended up passing out in the bathroom," Dawn says. "And that's when David just flat-out wouldn't handle it anymore. He was taking me to the doctor if he had to drug me."
Out of fear, Dawn hadn't wanted to go.
"I'd had cancer before," she says, "and I didn't want to know."
Nine years ago, give or take, Dawn met David, and it was love at first sight. But early on, Dawn had to drop a few bombshells. First, she had four kids who would soon return from her ex's place to live with her: Victor, Gabe, a daughter who has since grown up and left home, and another son who now lives with his dad.
Second, she had cancer. Actually, three kinds of cancer — ovarian, uterine and cervical — a trio that ran in her family.
And third, David was going to be a dad soon. She was pregnant.
"He's my miracle baby," Dawn says of Conner. "I was going through cancer. They told me I'd never be pregnant again. They actually thought he was a tumor. I told them, 'I've been pregnant four times before. I know I'm pregnant.'"
When Conner was a newborn, his mom was fighting for her life.
"I fought that one tooth-and-nail because the doctors told me if I didn't fight it, I'd have to find a new mom for the babies," Dawn says.
After that battle, Dawn, now 38, says she was relieved when the doctors told her in January that she had lupus, a debilitating autoimmune disorder.
The doctors put Dawn on medication. It still takes her 15 or 20 minutes to get out of bed in the morning. Her body is stiff and often in pain. But she's put a few pounds on her thin frame. She's taking walks every day, and beginning her search for a new job. And she can cook a meal for her kids again.
Gone, baby, gone
When Dawn, David and the kids moved into the motel, they put nearly all of their worldly possessions in storage.
But in that first hectic month, David unexpectedly ran out of money from unemployment, the family lost their storage unit, and everything was seized. Gone were the handmade gifts David had made those years they had "hard" Christmases. Gone were the baby pictures, the jewelry, David's tools, the kids' toys, the title to the car and the birth certificates.
"Everything we own is in this room," Dawn says.
"It was a big blow to lose the storage," David adds.
With no birth certificate, Victor can't get a proper job. The family has been working to replace it, but with no ID the process is difficult. (Homeless counselors will tell you that in an age of identity theft, terrorism and illegal immigration, getting birth certificates for the ID-less can take years.) Victor will need to replace the document before he can join the Navy this fall.
"I want to get put in the Delayed Entry Program, so I can spend this last summer with all my friends and do all the things I've wanted to do for the past couple of years," Victor says. "And then, you know, spend the next four years in. And if I like it, I'll go career and do 20. And that's what I want to do."
Gabe, though only 14, has similar aspirations. His much-older stepbrother was a Marine sniper.
"That just awed him as a child," Dawn says. "And now that's all he wants to do."
Conner has his own ambitions. When he's not playing with the other kids who live at the motel — and there are others — he's going door-to-door with his "pitch," a handwritten list of all the chores he's willing to do for a few dollars.
"I can walk the dog, I can take out the trash ..." it goes.
He has one job already. He wakes up at 6:45 a.m. to walk the neighbor's dog for $2 a day. Soon, he'll have enough saved for a new video game.
Meanwhile, David is transitioning into the hospitality business, learning the ropes. He's hopeful that one day soon, he'll manage a motel. And then they can move into a bigger place — maybe even one like "the big house."
Walking to that house, Dawn, Conner and Victor retrace a path worn with memories. That's the neighbor's dog that killed our cat. That's the crazy lady next door that called the SWAT Team on the boys when they were playing Nerf guns in the street.
The worst memories seem funny now.
The trio stops in front of the big, beige box of a house. And for a moment, they are frozen in their spots. Perhaps it feels real again, for just a second.
Like a place they belong. Their home.
But soon, the new resident comes out of her door, wondering why everyone is staring.