Lindsey Fizer settled cross-legged on her gray couch. She swiped at a lock of her long, straight, strawberry hair that fell from behind her ear.
Her face brightened as she broke into laughter.
"I'm a little peculiar," she said, shrugging as if to say, "It-is-what-it-is." "I have a different way about me. People definitely take notice."
Fizer, 35, is working hard to fit in and learn the ins and outs of commercial food equipment at her new job as a parts specialist at Bromley Parts & Service in Little Rock.
"I'm back to my old self," Fizer said, still beaming. "I've been on my own since I was 17, and I'm me again."
A little over two years ago, a taxi pulled up in front of the Little Rock shelter Our House, and Fizer and her two young children -- Cerella, 5, and Carlos, 4 -- stepped out to begin a journey that would lead Fizer out of homelessness and into a future that included a home and vehicle, a savings account, reunification with a son she gave up and a hard-earned foundation that she would use to build her children a brighter future.
A point-in-time report conducted by researchers with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development showed that on a single night in January 2016, more than 2,400 homeless people were counted in Arkansas. Of that number, a little more than 26 percent -- or 625 -- were homeless families with children.
Ben Goodwin, the director of Our House, said about 95 percent of the shelter's clients are single mothers like Fizer. In the organization's homelessness prevention program, the average family is a single mother with three children.
"I want to emphasize how difficult the challenge is for single mothers," Goodwin said. "It only takes five minutes for me to sit down with someone and do the math on what it takes -- the income and expenses of what it really takes -- to make ends meet as a single mother with three children. And also how tight the margin for error is."
Fizer, who said she fled domestic violence in Shreveport, spent two years living on the streets with her children before going to Our House. She headed for Arkansas.
"I kept hearing about Our House," Fizer said. "I was praying and praying. I was not going to stay in Louisiana. My spirit told me I needed to go."
When she arrived, Our House had only three beds available -- just enough for her, Cerella and Carlos.
Fizer quickly immersed herself in the shelter's programming, eagerly soaking up everything from budgeting and work skills to grocery buying and meal planning.
"One thing that stood out is that she -- and I don't know where this comes from -- but she has this great quality of being willing to listen and to accept feedback and, not just to listen, but to seek out guidance and advice," Goodwin said. "She comes to all the classes that we have, and she has this drive to improve herself, self-improvement drive. It's really genuine and has carried her through a lot of the challenges that she's had."
Fizer entered the Our House Central Arkansas Family Stability Institute program.
The 12-month program, now a national model, works with the family as a whole and provides dedicated case managers as well as employment coaching, financial courses, children's programs, and outreach to schools and other community programs. The goal of the initiative -- funded by the Siemer Institute for Family Stability, the Heart of Arkansas United Way and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation -- is to intervene before a family becomes homeless.
Over the past five years, the Central Arkansas Family Stability Institute has served 1,399 people, including 926 children.
Of the 381 families served, 90 percent -- or 343 -- have maintained stable housing and exited the program with full-time income or its equivalent. Two families became homeowners. About 61 percent, or 232 families, increased their average household incomes by at least 25 percent.
Each participant in the program is required to save 75 percent of each paycheck. Some program graduates leave with more than $10,000 in their savings accounts.
Fizer was no exception, saving enough to buy a new car last year.
Within a month and a half of arriving at the shelter, Fizer had found a job at Walgreens on Main Street in Little Rock. Every day, she walked the 2-mile round trip, often coming face to face with people in the throes of homelessness.
"I would just show them love. I've had the experience. I've lived it. I was panhandling just like them. It was humiliating," Fizer said. "If it weren't for Our House, I'd still be on the streets, too."
Last summer, Fizer was putting an item back on the shelf at Walgreens when Beth Shaw, the owner of Bromley Parts & Service, walked in and offered her a higher-paying job. A regular Walgreens customer, Shaw said she had always been impressed with Fizer's work ethic and customer-service skills.
Shaw said she previously sent two supervisors to Walgreens -- not telling them Fizer's name -- and asked them if they could determine which employee she wanted to steal away.
Both named Fizer.
"She greeted everybody who walked in the door. Even if she was waiting on someone else, she'd try to help other customers," Shaw said. "She was very friendly with the customers, and I needed someone like that at the parts counter."
Recently, Fizer moved out of Our House and into a three-bedroom apartment on the east side of Little Rock. Giving a tour of her home, Fizer excitedly pointed to the bunk beds in a bedroom for her two youngest children, a television console in the living room and a table in her dining room.
"I still need to get curtains," she said, motioning to the bedsheets covering the windows.
Fizer then moved to the third bedroom where a lanky 16-year-old boy was stretched back, maneuvering video-game controls and staring at the screen in front of him.
"That's Avery," she said, grinning widely. Fizer had relinquished him to the foster-care system a few years earlier as a way to protect him from the wrath of her ex-husband, who was not Avery's biological father.
With a firm foundation beneath her feet, Fizer regained custody of Avery late last year.
"He's doing really good. I try to spend as much time with him as I can," Fizer said. "We have a good relationship. He's a very forgiving and loving child."
Fizer said her life seems like a dream now, a dream she worked hard to achieve.
"I have freedom now. No one is thinking for me anymore," Fizer said. "It feels really good. I have a job; I'm keeping a job. I'm not looking over my shoulder anymore."
Goodwin said he has no doubts about Fizer's future.
"What I want for Lindsey in 10 years, and every year until then, and what I want for every mother and father that we serve here at Our House, is the strength, support, and confidence to tackle whatever life throws their way," Goodwin said.
"Lindsey has these things today, and in 10 years I know Lindsey will still have these things. She will still be a hard worker, still be an avid learner, and still be a strong leader of a loving family. She is leading her children into a bright future, and I can't wait to see what they come up with."
SundayMonday on 02/19/2018