As published in the Houston Chronicle on December 25, 2015
On the day before Christmas, when others took paid vacation, Richard Moten walked onto a median on San Felipe Street, near the wealth of the Galleria. He flashed his white poster at drivers, the message in capital letters.
"U.S. veteran," it said, in red and black marker. "Family man. Just trying to make ends meet! I don't do drugs or drink. If you will; please help!"
Moten, 66, admits he is largely to blame for his financial struggles, with a prior drug habit and a criminal record. But he is fighting for his family, so he and his wife, Faye, 55, and their son, Israel, 15, can afford to sleep in a hotel instead of in his 2004 Honda Civic. The couple strives for stability, enough to get Israel each day to the KIPP charter school that promises hope.
On Christmas morning, Faye told her husband to sleep in. The family and about 40 others with children who attend KIPP schools had been invited to a donated holiday lunch at Avalon Diner in Stafford.
"She's the boss," Moten said, looking at his wife dolled up in a black-and-white sleeveless dress with a green ribbon at the waist.
The couple met nearly two decades ago, using free computers at the Houston Public Library. He had graduated from Yates High School, she from rival Worthing. Both had been homeless on and off.
She became his motivation. Then, Israel gave them both purpose. When they heard on TV about an elementary school that started preparing students for college, they made sure Israel entered the Knowledge Is Power Program lottery for second grade. Whether it was God or luck, the boy got a spot; most who apply are placed on a waiting list.
'A human can change'
Some 200 families at KIPP schools in Houston are considered homeless, staying on the streets, in motels or with family, said Sharon Simpson, the KIPP liaison who works with them. December is tough, but the charter network raised more than $35,000 this year to provide shoes, dolls and other gifts for students, including a plane ticket for a junior to visit his parents in Guatemala.
Moten was hoping to collect enough cash on Christmas Eve to keep staying at the $400-a-week hotel, a few miles from KIPP Houston High School on the city's southwest side. The place felt safe, with security cameras and no outdoor access to the rooms.
A young woman handed Moten homemade cookies. Another driver rolled up her window as she neared. A taxi driver gave him $1. Most ignored him.
Moten said he studied some at Houston Community College and, at times, held jobs in security and as a gas station attendant. Mostly, he panhandled.
Finding an apartment to rent has been hard with his felony record, he said. In 1997, he was sentenced to six months in jail after pleading guilty to a drug charge of less than a gram, court records show.
"There's an old saying: A leopard can't change his spots," he said. "A leopard is a four-legged animal, a cat. That's not a human being. A human can change. They just need a reason. My reason is 15 years old, and he has been my flash point for staying out of trouble."
The Motens joined in prayer before digging into the Christmas Day lunch of sliced ham, cranberry sauce and macaroni. They try to focus on the religious reason for the holiday, but it's hard to ignore the commercialization.
'Stuff can happen'
Israel, with red-framed glasses and hair that added an inch to his 5-foot-9 frame, listened to R&B through his headphones. He had been eyeing some cheap speakers. His dad mentioned the brand Bose.
"Those are like 100, $150," Israel said.
"I'll save up the money," his dad responded.
Israel looked away. When he told friends he lived in a hotel, they didn't believe him. He tries not to think about it. He likes science and music but can't figure out a career that would meld them. He feels uncertain about college.
"I'm hoping it's in my future," he said, "but stuff can happen, so I don't know."
Finances had been a bit better since Faye got a job as a security guard, earning $10 an hour. She also had enrolled to take online classes through the University of Phoenix to study security management.
Before the cobbler and ice cream arrived, Faye reminded her husband that they had to go to KIPP on Jan. 4 to pick up Israel's report card.
All the parents have to come to campus, Israel said. The school doesn't risk students sneaking their report cards out of the mailbox.
The restaurant owner, André Napier, stopped by and asked if Israel wanted to open his present. Napier has hosted a Christmas Day lunch for KIPP and local women's shelters for years, helped by donors like Sysco and Total Package Basketball and by former classmates studying social work at the University of Houston.
"You're going to give me the stare if I open it," Israel told his dad, then unwrapped New York Nite eau de toilette.
"They call it toilet water, but it's not," Dad offered. "And by the way, don't start shaving yet, either."
Israel said he planned to save the gift bag. It featured Yoda, the "Star Wars" character.
The Motens scrawled thank-you notes to the restaurant. Nearby, KIPP's Simpson asked Israel what extracurricular activities he liked. Basketball? Band?
His dad had played the drums in high school, his mom the clarinet. Last year, Israel was in the orchestra. The middle school had provided the bass guitar. He didn't think the high school could help.
"Are you saying no because you don't have your own instrument?" Simpson asked. "That's not a reason."
"It is a reason," Israel said.
"You let me know after the break if you want to do music," Simpson said, thinking about possible donors. Her own son had died when he was only a year older than Israel, and he would want her to help.
The Motens headed to their navy Civic, Richard's sign in the trunk. Today, they were splurging. They had to make a 1 p.m. showing of "Star Wars."
Written by: Ericka Mellon