Funds, job offers pour in for homeless family who lived in LOVE Park

Love Park, in Philadelphia.

On Friday night, as the sun went down and the temperature dropped to near 50 degrees, Michael Jones built a box for his family to sleep in.

After years of life on the street, it was work his hands knew well. He carpentered it together out of discarded pieces of cardboard - detritus collected from around LOVE Park, where tourists flock to take photos in front of the famous Robert Indiana sculpture.

Jones set up his box right underneath the Welcome Center. He and his family - fiancée Angelique Roland; daughter Malaysia, 4; and son Jeremiah, 2 - crawled inside, cocooned themselves in blankets, and fell asleep.

Jones thought he knew what it was to feel fear. He is 54 and has sold drugs on street corners and watched as a friend was shot in the head in front of him. He spent 30 years addicted to crack, many of them homeless and 10 of them in prison.

But when he woke up Saturday morning, he realized that sometime in the middle of the night, Jeremiah had left the box.

"Nothing has scared me more," Jones said.

Just before midnight, a SEPTA police officer found the boy wandering barefoot through the park. Jeremiah was taken into the care of the Department of Human Services as police searched for his parents. No one realized until several hours later his family was sleeping a few feet away.

By Sunday, a fund-raiser had been set up for the Joneses. By Monday, $12,000 had been donated - enough to rent a Grays Ferry apartment for a year.

Jones, who has been looking for work since he was laid off two years ago, has fielded more than 50 job offers.

Jeremiah and his sister remain in DHS care, but Jones said DHS workers had assured him that once he and Roland have stable housing the children will be returned to him.

Police said they were still investigating the case.

In an armchair at the headquarters of Chosen 300, a West Philadelphia homeless outreach agency that has served the family meals for years and is now handling the fund-raiser, Jones patiently told and retold his story to a cluster of reporters.

How he grew up at 25th Street and Montgomery Avenues, how his mother worked days as a private nurse and nights at a hospital to provide for her three children. How he grew up angry, spent days fighting at school and weekends fighting on the block. How he first freebased cocaine at 11, how he bounced from high school to high school and was finally kicked out, left to spiral into addiction.

How he began to find himself in places where he had promised himself he would never end up - the homeless shelter, the soup kitchen line, the floor of Suburban Station. How he finally kicked the addiction: "I just got tired," he said.

In 2009, three years into sobriety, Jones met Angelique Roland at a shelter. On a cigarette break outside, he told her she was beautiful. They've been together since.

Over their years together, they have struggled sometimes to find housing, but they have always had a roof over their heads, Jones said.

Then two years ago, Jones was laid off from a job at a recycling company. The family's meager finances lasted about a month before they could no longer pay rent. They stayed at friends' houses for months at a time. They applied for jobs that never panned out. If Jones and Roland couldn't find a place to spend the night, they tried to find friends who would at least take the children.

On Friday night, the friend they were supposed to stay with turned them away, Roland said. She called shelter after shelter. All full.

So the family went to LOVE Park. Jones searched for cardboard and solicited blankets while Malaysia and Jeremiah watched skateboarders ride around and around the fountain.

Roland told the kids they were going camping for the night.

"What I could do was the best I could do," she said.

By Monday, everything had changed. At Chosen 300, director Brian Jenkins interrupted Jones' TV interviews to tell him that the Navy Yard Marriott had donated a room for the night. Ten minutes later, he walked in again to ask whether Jones needed a two-bedroom or three-bedroom apartment.

They will look at the place Tuesday just to make sure it is clean. A voucher from Impact Thrift Stores will help the family furnish the apartment. Jenkins said the rent money was raised in 15 hours.

"When the news came that this family was staying in a box, it really ripped me," said Jenkins, who has known Jones and his family for years from Chosen 300's free-meal program, but he assumed they were staying in a shelter. "We had to make sure we did something."

From his armchair, Jones talked excitedly about the money he plans to save, the job offers he can't wait to call about. The stability that has eluded him for nearly his entire adult life is finally within reach.

But, even with all that is before him now, he couldn't stop thinking about those he had left behind in the park.

The teenagers with nowhere else to go, some already sliding into addictions like his. The elderly homeless, pushing shopping carts full of belongings. All those who will sleep outside tonight, and tomorrow, and into the winter, in doorways and on park benches and underneath the Welcome Center.

"We are taken care of," Jones said. "Now, what are you going to do for the other people that's out there?"

awhelan@philly.com

215-854-2961 @aubreyjwhelan

Inquirer staff writer Matt Gelb contributed to this article.

Continue Reading