Sisters’ lives launched after living homeless in family’s Ford Taurus
BY: Steven Gardner
BREMERTON – The view from the car did not include Washington, D.C., New York City or London.
From their white Ford Taurus, the Ayers family didn’t see much past their former Central Kitsap apartment complex or Walmart. A night spent in the car after being evicted from their home in the fall of 2005 turned into weeks. There wasn’t much thought beyond day-to-day living and finding the next place that would accept a homeless family of four.
Ke’Andrea “Kiki” Ayers, 22, is now living in New York, trying her hand in production work as a freelancer for MTV and BET networks. She looks back and recognizes how the experience of living in the car affected her. And motivated her.
“I don’t want to end up back in that situation,” said Kiki, who graduated from Howard University in Washington, D.C., in December. “That’s what I always keep in mind.”
Her sister, Selena, 24, graduated in international relations from George Washington University, also in Washington, D.C. She earned a master’s degree at England’s University of Manchester and is now studying for a law degree at the University of Westminster in London.
Their lives are a long way away from those nights in the Taurus. There is little doubt the steel they forged then helped get them where they are.
Andrea Ayers — single mother to Kiki, Selena and Wayne, now a sophomore at Bremerton High School — was working two jobs in 2005 when she was diagnosed with Sarcoidosis. The symptoms of the disease include fatigue and joint achiness. Andrea determined she could no longer keep two jobs and stay healthy. With the loss of income, paying rent became difficult. Eventually the Ayerses were evicted from the apartment they were renting.
The family had seen setbacks before, but they always had somewhere else to go, Kiki said. This time they didn’t.
Kiki remembers her mother’s persistent upbeat attitude breaking when Wayne had to give up his bicycle because it wouldn’t fit in the trunk of the Taurus.
“She started crying because she felt bad,” Kiki said.
So the daughters made their mother feel better.
“It could be fun living in a car,” they surmised.
“She has always been a good mother so we weren’t mad at her,” Kiki said.
Selena, who had graduated from high school the previous spring, split lookout duty with Andrea during the night. They feared there could be consequences for a family living in a car.
“We’d sleep in shifts to make sure the cops wouldn’t come to us,” she said. “We were very worried about the family being split up at that point.”
One night an apartment complex security guard did tap on the window — but only to ask the family to leave the parking lot.
The family had thought the nights in the car would be few. But days turned into weeks. Being evicted from an apartment made it tougher for them to get an OK to move into a new place.
BALANCING ON THE EDGE
Jim Stowers, housing and homeless services manager at Kitsap Community Resources, said the Ayerses’ situation is not uncommon.
“When you’re running that closely every month, if one thing goes wrong it’s kind of a balancing act,” he said. “It’s not uncommon to hear someone say, ‘I just never thought this was going to happen to me. I never thought I’d have to ask for help.”
The Ayers family didn’t ask for much help, keeping most people in the dark about their plight.
“I never told anybody so nobody knew,” Kiki said. Instead she and other family mothers would dress and put on makeup each day in the car, cleaning up at school or other public places.
Kiki’s friend Aaron Scheer said the family hid living in a car well.
“I didn’t know specifics, but she always had a smile on her face regardless of her circumstances,” Scheer said. “I never saw her looking sad or looking down ever.”
After school, Kiki spent much of her time at the Sylvan Way branch of the Kitsap Regional Library branch doing homework. She was there so much she grew tired of the place. Selena spent a lot of time there, too, looking for work online. Eventually she landed a job at Circuit City and began to help with family expenses.
A little more than a month after they first moved into their car, the Ayers family found an apartment.
Kiki began taking classes at Olympic College in the Running Start program. Selena eventually followed her there. Kiki had planned to transfer to Washington State University along with her friend, South Kitsap High School alum Ashlee Moore. When Moore was killed in a 2007 car accident, Kiki made other plans, opting for Howard University’s broadcast journalism program in Washington, D.C.
The young women paid for college by going after every scholarship, grant and loan available, handing in applications as early as registration opened to make sure they had everything in place well on time.
Both sisters say their drive to succeed was inspired by their mother.
Andrea Ayers said she beat a consistent message with her daughters: do well in school so they would be in better positions later in their own adult lives. She also fed their senses of worth.
“I validated them at an early age and continued to validate them, the fact that I could see they could be somebody,” Andrea said.
The daughters remember their mom’s insistence. Selena once expressed doubts about going to college.
“My mom said, ‘No, you’re going,'” she said.
Andrea shares credit with her kids’ teachers. One who stands out, she said, is Rita Pepper, who taught Kiki at PineCrest Elementary and now teaches at Bremerton High.
“I think they went above and beyond their teacher roles,” Andrea said.
Family members grew used to being poor, Selena said, but they banded together. When they had jobs they helped with family finances. One day, Selena said, Wayne mowed the lawn for a teacher, earning $25. On his way home he stopped at Albertsons and bought groceries.
“We didn’t give up hope because at the end of the day we’re all together,” Selena said. “At the end of the day, we were always OK.”
Stowers said that kind of attitude can make a big difference for families facing similar situations today.
“We see that a lot of people are remarkably resilient,” he said. “They’ll just take those opportunities and run with them.”
Andrea and Wayne are doing better financially now, Selena said, in part because there are two fewer mouths to feed at home.
The family, though a continent and an ocean apart, remains close. On Thursday Selena posted on Twitter of her sister, “I miss her like an idiot misses the point.”
That same day Kiki posted her own Twitter message, one that reveals nothing of the struggles she and her family saw. “I’ve been rich since 1989 … has nothing to do with bank accounts. Just a state of mind!”
Andrea confesses she is “really proud” of her daughters, and she continues to deliver the college message to Wayne, who she said plans to attend. Times might get tough, but Kiki and Selena profess they’re still believers in the message they got from their mother.
“You can always turn it around,” Selena said. “Rather than focusing on the negative, focus on how you can make it out.”