Even though Skyla Thomas and her kids have had to move three times this year, it hasn’t stopped her kids from being kids.
“We try to make it as fun as we can. We gotta keep these kids motivated, happy,” Thomas said in a phone interview with The Illuminator, as her laughing and screaming three-year old, two-year old and 7-month old children could be heard in the background. “They are running us over, though.”
Like so many others, Thomas’ family lost their home when Hurricane Laura hit Southwest Louisiana in August with sustained winds of more than 150 MPH. Since then, Thomas’ family took refuge in Texas, then in a hotel in Baton Rouge, until they finally landed in a small two-bedroom apartment in Lafayette — where Thomas lives with her three children, her partner, her sister and her sister’s two children.
“It’s pretty hectic, but we make it work the best way we can,” she said.
Playing is a key component in how they all make it work, she said. “We have activity books, we color, we go outside, they have a lot of toys — when we were in Baton Rouge, they got donated a lot of toys,” Thomas said. “They have a lot of stuff to play with around the house.”
And Christmastime is no exception, as the apartment is decorated with Christmas lights, stockings and a tree.
The Thomas family is able to keep such bright spirits during the holiday season in part because of a generous benefactor named Allen Keller who found out about the family’s plight on Facebook. He then crowdfunded and helped however he could — including supplying meals, clothes, baby formula and Christmas presents.
“Anything we needed, he was basically there to help us,” she said.
Keller said providing for the homeless or hurricane evacuees is something he does all the time. He said his drive to help others comes from a moral obligation to pick up those who are down on their luck.
“It’s just in my heart,” Keller said. “I love helping people.”
Keller, who has over 7,000 followers on Twitter, said the donations came from other people using the social media platform.
“I always want to make it known it’s a collaborative effort by a lot of people,” he said.
Unfortunately, not every family is lucky enough to have an Allen Keller pick them up when they’re down. As of Dec. 22, 1,006 Louisianans were still sheltering in hotels after being forced out of their homes because of Hurricane Laura, Hurricane Delta or Hurricane Zeta. At one point, 18,213 Louisianans storm survivors were in some kind of shelter.
But hurricanes aren’t the only reason so many Louisianians were displaced this year.
Since January, the Acadiana Regional Coalition on Homelessness and Housing has seen an 82 percent increase in homelessness across eight parishes, including a 200 percent increase in family homelessness.
And, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, from Oct. 28 to Dec. 7, about 4.7 million Americans were “very likely” to be evicted from their home within the next two months.
Natasha Blunt, who was working at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans, lost her job in March at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. A reporter spoke to her at the end of July just as a federal program protecting renters from eviction was expiring.
She’d just been given a month to pack up her things and get out. ”I feel like I’m a living person in a dead body,” she said then. “That’s how bad it is for me. I’m so down, I can’t even hold a conversation with someone without crying.” Indeed, when Blunt was first contacted by that reporter, she quickly ended the interview because she said she was too emotional to talk. “If something doesn’t happen for me soon, I’m going to a homeless shelter. That’s where I’m going,” she said.
Her story caught the attention of people in New Orleans who wanted to help, and, soon, Michele Brierre, executive director of the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music offered her part-time employment.
“[Brierre] contacted me and that’s when I tell you it was like the heavens opened up above,” Blunt said.
With a job in place, she moved to neighboring Chalmette with her grandchildren.
“It’s a better place, the children got room to play, they can go to the park or walk right across the street to the field,” Blunt said. “They’re happy.”
“I’m so happy,” she said in an interview three days before Christmas, “but I’m also so sad because a lot of people are still in the same position that I was in. I cry all the time for other people.”
But she’s still committed to being encouraging during this holiday season.
“Just stay positive people. Trouble don’t last, and I’m telling you, we go through what we go through because life is what it is,” she said. “We can’t sit back and give up. Like I said before, I will not give up, and I would not encourage anyone else to give up. Keep moving forward.”