Casey Wright, a slender man in his late thirties, would likely give you a slight chuckle with a side smile of embarrassment if you were to call him a hero to his face. To say it was a laugh would be too overdone for Casey. He’s quiet. Unassuming. Not your typical description of a hero. But to his two kids Kinnick (8) and Kyndall (7), he’s just that. Especially with what they’ve gone through as a family.

A hero asks for housing
After the kids’ mom went to jail in the summer of 2019, things quickly got tough for Casey and his kids in Keokuk. “I didn’t have daycare set up for them. I didn’t really have anything in place,” he said. “Pretty soon we were looking for housing.”

With a population of around 11,000 people, Keokuk, Iowa, didn’t offer many resources for a single dad. “There’s really not much of anything there,” Casey said. “And for somebody who’s homeless, there is absolutely nothing there. If you don’t have a friend, you’re going to be outside. We actually got to the point where we were sleeping in a barn – me and my little kids. In a barn.”

Despite Fair Housing Act protections, families with children experience discrimination when search for housing.1 When trying to seek shelter, Casey was surprised by where he was being led to go – Minnesota, Illinois, and other states. Itseemed any options near them were either full or didn’t accept men with children. Or if they accepted men, they didn’t accept children.

Eventually, he was guided to Hawthorn Hill New Directions Shelter.

New Directions Shelter is a Des Moines-based emergency shelter for families with minor children. And Casey’s “lucky” to have found them when he did: “Prior to 2017, we wouldn’t have been able to accept someone like Casey. We just took single women with children,” said Kelsie Pinegar, Casey’s case manager at Hawthorn Hill. “After HUD guidelines changed, we are now able to provide shelter for anyone who identifies as a family unit with minor children – however they were living as a family unit prior to experiencing homelessness, they can come to New Directions in that same dynamic. That can be single parents – single moms or dads – or dual parents, same sex couples with children, or multi-generational families. We've even had roommates here with kids.”

A hero asks for appropriate and affordable childcare
When the Wrights entered Hawthorn Hill's New Direction Shelter, Casey had to start from scratch. One of the biggest barriers he faced was finding affordable childcare. Childcare Assistance applications can take up to 30 days to process, and options can be limited for children the ages of Kinnick and Kyndall.

Arriving in late July, when school is out of session, and with application processing delay, Casey didn’t have any options outside of the shelter. Though he was ready and able to work, without childcare, he couldn’t start a job until the kids went back to school in August.

Finally, when school started and the kids were approved for childcare, Casey could start the job search. Thankfully, despite not having his high school diploma and a criminal record, he was able to find a full-time job quickly.

Casey wasn’t focused on what his wage was at first, he just wanted something to get experience and an income so he could start moving forward. He had plans. He enrolled in the DMACC HiSet program to earn his high school equivalency – which he finished in less than four months. He’s since enrolled in DMACC college prep and business classes and is eager to finish with an associate degree.

“It’s hard to stay motivated sometimes,” Casey said. “Once I start bettering myself, and trying to get a higher paying job, I’ll have to pay for all of the daycare costs on top of other stuff.” According to the Iowa Department of Human Services, 94.7% of parents receiving Child Care Assistance benefits are working, but a raise of as little as 15 cents an hour could put them in jeopardy. He sometimes wonders, “what’s the point?” But in times like those, he remembers: “I can’t go backwards. Moving forward with my kids is always the key.” To move forward, he needs to gain primary custody – and he can’t do that alone.

A hero asks others to share their expertise
With an income of more than $13,000 per year, Casey was able to transition from Hawthorn Hill’s New Directions Shelter into the organization’s The Home Connection program in September 2019. Around that same time, Kinnick and Kyndall’s mother had been released from jail. She came to Des Moines, took the kids and wouldn’t return them to Casey’s care.

In the past year, 86% of civil legal problems reported by low-income Americans received inadequate or no legal help. “If it were left to me, I would have called some 800 number, left a message for an attorney who doesn’t know me, waited for them to call me back with questions, then had to go through it all again,” Casey said. “And I looked on some website to see if I could file the paperwork on there – yeah, there was no way. It was so complicated.”

Again, Casey was “lucky” he came at a time when the Drake Legal Clinic was accepting cases. The Drake Legal Clinic serves the community by helping those who might not otherwise have access to legal assistance by providing Drake Law School students to represent them. It’s General Civil Practice only has two intake days per year.

“Though I was glad to have their help, I feel like there are a lot of times, as a single father, people don’t put their faith in me,” Casey said: “People just don't really expect father's to be the stand-up parent, I guess. I felt that at first. But by the time we went to court, she [my attorney] was behind me.” Casey was awarded temporary primary custody in December.

A hero asks for grace, flexibility and, sometimes, a ride
“When I think about Casey and his story,” Kelsie, his case manager said, “I think we have a tendency to want to change individuals’ behavior rather than changing entire systems. Casey works hard. He wants nice things for his kids. He wants to provide for them, but there are barriers that people like him in poverty face that the rest of society doesn’t. When Casey gets knocked back, he has to jump through hoops, overcome barriers, call a specific place at a specific time only to be asked to go to the organization and make sure he brings these 50 pieces of documentation. He has to work really hard just to get back to the bottom.”

And Casey got knocked down. Big time. His car broke down.

Without a car, he didn’t have transportation to get his kids to and from school. Without a car, he didn’t have transportation to get to work. Without a car, he lost his job.

“Not having a car has proven to be an unbelievable challenge,” Casey said. “I mean, I'm trying my best, but I can only walk so fast and the bus only takes me so far. Finding an [entry-level] job that will work around my kids is hard enough, but not having a car – that’s a lot harder. Transportation is everything. And it’s horrible.”

A hero asks for an open mind and an open heart
“I don’t know how anybody survives a as a single parent without help,” Casey said. “And for people like me, who are out there trying their best – sometimes there's just barriers; no matter what you do, you're not going to get over it by yourself.” He believes that without Kelsie and the help she’s provided through Hawthorn Hill, a United Way of Central Iowa funded partner, he’d be in a far different, far worse position than he’s in right now.

“I want to share my experience so somebody who might need the help feels like they can speak up – don't be afraid to ask about anything because no question is a dumb question,” he said. “If you don't ask, you’ll never get the help. Seeking support is so, so important at any level, at any point in life.”

A hero flies onward and upward
For now, Casey’s neighbor is letting him borrow her car. He’s looking for a new job. He’s focusing on his schoolwork and helping his kids with their homework. Kinnick and Kyndall are in school, participating in The Boys and Girls Club when they can, and adjusting well. They’re hoping to get into extra-curricular activities – like learning sign language.

The Wrights are getting by. Especially with help from HOPE for Stable Families, a United Way funded program that works with Central Iowa families to set goals, find support in moving out of poverty to long-term financial stability, and help meet their needs around job training, child care, transportation, legal services, and other barriers.

“I don’t like being in this position,” Casey said. “I just want to see my kids in a place where, if they need help, that I’d be the one they ask. I want to try to set the example for them so that they can do the right stuff earlier on in life. I'm not gonna stop trying to provide a better life for my kids, and that means making my life better in the process.”

1. Source: Desmond et al., 2013

Topics: Essential Needs

Sara Engelhart

Written by Sara Engelhart

Sara Engelhart is United Way of Central Iowa's former Strategic Communications Operations Manager.