This is the fourth in a series of stories profiling people who are homeless in Turlock, their daily struggles and efforts to improve their lives.
Morris Smith III and Vanessa Franklin aren’t homeless. Not exactly, at least.
The couple has a roof over their heads. They have four walls, and even a floor underneath their feet – more than Abraham Lincoln could say.
But Smith and Franklin have no utilities. No power, no water, and no gas.
They live on the $300 a month they receive from welfare, barely enough to cover rent. They eat only thanks to food stamps. They have health care only because of Medicare.
“We’re as close to being homeless as you can be,” Smith said.
It's not just Smith and Franklin. It's their children, too – two daughters and a son, all between the ages of 12 and 17.
It's a familiar story to those working with the homeless. The “not-quite” homeless. The “precariously housed.” Those living in cars, or on couches, but hanging on the precipice of losing it all.
According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, about 1.65 percent of the American population is believed to be precariously housed. That's about 4 million people nationwide.
A troubled past
The utility-free house is actually an upgrade from Smith and Franklin's previous living situation, a tumbledown one-bedroom home in Modesto’s infamous airport district.
Smith actually grew up around there, in a house where drugs were as common as food. He said the neighborhood lived up to its reputation.
“I was getting in all kinds of trouble,” Smith said. “Drugs and everything.”
He started on marijuana. Then he turned to cocaine. Then things went downhill, Smith said, when he started on methamphetamine.
“I couldn’t stop,” Smith said. “I had to have help.”
Smith got deep into drugs. Eventually he got caught, went to prison. He went to drug court and got clean for a while.
Then Smith's father died, a casualty of cancer and drugs, and Smith started on the drugs harder than ever.
Franklin has been with Smith for nearly 20 years, since she was 18 and he was 16.
For a long time, Franklin stayed off the drugs. But eventually, as Smith delved deeper into addiction, Franklin started too.
The drugs hit Franklin even harder than Smith. She developed three cysts on her leg from drug abuse. After a visit to the hospital, the doctors told her she could have lost her leg.
“That was scary,” Franklin said.
A wake-up call
With Franklin facing permanent medical damage, and Smith hopelessly wrapped up in depression and drug use following his father's death, it seemed the couple would end up like so many addicts.
The couple would argue a lot a lot on the methamphetamines. They would close themselves off in their bedrooms, ignoring their children to do more drugs.
But then one day the couple's oldest daughter, age 17, stood up and said, “No more.” She said she'd move out if they didn't stop.
So they stopped. Once they saw what their drug use was doing, they stopped.
Now, both don’t like thinking about drugs. They don’t like being around them.
If someone came up to Smith with a full pipe, he says he wouldn’t touch it.
Actually, Smith says he found a pipe in an alley recently. His mind said to pick it up, to do the drugs. But instead, he threw the pipe to the ground and shattered it.
“The kids see a difference,” Franklin said. “They’re not used to him being clean. They’re used to him being on it.”
A life-changing event
It's hard to get help when you're precariously housed. You're not quite poor enough to receive help from homeless-focused organizations, but your situation is so dire that most other non-profits simply don't have the resources to help.
But the Turlock Gospel Mission is one of the few organizations which doesn't draw a firm line between the homeless and the housed. The mission offers help to whoever needs it.
Every night, TGM runs a meal ministry, offering a free dinner to anyone in need. When food stamps ran low, Smith and Franklin stumbled onto the mission.
It was just a source of food to them, at first. But eventually, Smith and Franklin were talked into attending a concert at Monte Vista Chapel.
“It changed our lives,” Smith said.
The Katinas, a contemporary Christian music group, comprised of five brothers from American Samoa, played that night. And the couple learned that they wanted religion – and the Turlock Gospel Mission – to become a major part of their lives.
A place to belong
Nowadays, Smith and Franklin have become regulars at the Turlock Gospel Mission's Homeless Assistance Ministry. The day center doesn't just offer homeless people a place to be, both said, it gives them a place to belong.
“If I didn’t have the HAM center, I’d be totally lost,” Franklin said.
“I would be too.” Smith said. “They don’t treat you like crap.”
You never feel homeless at the HAM center, they say. You feel like a part of the group, just another person working toward a common goal.
Smith has quickly become one of the center's top volunteers. He arrives at the center between 7 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. daily, getting there early to check in bikes to a secure area. Then he monitors computers, cleans bathrooms, or does yard work. Whatever they need him to do.
Franklin runs the clothes closet, and keeps tabs on the computers too.
They don't mind doing what needs to be done. It gives them a sense of responsibility, working with people who care about them.
“They are my family,” Smith said.
Without the Turlock Gospel Mission, Smith says he would probably be sitting at home doing nothing and thinking about doing drugs. Maybe he’d be out lying in the park, he says.
Instead, Smith is volunteering – and attending a literacy class. At age 36, he’s going to learn how to read.
A happy ending
Smith and Franklin's volunteering is paying off.
The work experience has landed Smith a few small jobs, mowing lawns and working on cars. He's trying to find more permanent work, as Franklin works to find a job herself.
In their spare time, Franklin reads romance novels. Smith goes fishing. Neither has the slightest interest in the other's hobby.
And both scour the classifieds for a cheaper home, in a better part of town. Something they could afford – with utilities.
Smith and Franklin have been together for 18 years. They have three children together.
But they've never gotten married, despite promises and plans to the contrary.
“Every time I’d get my hopes up, and then the drugs would get back in the way,” Franklin said.
Now, the mission is helping. The couple is getting new copies of their identifications and birth certificates, and saving up to afford a marriage license. They’re in premarital counseling, through a local church.
Just one worry remains for this couple on the right track. Franklin and Smith can't decide what to do on their honeymoon.
“Morris wants to go fishing,” Franklin said with a look of disgust.