'This has been traumatic': One mom's battles with homelessness, joblessness, inflation

Parents like Dawn Zephier want to feed their children. They want safety and stability. They're out here fighting for their slice of the American dream. But sometimes it seems impossible.

A year ago, Dawn Zephier, her five youngest children and two grandchildren were homeless, bouncing from affordable motels to, ultimately, seedy motels simply to survive. A few times, they had to sleep in a car. Their lives in Las Cruces, New Mexico, were filled with painful uncertainty. 

They secured a home in January, thanks to nonprofit organizations that stepped up to help Zephier navigate the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which empowers school officials to offer support and provide services for students experiencing homelessness.

One might assume this family, with a roof over their heads, would be on the upswing – both financially and emotionally – now that there is some stability surrounding living arrangements. But Zephier, 48, still spends sleepless nights racked with worry. Utility bills are piling up, and the inflation-driven cost of food seems insurmountable.

The only money coming into the household is from Zephier's two teenage sons, who work part time for minimum wage at McDonald's while finishing their senior year in high school.

“It’s better than where we were because we were in a motel, but we’re still struggling the same," Zephier told me.

A perfect storm of challenges

This is a complex and heartbreaking American story about addiction, abuse, immigration and physical disabilities. So many of these issues can lead to poverty and even homelessness. Zephier's family seems to be caught in the perfect storm. 

In August 2021, they moved from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to Las Cruces in an attempt to start fresh. Zephier had received a call from a child protective services caseworker imploring her to consider temporary custody of her two young grandchildren because their mother was unfit to care for them.

If you would like to help this family, contributions can be made in Dawn Zephier's name to Catholic Charities of Southern New Mexico, 125 West Mountain Ave., Las Cruces, N.M., 88005. The nonprofit accepts donations in-person, by mail, online or over the phone at 575-527-0500.

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Zephier's adult daughter was using drugs. She had become violent, even attacking Zephier at one point. Zephier wanted to remove the grandchildren from the volatile situation, and she had extended family in Las Cruces who encouraged her to relocate. They promised Zephier that she, her children and grandchildren could stay with them for awhile. 

But the apartment was small and resources were limited – Zephier was caring for the grandchildren so she didn't work – during a global pandemic, making for a tough go. Zephier and her family found themselves on the streets. 

“This has been traumatic, I guess, to say the least, on all of us,” she said.

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'Mom, this is too much for you'

After Zephier relocated, her daughter sought treatment, got her life back on track, found a place to live in Sioux Falls and in January reclaimed her children. As Zephier was moving everyone into their long-awaited home, she said goodbye to the grandchildren.

Zephier immediately sought employment because her children, Eric, 19; Israel, 17; Nephi, 15; Evelyn, 14; and Reina, 5, attend school.

Dawn Zephier, 48, and her five children, Eric, 19; Israel, 17; Nephi, 15; Evelyn, 14; and Reina, 5, are surviving on the minimum-wage salaries of the two oldest boys. They work part time at a fast-food restaurant while attending school.

Though she has a torn meniscus and a cracked kneecap from a fall and arthritis in both hips, Zephier tried to work as a cook in a retirement center in Las Cruces. She needed to be on her feet and quickly discovered she could barely walk after a shift. She lasted only three days.

“I always worked – I was a dietary manager and I picked up every shift and worked as many hours as I could to support my family in Sioux Falls," she said. "I just can't do it physically now. The pain has gotten so much worse. My son would come out to the car and help me into the house and he said, 'Mom, this is too much for you and you can't do it.' "  

'It just kills me that I can't work'

So her sons, both expected to graduate in May, told her they would go to work. They are protective of their mother and function as the men of the household. Zephier's husband, their father, was pulled over on his way to work and found to be driving without a license. He was deported in 2010. 

They never heard from him again.

"It just kills me that I can't work right now and that my kids have to pick up for me," she said. "I don't want this for my kids. It's important for them to stay in school and do their best.”

Eric has potential scholarship offers to play college basketball. And Israel wants to join the U.S. Army followed by college to study biomedical engineering. They are both on the honor roll.

And they are supporting a household.

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'We're never caught up on utilities' 

The family receives $1,000 per month in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, but the food stamps don't cover the amount needed to feed six mouths for 30 days.

Consumer price index data released Nov. 10 shows that the cost of groceries is up 12.4% over the past year, and that the price of food at restaurants increased 8.6%. Food inflation continues to soar, as low-income Americans particularly bear the brunt of the pain for basic necessities. 

Every last penny the boys bring in is used on food and to pay utility bills, Zephier told me over the crackle of her phone that’s provided by the government for low-income individuals

She recently went to the grocery store to price a ham for Thanksgiving. With a $50 price tag, she said the family may just have to settle for sides.

The cost of a typical Thanksgiving dinner has climbed 64% since 2002, according to a report by coupon tracking platform CouponFollow. This year, Americans plan to spend about $251, on average, for their big holiday meal.

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“I look at things like 'oh, it's not even that much,' but when you don't have income it might as well be a million dollars to us," she said. “We're never caught up on utilities and I only pay so much. If I get $80 from Israel and $80 from Eric, I put them together and try to pay two bills. It's hard, but I'm just thankful that they can do it."

Poverty, homelessness are story of real America

I asked a question I know will break any mother, even the strongest. I inquire how her children are doing emotionally, how they are coping with such weighty responsibilities when they should be enjoying senior year.

She began to cry instantly.

“It's hard on them; I can see it in their faces,” Zephier said through tears. “They are trying so hard to juggle school and then work. That’s what kills me, seeing my kids like that. I see the worry on their faces.”

We can choose to pretend families like the Zephiers don't exist. We can choose not to see them. But they are in every community in this great country. This is real America. Stories of poverty, homelessness and joblessness might look different from family to family, but the struggle is the same. And painful. 

Parents like Zephier want to feed their children. They want them to go to school and excel. They want safety and stability in their neighborhoods. They want to be able to buy a ham for Thanksgiving. They're out here fighting for their slice of the American dream.

But sometimes it seems impossible. 

"It really makes you feel good when you're out working, and I miss that feeling," Zephier told me. "And I want to do it again."

I pray she can.

Suzette Hackney

National columnist/deputy opinion editor Suzette Hackney is a member of USA TODAY’S Editorial Board. Contact her at or on Twitter: @suzyscribe

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