Family moves out of shelter

Couple, baby boy end 3 months of living homeless

It is still dark outside when Mike Patterson makes his way out of the Garden City Rescue Mission. He is dressed in a striped polo shirt and clean, white sneakers, and a passer-by would never know the 26-year-old has been living in shelters for the past three months.


With a backpack on his shoulders, he begins his early morning routine of walking to the Salvation Army on Greene Street, where he will join his 30-year-old fiancée, Stephanie Whitman, and 8-month-old son, Sean. They are the only family he has ever known.

Patterson says that after he was abused by his mother and stepfather, he was put into foster care at age 5. He joined the Army as soon as he turned 18.

"I wanted security," he says.

After serving honorably for a little more than a year, he was administratively discharged -- known as a Chapter 5-13 discharge -- because of a paranoid personality disorder. That discharge denies benefits, and Patterson's mental illness keeps him from holding down a job. He has since made it his job to fight for the benefits he feels he deserves.

He spends a lot of time writing letters and filling out paperwork. He pulls out a black three-piece suit he says is used for "litigation purposes."

"I have this for when I have to argue with people in court and I have to make myself look presentable," he says.

Approaching the Salvation Army, he finds a spot of shade under a tree and waits. A few other men are scattered around the parking lot. One sits on the curb smoking a cigarette. Another paces in front of the entrance.

Patterson spends most of his days there. He is permitted to stay for only eight days and then has to pay $5 a night, so he has to separate from his family most nights. Whitman and Sean are able to stay there indefinitely.

They eat meals there each day and are required to take a blood-alcohol test each time they enter the building.

While Whitman is at her part-time job at a Waffle House in North Augusta, Patterson looks after Sean.

They typically spend their days at Riverwalk Augusta, which Mike says is the best place to be when it's hot outside.

They are allowed to go back to the shelter at dinner time. Because children are not allowed on the men's side of the shelter, Patterson watches Sean in the hallway until Whitman returns from work.

Lockdown is at 8:30 p.m. The lights have to be out by 10 p.m. Whitman stays on the women's side of the shelter and Patterson on the men's side. They communicate on two-way radios.

"There they are," he says, pointing to a dark-haired woman with glasses, pushing a baby stroller. Patterson greets them as they leave the Salvation Army, digs his hands into the stroller and picks up his smiling son.

The couple met on a chat line about a year and a half ago. Whitman, originally from Augusta, moved back to the area from Michigan because she was unhappy.

"I pitched a fit when my parents pulled me out of high school to move to Flint," she recalls. "So I moved back without them."

At the time, Patterson was working at a gas station in Hephzibah as a night clerk. Whitman got a part-time job at Checkers and moved into his apartment.

Then things took a turn for the worse.

Patterson, who is originally from Kentucky, lost his job after the gas station closed for financial reasons. The truck he owned broke down, and he couldn't afford to get it repaired.

Whitman's hours got cut, and she eventually was laid off. They couldn't afford to pay rent on the apartment they shared.

"Things just started spiraling downward," Whitman says. "We didn't have a choice except to be homeless."

Going home

"Mike, we got a letter!"

That was the first thing Whitman recalls saying when she found out an apartment had become available. They were on a waiting list at the Augusta Housing Authority but were told it could take six months to a year before there were any vacancies.

The apartment is on the east side of town known as "the bottom" to people familiar with the area, Whitman said.

"I heard my bus driver call it that once," she said. "I didn't know what he was talking about at first."

She said many of the people she knew at the Salvation Army would rather not live there because it's known as a bad area.

"I don't understand why someone would rather live at the Salvation Army than live in an apartment," she said. "Who cares if the neighborhood isn't great? At least it's your own."

They sit in the housing office of their new apartment complex. Whitman fills out paperwork while Patterson entertains Sean by bouncing him on his lap.

The couple will be required to pay $224 a month in rent, based on their income. They qualified for what is known as the "Section 8 Moderate Rehabilitation Program."

According to the housing authority Web site, the program is for families whose head of household or spouse is employed at least 30 hours a week or families whose head of household is handicapped or disabled.

The actual cost to rent their apartment is $634 a month. The housing authority pays the difference.

Whitman explains that she has only $5 for the deposit but will pay the remaining $45 when she gets paid at the end of the week.

"I know where you live," says the woman behind the desk. They all laugh.

Later, the couple eagerly wander around their empty apartment, opening closet doors and kitchen cabinets. Whitman assigns Sean one room and says the other can be theirs.

Patterson looks down at the floor of what will be a living room and motions with his arm.

"I think maybe we can get a nice rug to put here," he says.

Making plans

Clothes are spread out on the tile floor in what appears to be the form of a makeshift bed. Winter coats are used in place of pillows. A box fan sits on one side, and Sean's playpen -- a mobile dangling above -- sits on the other.

They are looking forward to getting a furniture voucher so they can buy a mattress, a sofa and some dishes.

"We love having freedom here," Whitman said. "We can do whatever we want. There's nobody to tell us what time we have to go to bed, and we don't have to worry about our stuff getting stolen."

The food bank is a half-hour walk from their new place. They don't get to eat their meals there as much as they would like.

An advertisement for pizza is on the floor. When Patterson tried to order a pizza the other day, he was told they don't deliver to their area.

But he's positive.

"We have a little convenience store down the street. We go there a lot," Patterson says as he munches on cheese snacks.

The couple's main goal now is to save money. Patterson pulls a Winnie the Pooh piggy bank off the top of the refrigerator and shakes it.

"This is what it's all about now," he says. "It's all about our future."