Miami Gardens - Opa-locka

This family lived in a car stuffed with pizza boxes. Three cops just changed their lives.

The Eason-Dansby family poses for a photo with Terence Huang, the general manager at the Opa-locka Hialeah Flea Market, and officers Jamesha McKinney, Ruben Borrero and Michael Steel. Dewayne Eason says the generosity of Opa-locka's officers and retailers 'hit me in a spot I've never been touched before.'
The Eason-Dansby family poses for a photo with Terence Huang, the general manager at the Opa-locka Hialeah Flea Market, and officers Jamesha McKinney, Ruben Borrero and Michael Steel. Dewayne Eason says the generosity of Opa-locka's officers and retailers 'hit me in a spot I've never been touched before.' For the Miami Herald

Dewayne Eason and Anieshea Dansby tried to make homelessness fun for their four kids.

The couple treated it like family time. They would snuggle in the back of their blue Ford Taurus, streaming movies on Anieshea’s cellphone and snacking on pizza from Little Caesars.

But soon the pizza boxes piled up. Then came the gnats. The car’s air conditioner was broken, so the family had no choice but to leave the windows open in the hopes that a little breeze could cut through the summer heat while they slept.

Open windows meant mosquitoes. Come morning, the family woke up sweaty, sore, itching. Except Dewayne.

Dewayne says he hasn’t really been sleeping lately. He just naps between shifts.

Over the past two months, Dewayne has been a forklift operator, trash collector and construction worker — often working two or three jobs in the same 24-hour period. While the rest of the family dozed off at night, the 38-year-old scrapped metal, collecting old aluminum and copper at construction sites and selling it at scrapyards.

But no matter how many shifts he worked or wires he gutted, Dewayne couldn’t save enough to put down a deposit on a home for the family. All the money he earned went to hotel bills, gas and diapers for 8-month-old Aaliyah. Aubrey, 5, and Avery, 9, needed new clothes. Every morning, Adrian, 7, asked for a jumbo lollipop from Dollar Tree. Dewayne and Anieshea hated saying no.

So Dewayne picked up work wherever he could. Anieshea, his wife of 11 years, shepherded him from shift to shift.

“She made sure she was there to pick me up and take me to the next job, and I just made sure that I was able to stand up and go.”

They stayed in hotel rooms when they could afford it and parking lots when they couldn’t.

An alarm goes off

Last Saturday morning marked the fourth day in a row the family had slept in the car. It was the longest string yet, a marathon of contorted sleeping positions and stifling heat. This time, they'd settled in an industrial parking lot in Opa-locka.

By 7 a.m., Dewayne was awake, peeling back the plastic from a roll of copper wire in the driver's seat, when two police officers approached him. An alarm had gone off at a nearby business, and Dewayne was the only person in sight.

Officer Jamesha McKinney and Ruben Borrero quickly saw it wasn't just Dewayne in the car, but five others sleeping with their heads at all the wrong angles. They radioed for their sergeant, Michael Steel.

When Anieshea woke up and saw two officers surrounding her family’s makeshift home, she burst into tears. This was the moment she had dreaded ever since the family began their descent into homelessness — that some official somewhere would see her children cramped in the backseat of the car and take them away. “That’s what I thought was happening,” she remembers. “My worst nightmare.”

Borrero asked for the couple’s IDs and ran them in their scanner. Both came back clean.

Perhaps, at this point, Steel says, “a different officer could have said, ‘Hey, you guys need to leave. You’re not allowed to be there.'”

But this felt different. Maybe it was the parents’ clean records or the fact that nuclear homeless families are so rare. The Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust's most recent census of the area's homeless population found just 25 two-parent households of more than almost 2,500 people sheltered.

Perhaps it was the bubbly little girl, so fascinated by makeup she likes to coat her lips with pink Sharpie when her mom's not looking. “When it comes to children, I really go crazy,” says Borerro. ”I can't see a child like that suffering.” Borerro and Steel both describe themselves as “heartbroken” peering into the Ford.

“As an officer, we have our intuition,” says Steel. “This whole family — their indication to me was this was a humble family that just needed help.”

The family's Ford Taurus filled with their belongings. When the officers found the family, the air conditioner was broken and the tires were badly damaged. On Wednesday, a local business owner gave the family a 2012 Chrysler. Terence Huang For the Miami Herald

Homeless in hotels

It didn’t used to be this hard. Thirty-four-year-old Anieshea and the children moved from Philadelphia to Miami back in January to live with her niece. Dewayne stayed behind, loading cocoa beans from the docks to the trucks and passing on any earnings to his wife. Two months ago, he decided to head south to join the family. It was time to look for a home of their own.

They toured places in North Miami and Opa-locka, but couldn’t come up with a deposit. So the couple paid night by night at whatever hotel was offering the cheapest price. Anieshea says it was the family’s version of “shopping.”

Katherine Martinez, the director of community housing at the Camillus House shelter, says it’s common for those who have never been without a home to try “everything they possibly can not to become homeless.” For the Dansby-Eason family, this meant allowing their glove compartment to overflow with key cards while their savings were drained on hotel room bills.

Before long, they were living day to day. The number of shifts Dewayne worked that night determined whether the family got to sleep in a bed or a car. Anieshea considered going into a shelter, but the ones she found online were designated either for men or for women and children.

Ron Book, the chairman of the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust, says that the office has a policy that families "are not separated at shelters and have the opportunity to get back on their feet together." But Anieshea says she couldn't find a shelter that would take the entire family. She couldn’t bear to split them up.

“The biggest thing was us staying together,” she says.

On the days when the math didn’t work out, and Dewayne brought in less than the cost of the cheapest hotel room, the family would pile into their Ford and settle into whichever parking lot felt the safest. They would wash up at whichever gas station would let them into the bathroom. Sometimes, no one would. This meant the kids, having spent the night in a sweltering car, were just too dirty to go to school. “I had to keep them home,” Anieshea remembers. When their oldest son Avery insisted on going, he got teased. The teacher called home and recommended he wear deodorant.

The couple didn’t want to tell anyone their problems extended far beyond toiletries. Dewayne was terrified that if someone found out the family lived in a car, they would call child services. “That’s why we kept it a secret for so long,” he says. “We did it to protect our kids, to protect ourselves.”

The gifts that keep giving

The officers picked up their cellphones, but not for the reason Anieshea feared. Steel dialed a commissioner to get permission for them to use the shower in City Hall. McKinney called a family member and asked them to bring over clothing and shoes. Borerro filled up the tank.

It wasn’t just the police who saw something in the Eason-Dansby clan. The officers drove them to Opa-locka's Jackson Soul Food II, where their breakfast of sausage, grits and biscuits was on the house. Steel dialed his friend, Terence Huang, the general manager of the Opa-locka Hialeah Flea Market, the sprawling 55-acre marketplace that serves as a one-stop shop for all your window tinting, tattooing and dentistry needs. Huang opened up the property’s air-conditioned VIP room, traditionally reserved for the market's big spenders. Merchants started pitching in free tires, T-shirts and deodorant. A manager took the kids to school.

Huang says he’s never seen anything like it. “These aren't the wealthiest people, but they took it out of their own wallet, their own inventory to basically take care of the family.”

That night, Steel found Dewayne a nighttime job at a cleaners in North Miami. His brother set up a GoFundMe page that has raised more than $16,000.

On Tuesday, Steel called to announce that a local property owner had just given him the keys to a studio apartment on Sharazad Boulevard where the family could stay rent-free until the end of June. A day later, a neighborhood contractor donated a maroon 2012 Chrysler.

Dewayne’s list of people he’s grateful for now runs as long as any Oscar acceptance speech. He finds it difficult to talk about without his eyes welling up.

"I'm still feeling like this is a dream, and I'm sleeping in the car right now."

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