AK: Finding a home, building a family

The family hangs out in the room shared by Angel and Jmari. Clockwise from top left: Sam, Angel, Jmari, and Ivory. (Hillman/KSKA)
The family hangs out in the room shared by Angel and Jmari. Clockwise from top left: Sam, Angel, Jmari, and Ivory. (Hillman/KSKA)

More than 2,000 kids in Anchorage are considered homeless by the school district. They move about or stay in shelters, cars, or with family and friends. Research shows that kids who lack stability don’t do as well in school, but the support of even just one adult can change that. In the case of teenager Jmari House, an entire family stepped in to make sure she didn’t get lost in the shuffle.

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Walking into the Hudon household is like entering a giant slumber party mid-swing. Every couple minutes the family erupts into laughter.

Seventeen-year-old Jmari House sits on a pile of stuffed animals, eating a chicken strip. Her best friend, Angel Hudon, lounges by the couch and Angel’s older sister Ivory sits ramrod straight on a kitchen chair, shirt buttoned all the way to the top. The friendly conversation turns into a sisterly squabble, Jmari throwing comments toward her friend-turned-sister.

“It’s nobody’s chore but you could take the initiative to clean the bathroom!” Jmari shouts, laughing.

“It’s your chore to at least clean the sink. Come on, man!” Angel fires back.

“But you do all the makeup!” Jmari replies.

Jmari moved in with the Hudons about three years ago. She met Ivory in orchestra class, they became friends, and Ivory invited her over one day. Jmari was surprised when they got off the bus from Bartlett High School and walked up to the Hudon’s split-level house.

“I honestly forgot people lived in houses. Because of how many times I lived in apartments and shelters, and my grandma lived in a trailer.”

Jmari can remember at least nine places she’s lived with her mother and twin brother–sometimes with her mom’s boyfriends, sometimes with relatives. Her dad died when she was only four. By the time she started high school, she was staying in a two-bedroom apartment with a crowd of relatives.

“We stayed with my cousin, who had five children and a baby on the way. So that wasn’t too fun because the baby would be crying all night, or I would have to baby-sit and not finish all my homework.”

Jmari had always been the smart academic type, but her grades were slipping. She was barely making low Bs and Cs. Sam, who’s Angel and Ivory’s mom, says the first time she met Jmari and heard about her situation, she saw elements of her own childhood: substance abuse and instability. Jmari’s personality reflected it.

“She was shy. Nervous a lot,” Sam recalls. “It took her probably four months to open up and just be a little giggle-fest, or an angry ball of ‘I hate homework’ which happens a lot now.”

One weekend during her freshman year, Jmari spent the night. They watched “The Little Mermaid” and played Mario Kart. And then she never really left.

“She was here for like two weeks, and I was like ‘Don’t you need to go home and see your mom?'” says Sam. “And she’s like, ‘Oh, my mom doesn’t care.’ And I’m like ‘OK…'”

But her mom, Monica House, did care. Monica says she knew she couldn’t provide her kids with a stable home. She was struggling with depression and substance abuse after her husband and then her brother and her aunt died. Her son went to live with a friend, and Jmari went to stay with Sam and her kids.

“Her finding Sam, that was the best thing that could have happened,” Monica says. She says she just wanted her kids to be safe.

And in the three years since moving to the Hudons’ house, Jmari’s grades have climbed. Now she’s an ‘A’ student and is applying to colleges. And she says her personality has changed.

“Well, I’ve gotten more comfortable with myself and with the girls. I’m a bit more able to speak comfortably. Like, they encourage me.”

Ivory, the no-nonsense sister, says Jmari changed their family, too. Jmari moved in soon after Ivory’s father moved out. Ivory says together, they’re a real family.

Ivory and Jmari goof around. Jmari says it's the first time she's consistently had her own bed. (Hillman/KSKA)
Ivory and Jmari goof around. Jmari says it’s the first time she’s consistently had her own bed. (Hillman/KSKA)

“My family interacts. And not only is it the interactions that happen it’s that we’re able to be happy and angry together. And it used to be where no one’s allowed to have emotions and no one’s allowed to be themselves. After the divorce, I was allowed to have a family for once.”

Jmari was never legally adopted by Sam, and she still has a relationship with her biological mom. Monica has her own place now, and Jmari spends every other weekend with her. Monica says she knows they need to talk about things, woman-to-woman, and they’re getting there.

But Jmari’s new family and new home have given her roots she’s never had before. And even though she’s preparing to leave for college, she never wants to give it up.

“I’m like, ‘You can’t move, Sam…’ Cause it’s a safe place. Stability. Everything. It’s good,” she says, voice rising with emotion and laughter. “Don’t move because if you move then I’ll kind of flip out because I’ll want to come back to this house if I move out of state or something. I’ll come back and be like, ‘Where did you move? Why aren’t you home? Who are these people here?'”

Jmari finishes her after-school snack, sinking further into the pile of toys and contentedly putting off her heap of homework. She’s comfortable, happy… and home.

Anne Hillman is the healthy communities editor at Alaska Public Media and a host of Hometown, Alaska. Reach her at ahillman@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Anne here.

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