Charlomane and Prince Leonard were doing just fine before the recession hit. But for the past three years, they've been forced to live with their six children in a self-storage unit in northeast Houston -- a situation that they reluctantly accepted until Texas's Child Protective Services came in and took custody of their children this week.
The storage unit that the Leonards have been living in is fully equipped with air conditioning, beds, a refrigerator, microwave, a tub and two computers. What they don't have is running water -- which was part of the reason the CPS came in and removed the children, ages 2 to 12. They kept their water in a 55-gallon drum that Prince Leonard refilled daily. They fill jugs of drinking water at grocery stores and use a "compost" toilet, Charlomane Leonard said.
She said the CPS visit was unexpected. The child protection authorities made their first visit and took the children on the same day, said her husband. She is still nursing her youngest. The children were placed with their maternal grandparents and the Leonards are permitted to see them just six hours a week. A hearing is scheduled for Aug. 16 to determine the family's fate.
The only crime Charlomane Leonard is guilty of, she says, is having fallen on hard times. Her husband recently graduated from community college and has been certified as a welder. And before the recession hit, they earned enough money to buy 50 acres in Liberty County, on which they hope to build a house. "We're waiting on a USDA loan," she said.
The family's fortunes turned when Prince Leonard was injured on the job and unable to work for a period. They stopped being able to afford their rent and took to living in their pickup truck for a while, parking in the Lyndon B. Johnson Hospital overnight under the watchful eye of security guards. They moved into a Star of Hope shelter for three months before moving into the storage unit where they were already storing some of their belongings.
The Leonards have transformed the storage space into a home -- a place that is nicer and safer than the rodent- and crime-infested motels and apartments the family had lived in before discovering the storage facility as a way to weather the recession. Charlomane Leonard and the children plant a garden every summer on land behind the storage facility, harvesting squash, tomatoes, okra and peppers. The older children are enrolled at Texas Connections Academy, a Houston Independent School District on-line school. One of their computers is on loan from the school and none of their children has ever gotten less than a B in school, the couple said.
"We are not criminals, drug abusers or child abusers, just plain old loving parents who are working hard to secure a future for our children," Charlomane Leonard said.