"Pay no rent till November."
Tina Carter stares at the ad on her laptop screen Monday morning in her room at the Southgate Inn. The online posting advertises three bedrooms and two bathrooms for $690 a month.
Since 2009, Carter and her family have been without their own home. When she scrolls through the ad, the clock reads 6:45 a.m., early in the morning, but late in the game. An urgent deadline bears down on the mother and her three daughters, slumbering mounds in Room 271.
Serena-Jo, 9, sleeps under the covers on a small inflatable mattress near the door.
Kaitlyn-Rose, 7, snoozes on the same bed her mom uses as a desk.
Tabitha, 13, sprawls on the third bed.
Carter shared a bed with one of her daughters until the alarm rang and she hopped online to check for rentals. Today, May 9, she needs something to break. She and her girls are 52 hours away from checkout, from having no place to go.
The family ended up in Missoula after Carter left an abusive husband in Oregon. She has seven daughters in all, and the oldest lives here. Last February, Carter and her three youngest moved in with her, and in May, they crashed in a trailer with Carter's boyfriend. But when he got locked up in November for a DUI, it only took a month until Carter couldn't make rent. In a cold snap, the pipes froze, then burst.
So Tina Carter and her three daughters landed in a room at the Sleepy Inn and on a waiting list for emergency housing. The YWCA Missoula offers vouchers for families to spend 50 days in a motel room at the Southgate Inn, and that's where they are now.
Monday is day No. 48, and time is short. Carter checks the rentals and prods the girls out of bed. She twists her long hair into a bun, grabs her raincoat, and heads for the bus stop. She hopes for the best.
"It seems like my whole life, at the very last minute, something comes through."
This morning, March 22, Tina Carter meets with Katharina Werner of the YWCA Missoula to sign the lease for a room at the Southgate Inn. Carter keeps one hand on her hip and rocks one foot up and down as Werner goes over the terms of the agreement:
Quiet time is from 10 p.m. to 8 a.m. The motel manager holds unannounced inspections. Make your own beds and take out the garbage. The children must never be left alone.
"What about Tabitha? She's 13."
It doesn't matter. And no pets.
"I have turtles. Do they count?"
The turtles can stay.
Carter learns she will meet with a caseworker each week, and she should use those meetings to help secure permanent housing and make her needs known.
"This is really about you."
"Get me a job."
"We can help with that, maybe."
Maybe. The rules sound so black and white, yet much of Carter's life feels propelled by uncertainty, by shades of gray like the ocean, quiet but unsettled.
Werner tells Carter she should make the new place cozy but not drill holes in the wall.
"You guys will be there for 50 days. It is temporary."
Carter knows temporary all too well.
Juvenile detention. A shelter. Couches. Once, when her home flooded, she slept in a field with her daughters.
After the meeting, the family starts moving, again, to another place they cannot call home.
Kaitlyn sings as she carries small paper cups with baby spider plants to the truck. When the room is almost empty, she sees a row of dolls tucked side-by-side under a blanket on one bed.
Serena gathers the dolls, and Carter grabs the turtle tank with Mr. Turtle, Junior and Kirby, who slosh in their aquarium.
"So boys. We move yet again. These poor boys have moved more than the kids have."
There's no time to rest, either. Carter reminds the girls they will pack up again in a month and a half, but the girls are busy relishing the present. The room at the Southgate Inn is cleaner and better.
Kaitlyn: "I'm going to see if we have cable. Yes! We have cable. Mom! We have cable!"
She notes 800 channels and one more thing. "They didn't just give us a Bible, they gave us a phone book!"
Coming up on 50 days, the motel stay will stress the girls. Kaitlyn will whine. Serena will act on an urge to impose order on everything.
She will refuse to wear her hightops because the shoelaces are frayed.
On move-in day, though, the small room holds infinite possibilities. Kaitlyn lifts one bag from the truck with both hands and pronounces her own vigor.
Kaitlyn: "It's not that heavy. I'm strong."
Serena: "And I'm stronger than you."
Certainly, the strength comes to them from their mother, a fortitude she imbedded in their DNA and infused in their marrow. Carter has faced down drug addiction, endured violence, suffered cruelty. One man handcuffed her ankles at night so she wouldn't leave, and kicked her in the stomach when she was pregnant. He raped her in front of her children. Her second husband beat her, and she left.
Then and now
When Tina Carter, 41, tells those stories of struggle, she looks a listener in the eye. The dark moments from her past are horrific, and life in a cramped motel room brushes painfully close to normal.
Sisters clobber each other for a hairbrush. The ubiquitous pleading teenager makes demands that seem like non sequiturs. Here's Tabitha the same morning her mom wakes desperate
to find the family a home in 48 hours.
"Mommy, you should get me some chocolate today."
Here too are the icons of any family home. On the refrigerator, Carter puts up two magnets printed with her younger daughters' school pictures.
Serena's hair is auburn. Kaitlyn is a blond. Both are wearing pink dresses.
Here's the difference between Room 271 and a real home: The refrigerator is small and stacked on top of another small fridge, part of a tower. Together, the appliances support a microwave oven topped with a toaster.
The magnets show both girls smiling for the photographer. Ordinary, but only at first blush, like other snapshots from Tina Carter's hard life.
The first time she married, she wore a silk rose dress with white flowers, and a minister performed the ceremony. To celebrate, though, the best man presented the happy couple with an eight ball, 3.5 grams of meth.
These days, smaller pleasures lift her high. When Carter learns the motel stay includes $30 of laundry tokens, she nearly dances in her chair.
Tina Carter is in perpetual motion. She looks for work, looks for housing.
Today, she walks through Southgate Mall and along Brooks Street picking up applications. She tries a children's store, the Mustard Seed, Wendy's. She dismisses a job across the country that disappeared.
"It was just an idea that we were kicking around, anyway."
Apartment hunting and housing paperwork swallow swaths of time. She schedules an interview to get on the waiting list for Maclay Commons. She's on the waiting list for public housing. On the waiting list for a Section 8 voucher, always moving, always waiting.
Today, though, a trickle of good news brightens the churning gray. For the first time since December, Carter has public assistance, an income just in time for Easter. She spends $10.97 on two Easter outfits for the girls. The skinny jeans for Tabitha are sewn with metal studs and cost her $3.
"It kind of makes me feel good. It's been a long time since we've done anything like that."
Putting up her hair
The alarm clock rings at 6:15 a.m. Today, the room is a mess, but Tina Carter has a job.
"Welcome to our little rathole. It's like the room throws up when we go to sleep."
Two days earlier, Burger King hired her on the spot. Carter needs to leave by 7:15 a.m., and she is nervous about the girls getting themselves to school. The day before, someone left the milk out, the room strewn with clothes. With mom gone, the constant throb of disorder intensifies on top of the usual headaches, like the ongoing lack of hot water.
Since day one, by some bizarre quirk, the only way to get a hot shower is to flush the toilet.
"We judge how long our showers are by how many flushes," Carter says.
This morning, Serena gets herself up before the alarm rings to finish her homework in the still dark room. At 7:05 a.m., Carter rouses the other girls and reminds Tabitha about the milk.
Her real worry is getting evicted for leaving her daughters without adult supervision, but she has a bus to catch.
Soon, the littlest girls stand alone in front of the mirror.
"Serena, can you put up my hair?"
Kaitlyn stands still as Serena brushes her little sister's hair smooth and pulls an elastic around her locks. Her hands look so small for the task.
Brussels sprouts and hair day
Today, the family's stay at the Southgate Inn is half over, yet home seems no more within reach than it did on day one. Carter and her daughters contort their lives into the cramped, bulging room. This is the stage for cooking dinner, dying hair.
At the bathroom sink and countertop that double as a kitchen, Carter boils Brussels sprouts in a wok and heats up an electric grill. Sharing counter space are toothbrushes, face cream, a manicure set, a box of instant rice and steaks waiting to be cooked.
When Carter heads to the bathroom for a spoon or bowl, utensils rattle in the bathtub, where the family washes dishes.
Serena rests on one bed and licks the green coating off a gumball as she watches the Disney Channel. Tabitha brushes her hair so she can dye it, an urgent matter for a teen but not her mother.
Carter: "There's not enough room to do it. The bathtub is still full of dishes."
Tabitha: "You told me I could do it right after I buy it. It's not fair."
The wait for dinner is 10 minutes, interminable in teenage time, but finally Carter serves each of the girls on paper plates. They eat at the dresser, on the bed, on the floor; with dinner served, Tabitha colors her hair.
Tina and Tabitha are mother and daughter, so they fight, but they giggle a lot, too. Tonight, Carter teases Tabitha, reading her text messages aloud, and they tussle for the phone.
"I'm going to lick you, Mommy," Tabitha laughs. "Stop reading my messages."
When Tabitha emerges from the bathroom with hair aglow in purple-red, Carter calls her "bootiful."
Tina Carter has seven daughters, and she faltered badly with at least one. Ashley was born crack affected after Carter relapsed and went into labor. She didn't call the ambulance until she had ingested even the resin from her crack pipe.
"It was like I couldn't stop myself. I had to finish that first."
For all her mistakes, though, Carter is savvy at survival. When her baby was taken from her in the hospital, she cried but didn't fight: "I also knew that I shouldn't be taking her back to where I was going."
She lost track of Ashley, but tomorrow, she will watch Serena play a leading role in a school play.
An ordinary mom
By day, Carter struggles to find a home for her family. By night, she cooks cauliflower and salmon in a kitchen that's also a bathroom. But here at Hawthorne Elementary School for a literature luncheon, Carter is simply a proud mom waiting with the other parents to see her child in a school play.
Today is Serena's "poetry potluck," and when she spies her mom outside the classroom, she smiles and waves. Serena is the play's star, the queen bee. As part of her costume, she dons a tiara, wings and a yellow flower pin.
The classroom too is decorated. Fabric tablecloths cover the tables and a quote hangs above Mrs. Brown's desk: "We have not inherited the earth from our fathers. We are borrowing it from our children."
Just before it's Serena's turn to perform in "Honeybees," Carter adjusts her daughter's wings. In the dramatic reading, the worker bees complain about the drudgery of the hive - "Why don't we all unionize?" - while Serena the queen bee revels in her life of leisure - "I'm loved and I'm lauded ... I'm outranked by none ... Truly a bee's is the best of all lives."
After the play, Serena bounces back to her mom, and a teary Carter leans over: "That was cute."
Then, the mom returns to her motel room, a place that's losing its luster. Carter's leads on rentals are running dry, and she lies awake at night trying not to think about what will happen if she cannot find a home in 24 days.
A break, maybe
Finally, Tina Carter gets a bead on a promising apartment.
The rent would devour most of her income, but the price is right: $650 for two bedrooms and utilities. Plus, it's not through a property management firm. Those companies request rental history, and Carter doesn't have much in her name.
"So cross your fingers, toes, elbows," Carter says.
The owner tells her the place is unlocked, so she walks right in. The home turns out to be a basement apartment, but it's decorated in white and yellow, and the kitchen has a window.
"There's good light coming in," she says.
The sunshine lights Carter from the inside, awakening her vision for the future. She dreams, just for a minute. She could put the picnic table in that corner of the yard, plant sunflowers there. Musing aloud, she walks down the alley and comes upon a yard with a golden hen and bantam chicken.
"Oh, chickens. I could have chickens. I could have a garden and chickens and a goat to mow the grass."
Carter leaves the owner a message, but she never hears back. She will return to the apartment to find the basement door locked.
Someone else moves in.
"I'm so tired, I don't even know what to do anymore."
Today is Tina Carter's final meeting with her YWCA caseworker, Sara Harvey. She still has no place to go, but somewhere, another family is waiting for Room 271 of the Southgate Inn.
In a booth at Burger King, Carter tells Harvey about the rentals she's seen, some with shards of glass at the doorstep, none workable. She works Saturday, Sunday, Monday, so she won't have time to look again until Tuesday.
Tuesday is one day before checkout.
Harvey wants to know if she can help and where Carter will go, realistically. Carter plans to ask a friend who works nights if the family can crash there. Just temporarily.
"She has a pullout couch. It's something we could work out for a couple weeks."
The younger girls know their mom is stressed. Later that day, they whirl on a tire swing behind the motel and share the telltale signs.
Kaitlyn: "She starts crying and stuff. And she starts talking to herself."
Serena: "I think talking to herself comes first."
Carter doesn't cry easily, though, not even when she talks of the heinous ways men violated her. Only when she recounts the insidious lie her husband told her again and again did she wipe away tears.
"He said it so often to me, that I would never make it without him." She paused. "I don't cry very often. We've been struggling so long, and I'm tired. I don't want to do this anymore, and I don't want him to be right."
Already, though, he is wrong. Didn't she get groceries and cook for weeks in motel rooms? Without him? Get a job, a paycheck? Go to "Honeybees" and school conferences?
Don't her children love her?
Even if barely, she is making it.
"Pay no rent till November."
Carter stares at the online ad before rousing the girls. She brushes out Kaitlyn's tangles, wraps her own hair in a bun and walks out the door.
Around 12:30 p.m. at Burger King, she picks up a voicemail from her oldest daughter. It's garbled, but the words Carter hear make her cry and scream: "Four bedroom." "Public housing."
"Missoula Housing Authority." "You have 48 hours to get it."
One year earlier, Carter had applied for public housing. Today, a four-bedroom unit is open, twice as big and at less than half the money of anything Carter had dreamed.
After work, she is still in motion, but her direction is certain. She needs cash on hand for the deposit, so she heads to the Missoula Federal Credit Union. Her mind races.
"I'll be able to save a ton of money."
"I'm calling the cable guys tonight. Getting the address, calling the cable guys."
"I was going to cook chicken tonight, but I think I'll wait so I can bake it."
When she and the girls are all back in the motel room, Carter breaks the news.
Serena: "We got the place?"
Carter: "We got a place."
She stresses the word "a." Carter sits on one corner of the bed, smiling. Her girls stare at her, and for a moment, it's quiet. Could it be?
Serena: "Do we all have our own rooms?"
Yes, they do.
Kaitlyn: "Oh, my gosh, you got us a house-house?!"
Yes, she did. A green lawn wraps around the house-house, Johnny jump-ups poke their heads to the sun, and trees shade it.
But Tabitha needs to be sure: "How long are we going to have our apartment?"
Will it be temporary, like the field, the shelter, the trailer, the motel, the couches?
"As long as we want it," Carter says.
On the bed, the cool and surly teenager does a happy dance.
Upstairs in her new home, Kaitlyn opens the door of her closet. It's the closet of her very own room, one with a lock and a window. In one corner, a set of pink sandals and pair of white flats rest side by side.
"I put my shoes right there."
She stretches to peek out the window, throws it open wide. Outside, the air is so quiet and still, and you can see a very long way.
Reporter Keila Szpaller can be reached at @KeilaSzpaller, 523-5262, firstname.lastname@example.org or on MissoulaRedTape.com. Photographer Linda Thompson can be reached at email@example.com and at 523-5270.