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Single mother fears sliding back into homelessness

Rashita Clark with daughter Kennedy, 7, decorating their Malden apartment.

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Rashita Clark with daughter Kennedy, 7, decorating their Malden apartment.

In the ten months since Rashita Clark moved her family from a hotel for the homeless into the top floor of a Malden triple-decker, her life has fallen into predictable routines.

She takes her two younger children to their new school, where Marlon, a seventh-grader, plays basketball and Kennedy, a first-grader, is a cheerleader. Then Clark drives to work in Cambridge, where she works part time as an office manager. She returns home, and picks up her kids, cooks them dinner, makes sure they finish their homework.

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Her three-bedroom apartment now contains beds for her children, a hulking black sofa she bought from the previous tenants, and some furniture that waited for many months in a storage locker. This year, she and her family put up a Christmas tree, a tradition they missed in their hotel room last year.

And yet, to 39-year-old Clark, this new life still feels so tenuous that she hasn’t hung anything on the walls of her apartment. Most of her rent is paid by a state program, HomeBASE, which will no longer help her starting in early 2014. Even the budgeting class the state recently required her to attend cannot make her $240 weekly salary add up to enough to cover her $1,300 monthly rent.

“I just want to have something permanent, so my kids are stable and I’m not moving them,”

Rashita Clark and her family were once homeless. They are now living in Malden.

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Rashita Clark and her family were once homeless. They are now living in Malden.

she said. “I don’t want to go backward.”

Clark and her children lived at the Home Suites Inn in Waltham for eight months, until they moved into their apartment earlier this year.

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Their route to homelessness began in Georgia, where the shrinking of the airline industry persuaded her to take a buyout from Delta Air Lines, her employer of 13 years. She eventually moved back to the Boston area, where she had grown up. But her job prospects did not improve.

When she applied at gas stations and stores, managers told her that her bachelor’s degree from Suffolk University and her two master’s degrees overqualified her. When her savings ran out, she went with her children to the Department of Transitional Assistance. They sent her to the Home Suites Inn, where she lived with nearly 100 other homeless families.

Now she fears she might have to return to the inn in a year, when she can no longer pay the rent.

“Although I’m grateful I have a place over my head, it’s the constant thing that I’m dealing with — I have to find a place,” she said. “I have basically a year to find a permanent place.’’

Clark works 16 hours a week at St. James’s Episcopal Church in Cambridge, a job she got earlier this year, when she was still living at the hotel. She never told her boss or colleagues that she was homeless; they found out in March, when Clark was featured in a Globe story about the Home Suites Inn.

Her boss, the Rev. Holly Antolini, rector of St. James, was astounded. “That impressed me even more so because I think she knew that if she presented with that as part of herself that that would define her in our eyes, and she didn’t want to be defined as that,” Antolini said. “She wanted to be defined as a professional person.”

Members of the church came forward with donations for Clark, including clothes for her children. They helped with car repairs. So many people pitched in that Clark was overwhelmed by their generosity.

In the months since Clark arrived at St. James, Antolini has been impressed by Clark’s reliability. Clark only missed work when she had a serious health issue — and then, she used her vacation time. Antolini has insisted that Clark take off the week after Christmas to make up for the lost vacation.

“This is the thing that so impresses me and depresses me with my inside view of what it takes to do what she’s trying to do — even with a college education and credits toward the master’s degrees, it’s so fraught, trying to get out of poverty,” Antolini said. “If you fall into poverty, getting out of it is just hell on wheels.”

Clark knows well that living in poverty means living on the edge of chaos. This fall, her 14-year-old car stopped running, and required expensive repairs. As the charges piled up, so did the cost of MBTA passes to get to work each day.

And it made daily life more complicated. Clark walked the kids to school, then took a bus to Sullivan Square in Charlestown. She took the Orange Line, then the Red Line to Porter Square in Cambridge, and walked the rest of the way to her job. Since she couldn’t get home in time to pick her kids up from school, her older son, Rondrell, 23, retrieved them.

Earlier this year, Clark and her sister drove a rental truck back from Georgia filled with clothes and furniture she’d left behind in a storage locker. But the clothes no longer fit her children.

And Clark, whose own student loans have ballooned to more than $150,000, has already begun worrying about Marlon’s college education. Without money to pay for his schooling, she hopes he can get a scholarship based on his grades or athleticism.

One form of stability for Clark and her family could come if they are approved for federal Section 8 housing. She has been on waiting lists in a host of communities but the lists are long. Clark has also continued to look for a full-time job that would allow her to cover the rent at her apartment.

Antolini knows that a full-time job would be good for Clark. The church is poised to begin major renovations, and cannot offer Clark full-time work until they are completed, she said.

Clark’s state social worker has suggested that she leave her job at St. James and work as a temp. But that seems too perilous to Clark.

“I have two kids and I’m not about to risk leaving a place that I’m getting income, and that my boss is doing everything she can to help me, to go to a temporary place, where I may get work for two weeks, and I may or may not become permanent,” Clark said. “I can’t live like that.”

So she keeps applying for jobs, looking for her Section 8 approval, thinking of other ways to survive.

“I just want to have something permanent so my kids are stable and I’m not moving them,” she said. “I don’t want to go backward.”

Kathleen Burge can be reached at kburge@globe.com.

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