I first met Josh and Amanda in late 2019 when they began coming to the church my family attends. Their son Israel is in the same class as my son Chace, and Israel, like Chace, is on the autism spectrum. Israel is a vivacious boy at six years old, with a riot of curly brown hair. On Sundays he is usually sporting a hat, sneakers, and a grin that lets you know his shyness is contrived. He likes to swing and play in the sensory bin that houses bright kinetic sand. During Christmas the sand is bright green and there are plastic ornaments hidden underneath. During the summer, the sand is blue and dotted with tiny umbrellas. The kids love to watch the sand slowly drop from their fingers and try to carry it in their pockets, scattering it around the room.
Israel loves to run around during Sunday school, laughing and dancing. His older sister, Cali, joins him on occasion, forgoing her own classroom to be by his side. Two and a half years older than Israel, she is a helper by nature but outgoing and exuberant. She likes the attention of the teachers and thrives when given a task she can help with.
Josh and Amanda are attentive parents, offering praise and affirmation to their children with the naturalness of someone accustomed to it. It is not uncommon for Josh to exclaim, “Way to go, Izzy!” when told that Israel was excellent in class that morning. They are a tight, affectionate unit, brought together and made stronger by their circumstance.
Josh and Amanda were both born in Canton and have lived there most of their lives. Josh moved frequently but his father, a pastor, provided reliable income. Amanda’s family struggled with poverty and homelessness. Her family lived in a hotel for a year in Tennessee and when they moved back to Ohio were homeless for several months before being approved for housing.
Amanda was 20 and Josh 23 when they met. Four months later, they were married.
In 2013, Josh and Amanda were working for an Ohio potato chip company as hourly workers. The company is located in a rural part of Ohio that is predominately white. Josh and Amanda are Black. Josh had been the target of racist remarks and was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with his work environment. He was spit on. Eventually, he was fired.
Amanda was let go shortly thereafter. She believes their terminations were racially motivated.
After losing their jobs, they struggled to make ends meet. Amanda chose to stay home and focus on their children (who were 3 and 1 at the time), and while Josh was working, it was not enough to keep them afloat. Cars got repossessed; bills went unpaid. Notices were coming in the mail daily. Phone calls by the hour.
Filing for bankruptcy was not an easy choice. Doing so froze all their assets, and they were not permitted to even make rent payments per judge’s orders until the bankruptcy was finalized. They didn’t realize their landlord wasn’t adhering to the guidelines until it was too late. The landlord contacted Amanda’s mother, who began making rent payments on their behalf. When Josh and Amanda found out, they confronted the landlord and were served with eviction papers.
“I knew back then what the landlord did was wrong,” Amanda says. “I had little knowledge on how to address such issues. I did not inform the judge. Looking back, I wish I had.”
A day after their bankruptcy was finalized, they were forced to evacuate their home.
Couches. Beds. Televisions. Toys. Clothes. Everything they owned had to be put in storage as they packed only the essentials and moved in with Josh’s parents. Josh, Amanda, three-year-old Cali, and 15-month-old Israel uprooted. They slept in one room of Josh’s parents’ home.
As most toddlers do, Israel was putting things into his mouth. Young children use this to explore the world around them and keep parents on their toes. Israel toddled around, mouthing everything from door handles to the walls. He particularly enjoyed peeling the paint off the wall in any place it was chipped.
The family soon moved again, this time in with Amanda’s sister. They slept on the living room floor. In the three months between the eviction and the move into her sister’s home, Amanda says Israel began having tantrums. “He was violent toward himself, banging his head on the floor, hitting himself in the head. Israel would scream for hours on end. We felt hopeless, [and] did not know what to do.”
During this time of upheaval, Amanda was studying psychology at Stark State College. She would put both her children to bed at 8 pm and begin her schoolwork as quietly as possible with them sleeping on the floor next to her. But Israel’s behavior began to worsen. He was waking in the night, screaming for hours, inconsolable. “Josh and I felt like we were losing our mind and losing our child,” Amanda says.
A few months later, they received a letter from the health department. Israel had been exposed to lead, in high enough amounts to have lead poisoning. They traced the exposure back to Josh’s parents’ home. The walls of the old house had been coated with lead-based paint.
Israel was 18 months old when he stopped speaking.
In 2016, Ohio processed 158 evictions per day. Akron comes in at 24th in the nation for number of evictions, with a startling 6% eviction rate, nearly 4 points above the national average, with roughly seven evictions per day.
The city is trying to decipher why by launching a task force, run by Lauren Green-Hull, associate director of Fair Housing Contact Service. In February 2020, just weeks before Ohio was effectively shut down over the Covid-19 pandemic, Green-Hull participated in a town hall event where community members could come together and ask questions of her and other panel members regarding Akron’s eviction crisis. John Petit, managing attorney for Community Legal Aid, believes eviction rates are higher in industrial areas such as Akron, Canton, and Youngstown due to practices such as redlining, in which banks refused mortgage loans to people living in minority neighborhoods and to people of color, and which was outlawed with the 1968 Fair Housing Act.
With 20% of the city living in poverty, it is easy to see how the crisis is happening. What’s more difficult to understand is what to do about it.
While there are community programs, services, and shelters that can help people dealing with homelessness. Amanda admits she didn’t know of many options. “I was not aware of any help except for [Akron] Metropolitan Housing [Authority] and food benefits. My side of the family were not able to help us financially and Josh’s family were not supportive of our marriage.”
Programs designed to help those in crisis are difficult to navigate without significant support or prior knowledge. Callers greeted by a computerized voice must decide between waiting on hold for help or risk choosing the wrong option and starting over. Either scenario results in lost time — a precious commodity in the fight for housing.
Amanda has continued to feel the effects of eviction long after she was served with the papers. “Evictions make you [pay] for years on end. Homelessness leaves a mark on you. We tried applying to income-based apartments in the Akron area, but we were overlooked because of the eviction.”
She was able to meet with an apartment complex manager who offered her a rental, but with a steep security deposit to offset the record of eviction. “We were not able to afford the terms of their stipulations and remained at my sister’s for two years,” Amanda says.
Amanda and Josh learned they were expecting their third child while living at her sister’s home. They would have another little girl. Amanda remembers the day they left the hospital, saying, “When we finally brought her home to my sister’s living room, I had nowhere to place my newborn daughter except for a pile of clothes on my floor next to my bed.”
The family was living at the tiny apartment in secret. “There were times we had to pack up our belongings and hide in our car for the night so that my sister’s landlord could do an inspection and not find four other people living in the home not on the lease,” Amanda says. She tried to keep the family upbeat by posting words of affirmation and Scriptures around the home on sticky notes. She says that music became a lifeline for her and Josh during this time, but it was Israel who responded the most.
“Interestingly enough, that’s when Israel came alive,” Amanda says. “It was the only time we could get him to show interest or communicate on some level. Music spoke to him; you can see it through his eyes and I really feel like that’s what helped him.”
Children on the autism spectrum thrive on routine. In a study conducted by researchers from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL), rats were used to determine the effects that disruptions of routine have on individuals on the spectrum. The study found that rats who were exposed to a predictable, routined environment were more social and interactive within that environment. Researchers concluded, “Rearing in a predictable environment prevents the development of hyper-emotional features in an autism risk factor, and demonstrates that unpredictable environments can lead to negative outcomes, even in the presence of environmental enrichment.”
Amanda saw the effects of this firsthand. “Without walls to have physical boundaries, it’s hard to put in place boundaries for children and parents, and to set routines.” This impacted not just Israel but her oldest daughter, who didn’t have a place of her own to sleep. She doesn’t feel it affected Cali as much because her and Josh tried very hard to keep things as normal as possible. But with Israel it was different. “It’s very hard to plan a fixed schedule that makes him feel safe when you’re not living in your own home, when your privacy is on display for every visitor and neighbor to see because you are living in the most open part of the home,” Amanda says.
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Autism families face unique challenges when living in apartments or in close proximity to neighbors. It is common for people on the spectrum to exhibit intense reactions to outside stimuli, which can result in loud, disruptive, or even dangerous behavior. Meltdowns are part of every parent’s life when they have a child on the spectrum, but when meltdowns happen in an apartment, parents have the added pressure of wondering how those around them will respond. Many families face the wrath of angry neighbors and apartment managers. The 1968 Fair Housing Act offers some protection for those with disabilities, but it is limited in scope with loopholes easily exploited. However, a growing number of property managers are seeking a better understanding of how to best support their disabled tenants. Community training and websites devoted to educating landlords are becoming more available.
One in 59 children are diagnosed with autism. There is no known cause. Experts agree that both genetics and environmental factors play a role. There are no scientific studies proving a linkage between exposure to lead and autism. However, studies show children with autism often have higher levels of lead than their neurotypical counterparts. Experts are uncertain as to what this correlation means. Many children on the autism spectrum have a condition known as Pica, causing them to eat nonedible items in their surroundings which can lead to ingesting lead. When asked if Josh and Amanda felt the lead poisoning had anything to do with Israel’s eventual diagnosis, Amanda said, “My husband feels strongly that the lead had something to do with the onset of autism symptoms. I don’t know how I feel. I know that genetically he was already predisposed and it definitely — it didn’t help.”
Three years after being evicted, Josh and Amanda finally received a call telling them they were at the top of the list and would be receiving an apartment. “It was the happiest day,” Amanda says. “I remember so vividly waking up the first time to four empty walls, but they were ours! Two months after we got our apartment, Israel was officially diagnosed with autism.”
While they had been dealing with behaviors and long suspected he was on the autism spectrum, they did not receive the diagnosis until years later. The process leading up to a diagnosis, much like the process to get treatment, can take months or even years. There are stacks of paperwork, questionnaires, and a never-ending push for pre-appointments and follow ups. A boomerang of emotion surrounds parents of newly diagnosed children. They fly and spin between happiness at having answers and grieving the life they thought they would have. “Having a child on the spectrum opens your eyes to so many hurdles and barriers that you did not know would be challenges,” Amanda explains. “Let alone experiencing an eviction and homelessness at the same time you are entering the diagnosis phase.”
My own son was diagnosed at two and a half years old, after losing language at 14 months old. We were food and home secure. I remember days where I waited for my husband to get home from work so I could lock myself in my bedroom to escape. My home was a haven, a place of rest amid chaos and sadness. A space that was mine.
Amanda is now a mental health worker at Ohio Guidestone, helping others in crisis connect to community resources. Homelessness took its toll, and while Amanda says the family is now stable, homelessness is an ever-lingering presence. “Once you’ve gone without basic needs, it is a constant fear that looms in the back of your mind,” Amanda said. “You might stock up on certain things because you know how it feels to go without toothpaste. You might use coupons to stock up on food because you know how it feels to have food insecurity.”
Israel began speaking again at three years old, right around the time they got a home of their own. Amanda said that Israel flourished in their new home. “There was a sense of routine established,” she reflects. “We were able to focus our attention and resources on getting him the services that could help him.”
Amanda has found peace in creating stability and cherished memories for herself and her family. A chalkboard built into the fence surrounding her backyard allows her four children to create masterful works of color. Shelves full of books and pictures of family prove it is a special place. A safe place. A home.
April Sharp is a graduate student in the Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts program studying creative nonfiction. When not writing she can be found outside chasing the Ohio sunshine.