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ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Cherie Moore and her son Cody Barnes share a small discover on the beach of Saltwater State Park. They depend on each other to keep their spirits up. Their bond is tight with no strong support system of close friends or family to help them in times of need.

By Erika Schultz

Since spring, journalists from the community and The Seattle Times have been working to produce stories about family homelessness as part of a fellowship through Seattle University, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Homelessness and poverty are complex topics. While working on the project, reporter Lornet Turnbull and I talked to dozens of organizations, caseworkers and families. It’s important for photographers to be active in the reporting and researching. You can’t expect stories to be dropped in your lap. You have to find them. And, in our case, it took months.

There is a reason why our series is called “Invisible Families.” Parents with kids are the fastest growing yet least visible sector of the homeless population. Families stay hidden away — doubling up with friends or staying in emergency shelters — versus sleeping on the street.

And finding a family who feels comfortable sharing their story can be a challenge.

Some parents feel fine discussing their struggles, but their child may not want friends at school to know.

Caseworkers are sometimes protective of their clients, because they may be stressed or dealing with trauma. They may want to refer you to a family who was previously homeless, versus a family who is in a tougher situation.

Other families may not want to be labeled as homeless. They see their situation as only temporary.

So, when we met families who felt comfortable sharing their stories and opened up their lives to us, it felt very precious.

Kim Ahern, 47, moved her two sons — including Jack, 9 — from Chicago to Seattle in April after months of looking for work. While in the Midwest, she read online that jobs would open up in Seattle at the end of the recession. Without lining up a job, she moved to Seattle hoping to find secretarial work and a fresh start.

The hotel vouchers Kim Ahern was counting on weren’t available when she arrived in Seattle, so she reluctantly moved with Jack and Tom, 19, into Nickelsville, one of Seattle’s tent cities. It was a backup plan. They stayed at Nickelsville’s Central District location for two weeks. Then they traveled with the encampment when it moved to Skyway.

Kim and Jack allowed me to be with them on good days and bad, during all hours of the day and night. They were generous with their time and always returned my calls. When big moments happened in their lives — like moving into their first apartment in Seattle — they let me know. And, I tried to be there during those important occasions if I was scheduled to work that day or not.

Through the photographs, captions and video, I hope I conveyed not only the basics of their story, but Kim’s sense of humor and love for her son. I also hope I shared part of Jack’s imaginative and gregarious personality.

It takes a lot of courage to share your story with the public — especially during difficult times.

I really appreciate Kim, Tom and Jack for opening up their lives to all of us. I hope it only gets better for them as they settle into their new lives in Seattle.

I also want thank Cody Barnes and Cherie Moore for sharing their story about grappling with housing in South King County.

Cherie and Cody slid into homelessness the way an increasing number of families do, first bunking with relatives and friends until those options run out. Although Moore works as a caregiver for the elderly and disabled, the number of hours she works often fluctuates. The job pays only about $11.55 an hour — not enough, Moore says, to pay for housing.

During three weeks this spring, the family lived their old Ford Ranger truck. We met Cody and Cherie during this time period.

Cody was very shy when we met. He hid in the backseat of the truck during introductions. I think it was very courageous of him to be a part of this project.

Cherie and Cody also were fantastic about keeping in communication through phone calls and text messages, and allowing me to spend time with them for months on end. Thank you for your time and generosity.

Good luck with all your future endeavors.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Photojournalist Erika Schultz chronicled the daily lives of numerous families living in this situation. Another family, Oo Meh , 56, and her daughter An Na “Tutu,” 17, struggle to keep their Kent apartment. Oo Meh is learning English and hopes to earn money from sewing on a donated machine while Tutu attends school. They immigrated to the United States after living in a refugee camp on the Thai-Burmese border.