A man earning minimum wage and a woman's sober budgeting have changed seven lives in east Bakersfield -- and made talking to them about it very, very hard.
That's because the Miller family is back together under their own roof for the first time in 24 months. And when the five Miller kids are all together, children are everywhere, laughing, talking, running, playing -- and interrupting.
In February, the Millers hit a milestone. They'd been back together, in a two-bedroom apartment, longer than they had been separated by dysfunction and displacement.
Their new beginning after a year of homelessness -- restarting lives interrupted by substance abuse, substandard living, losing the kids and finding sobriety -- is part of an even larger trend.
The city has employed 107 Bakersfield Homeless Center clients since January 2009 to sort green waste, pick up highway trash and work in its animal shelter.
As a result of those 107 jobs, the center's Job Development Supervisor Debra Lawson said 234 homeless center clients -- who live at the center -- have found their own housing and moved out.
Bakersfield has never been the center's only employer -- but it is now its largest.
"We're just like a temp agency," Lawson said. Before, "it was difficult for me to get two, three, four people employed a month. Now, we're putting 40 people to work every day."
She and others believe -- and the evidence for it is good -- that the stability and confidence those 107 jobs instilled will have permanent far-reaching effects.
Currently, 26 of nearly 40 homeless center clients whom the city employs have found their own housing and moved out of the center.
Duane Miller, 40, is one of those 26.
With his fiancee, Heather Stowell, 31, and their five children, they are seven of the 234 people who have turned their lives around with the city's help.
"I'm just glad that everything is finally just coming back to what we had before," Miller said. "I'm feeling all these boulders coming off my shoulders."
PARTNERSHIP STARTED IN 2008
The city's partnership with Bakersfield Homeless Center started in 2008 with urging from Mayor Harvey Hall. The first BHC clients went to work sorting lawn and brush clippings for Bakersfield's Solid Waste Division in January 2009.
Today, the city employs two crews of six employees each to sort its green waste.
"I think we're slowly making progress," Hall said. "I would like to see more business engagements in the homeless problem rather than, we're spending a lot of time, as you know, focusing on panhandling."
Two years later, Shafter Community Correctional Facility closed -- ending its contract supplying low-risk prison inmates to pick up trash on area freeways.
Conversations between members of the various agencies that attend Keep Bakersfield Beautiful meetings sparked the creation in May 2013 of a six-man crew of homeless center clients to do the same job.
In August, the city added two more crews, and today it employs three crews of six homeless center clients each. They have removed more than 200 tons of trash from Bakersfield highways in nine months.
The collaboration worked so well that when the city took over Kern County's animal shelter on Mount Vernon Avenue, it hired six homeless center clients per shift as shelter workers in October.
All work hard and their results are becoming increasingly clear, according to Solid Waste Superintendent Sal Moretti.
At a conference in Charlotte, N.C., last month, Bakersfield officials gave a presentation on their partnership and won Keep America Beautiful's national award for litter prevention.
The city got a plaque in recognition, Moretti said, but he believes its $8-an-hour employees have received something much more meaningful.
"The job is the key to solving so many of these problems. They have pride, they have self-esteem and they end up giving back to the community because every dollar they earn comes back here. They're not hiding that money in the Cayman Islands," said Moretti, who hopes the same lessons can be applied to prisoners, whom he calls "the next generation of homeless."
John Enriquez of Keep Bakersfield Beautiful, the city's Keep America Beautiful chapter, sees Bakersfield's relationship to its homeless as transformative.
"It's changing the landscaping. It really is," Enriquez said.
Bakersfield Homeless Center CEO Louis Gill credits the city for turning personal crises into opportunity -- in a way that has benefitted all.
"Somebody has to take a chance. We have a flaw in our system, in my opinion," Gill said. "There's this myth among employers that if you're not working right now, there's a reason you're not working. This helps break down those prejudices."
NO ONE WORKS FOR FREE
Even at $8 an hour, hiring the homeless isn't free.
Caltrans and the Kern Council of Governments sponsor two of the city's three highway crews. Caltrans pays $252,000 per year and Kern COG pays $100,000 -- though its contribution runs out July 1, raising the possibility crew hours might have to be scaled back.
The third trash crew is a floater, Moretti said, and covers miscellaneous areas including Westside Parkway.
Sponsors including Pacific Gas & Electric, the Marriott, Three-Way Automotive Group and Golden Empire Transit pay nearly 100 percent of the third crew's cost through the Adopt-a-Highway program.
Green waste sorters cost $160,000 per year. Kern County pays 30 percent of that and the city pays 70 percent through its enterprise fund generated by residential pick-up fees.
The City of Bakersfield Animal Care Center's nine homeless center clients cost Bakersfield a maximum of $210,000 a year.
For the Millers, $8 an hour has helped them move out on their own -- even though Duane works only about six and a half hours a day.
BAD YEARS, HOPING FOR BETTER
In the Miller family saga, 2009 was a bad year, 2012 was worse, 2013 was much better, and 2014 has been rocky.
Heather and Duane have been together on and off since 2000 — weathering a split of about two years before getting back together in 2008.
Much of their time together was spent in Tehachapi, where they lived off and on for nearly a decade.
Both had legal troubles in 2009. Miller lost his license for not paying child support from a previous relationship — and later pleaded no contest to a charge of driving on a suspended or revoked license.
Without a license, he said he ended up selling his vehicle.
Stowell pleaded no contest to a petty theft charge involving prescription drugs, and to a battery charge for fighting with her mother.
She also pleaded guilty to one charge of being under the influence of a controlled substance, the result of an ongoing battle with marijuana, alcohol and methamphetamine abuse.
In 2010, Miller lost his last regular job, doing construction with his brother-in-law.
Their youngest child, Zoie, was born June 6, 2012, when the family was living in a fixer-upper in Tehachapi that Miller and his brother-in-law had actually worked on before.
Unfortunately, the city had deemed it unfit for occupancy because of an illegal addition — and Miller’s irregular work schedule meant he wasn’t earning enough to resolve those issues.
When he saw a white van roll up on July 9, 2012, followed by a Tehachapi Police Department vehicle, he knew what it meant: Kern County Child Protective Services was placing their children in foster care.
Monique Hawkins, program director for Kern County Human Services, which includes child protective services, declined to discuss the Millers’ case specifically because of privacy restrictions but she spoke in general terms.
Hawkins said a combination of circumstances is often what results in children being removed from parents’ care.
Simply being homeless will not automatically result in children being removed.
Their removal can be triggered if they are neglected, hungry or abused, if their parents face substance abuse issues, or if they are found to be living in a dangerous or substandard environment.
HITTING BOTTOM, COMING UP
Not long after their children were placed in foster care, Miller came home one day to see a notice from the city on the front of the house. They had 30 days to get out.
He and Stowell wound up at St. Malachy Catholic Church in Tehachapi, where they stayed a couple of nights and met people who know Louis Gill.
While he did not remember the Miller family, Deacon Richard Lambert said there’s no one reason why families like theirs fall apart.
“Drugs is a big problem. I’m not saying it’s the only problem,” Lambert said.
“There’s a collage of problems, a myriad of problems.”
Shortly after coming to the Bakersfield Homeless Center in January 2013, however, the Millers’ problems began to abate.
Stowell enrolled in a 45-day substance abuse rehabilitation program, and she and Miller took parenting classes at the center.
Also in January 2013, they were able to get all five children back — meaning that, in accordance with the center’s rules, the three oldest slept on Duane’s side in the men’s area, and the two youngest went with Heather on the women’s side.
Two months later, on March 5 — a date Duane remembers vividly — he was hired full-time on the highway crew.
On July 22 — another big day — the family moved into their two-bedroom apartment, paying $595 monthly rent from Miller’s salary.
Stowell, a stay-at-home mom for now, focuses on budgeting — having been reminded in her classes of the difference between wants and needs — and getting her five charges to eat their vegetables. Their favorites, she says, are peas and corn.
The family also gets county assistance, WIC, and food stamps — and a recent income tax refund of more than $3,700.
About $1,700 of the refund is budgeted for a new vehicle — possibly a minivan — and around $300 paid for the purchase of an Element flatscreen TV and new cellphones for Miller, Stowell and Brianna.
ANOTHER TRAGEDY STRIKES
On Dec. 26, a happy day arrived which seemed to epitomize the Miller family’s path out of darkness.
Stowell gave birth to the family’s sixth child, a girl they named Hannah.
The baby seemed healthy, family members said, but in the early morning hours of Jan. 12 — her father’s 40th birthday — Stowell awoke to horror.
“I shook her and I tried to wake her up; I called her name, nothing. No opening the eyes — nothing,” Stowell said, calling it the hardest thing she’s ever had to endure.
Hannah Miller was pronounced dead at an area hospital that morning. The cause was sudden infant death syndrome, according to Kern County sheriff’s spokesman Ray Pruitt.
Her mother teetered on the edge of relapse.
“I could have easily fallen right there. Going through this, missing her,” Stowell said tearing up, her voice catching.
Instead, she’s increased the frequency of recovery meetings, and has started keeping a journal for her daughter.
Miller wears a set of commemorative dog tags around his neck stamped with the dates of his daughter’s life.
He managed to keep it together until Jan. 28, the day of his daughter’s funeral, which Gill organized. Lawson let highway crews off work early that day, to attend.
“I lost it that whole entire day. I don’t know what kind of reaction I would have had about it a couple years ago.”
His mother, Dixie Powers of Stallion Springs, thinks her son’s bad times have changed his outlook on life.
“I feel that he has become more aware of what the meaning of life actually is,” Powers said, defining the meaning of life as taking care of his family. “He’s a good family man and like I say he didn’t just sit around and wait for people to hand him things. He got up.”
Miller said he’s changed forever.
“I’ve got a whole new grasp on life now,” he said. “It’s way different now going down from the bottom and working yourself up.”
Theirs are just two stories from the hundreds of lives improved by the city’s five year collaboration with the homeless center — a relationship everyone involved hopes continues to grow.