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Starting Over, Part 1

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One night in her car last summer was one night too many for homeless Chittenden County mom Madelyn Salce.

"I really don't want to stay where I was before and I can't stand the car," she said.

The Salces are one of more than 600 homeless families in Vermont. They ended up homeless after a trip cross-country to Vermont with plans to live with family did not work out.

For 10-year-old daughter Ohanna, moving from place to place was taking its toll.

"I didn't want to say just like oh I'm just staying at my best friend's house at her church and stuff like that I didn't want to say that," she said.

But finding other options was not easy. It took weeks on a waiting list roughly 20 families deep before the Champlain Family Shelter was finally able to open its doors.

"When I first got there I didn't have anything. I just took like one suitcase," Madelyn said.

Reporter Keith McGilvery: You get to the shelter on your first day, what goes through your mind?

Madelyn Salce: I can't stay here; I don't want to, I don't want to stay here.

Leslie Moreau works at the COTS-sponsored shelter where all of the rooms have been full for the last 3 years.

"Every family has one room. So in her room there was a bunk bed and a double bed. So one of the kids slept on the top bunk and two of the kids slept on the bottom or with mom," Moreau explained.

"We did call it home, our room was our house," Madelyn said.

Keith McGilvery: This place is warm and welcoming but it is not fancy.

Leslie Moreau: We want our guests to be comfortable here, but we don't want them to be so comfortable that they stay forever.

Madelyn's family struggled with the transition.

"When they come into shelter they are suddenly thrown into a mash of families with 10 different personalities and having to live with those," Moreau said.

For this working mom, sharing kitchen, bathroom, and common space with strangers was her biggest hurdle.

"For me, I tried when I threw that pride away, I tried to understand that I was sharing this place with 10 families," Madelyn said.

Adjusting to the open ceilings and cramped quarters took Ohanna time.

"I could hear a lot of things like probably someone interviewing someone else or other parents trying to cheer up their kids or keep them quiet," she said.

Life outside the shelter also presented challenges for the fourth-grader who is one of 182 homeless Chittenden County kids. Classmates at school wanted to know why she did not have a house.

McGilvery: What did you tell them?

Ohanna Salce: I tell them I have a place. I sleep there. I have people who cheer me up when I'm upset.

And shelter rules meant her close friends couldn't visit.

"I was about to start school I got scared a few seconds. I didn't know what they were going to say that I lived in a shelter, but then I made friends quickly. They didn't be mean to me or anything, they actually helped me through it," Ohanna said.

While visitors weren't part of the routine at the shelter, chores were.

"This is our daily board over here each family has to chores on a nightly basis," Moreau said.

Madelyn was putting in her shift at McDonald's by day and would have to wait for her kids to do down before she got to cleaning the shelter.

"They want to be on me all the time, so if I took them with me to do the chores, they couldn't because it was out of the room after nine," Madelyn said.

"In your own apartment you don't necessarily have to do your own dishes right away. Here you do because you're sharing the kitchen with nine other families," Moreau said.

Six months in the shelter also meant six months of weekly meetings for Madelyn and her case workers.

"She was very much a go-getter," Moreau said.

Together they crafted a plan to get her out on her own, keep her working and make her save.

"If they're receiving state assistance they have to save that 40 percent of that, if they're employed they have to save 40 percent of that, if they are working under the table they have to save 40 percent of that, and they have to be working toward goals that will help them get out of the situation they're in," Moreau said.

A situation that a section 8 housing voucher that covers her rent, nearly $1,000 in savings, and a plan to keep herself on track got Salce and her family into an apartment of their own just a few weeks ago.

"I didn't want to just tell anybody until I signed the lease or some paper, but then I did. I told all the staff. I told everybody. They were excited, they were excited for me," Madelyn said. "She said, 'you got a house.' And I was like, 'yes, I did.' Oh my God, we were so excited."

But it will take more than excitement to make sure this family does not end up were so many others do-- back without a place to call their own.

Related Story:

Starting Over, Part 2

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