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The road to homelessness: How a woman and her three kids ended up in Fargo with no home

Sheyenne Rodriguez and her three daughters -- Esperanza (left), Isidra and Jimena -- have struggled to find permanent housing in the Fargo-Moorhead area. Blake Gumprecht / The Forum1 / 9
Several of Sheyenne Rodriguez's cousins at the housing project where they lived in Minneapolis, and where she often stayed, about 1997. Special to The Forum2 / 9
Sheyenne Rodriguez with her daughter, Jimena, in Fargo in 2015. Special to The Forum3 / 9
Sheyenne Rodriguez with other inmates at the South Dakota Women's Prison in Pierre, about 2003. Special to The Forum4 / 9
Sheyenne Rodriguez with two of her brothers in Dodge City, Kan., in 2010. Special to The Forum5 / 9
For the first nine years of her life, Sheyenne Rodriguez lived in Bullhead, S.D., shown here, on the Standing Rock reservation. Blake Gumprecht / The Forum6 / 9
Sheyenne Rodriguez in sixth grade in Wichita, Kan., about 1994. Special to The Forum7 / 9
Sheyenne Rodriguez, left, with her friend who she met in prison in South Dakota, about 2008. Special to The Forum8 / 9
Sheyenne Rodriguez (nee Sheyenne Flying Horse), about age 5, with two cousins and one of her brothers on the Standing Rock reservation. Special to The Forum9 / 9

FARGO — Sheyenne Rodriguez is not a drunk. She doesn't do drugs. She's strong, not weak.

She's native, Lakota from Standing Rock. She's 35 years old and lives in Fargo.

She's experienced depression and anxiety. She's been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. But it's hard to imagine that anyone could endure a lifetime of difficulties comparable to hers without experiencing psychological problems.

In fact, it's amazing that she's as healthy and resilient as she is.

If you have ever wondered how a mother of three young children becomes homeless, her story provides a humbling example. It is not as simple as you may think.

Rodriguez was born Sheyenne Flying Horse in Fort Yates, N.D., on the Standing Rock reservation. Both of her parents are Lakota, and she is an enrolled member of the tribe. She lived for the first nine years of her life in the small town of Bullhead, on the South Dakota portion of the reservation.

Bullhead is remote and poor. It is 12 miles from the main highway and 20 minutes from McLaughlin, S.D., slightly larger but also poor.

There is only one business in Bullhead, a general store. Jobs are in short supply. Most people who work are employed by the Rock Creek Grant School, which goes through eighth grade.

In 1989, when Rodriguez was growing up there, two-thirds of the population, and 92 percent of those under age 18, lived in poverty. Fewer than half of working-age residents had jobs.

Rodriguez grew up in Bullhead in a two-bedroom house with her mom and dad, grandparents, and as many as six brothers. Sometimes her "auntie" and a half-dozen cousins would stay there, too. When that happened, Rodriguez often had to sleep on the floor in the living room.

The house did not have running water and rarely had electricity. They had to cook on a wood stove, which was their only source of heat. The children took baths in a big metal tub in water heated on the stove.

Food was scarce, and she often went hungry. Most of their food came from government commodity programs. Her father also hunted, and they ate deer, porcupine, groundhog and even snakes that he killed.

Neither her parents nor her grandparents worked.

"Nobody worked," she said.

Her mother and father drank a lot, and they often left the kids home while they partied. Sometimes they left them overnight, she said. Because Rodriguez was the only girl, she was expected to act as mother when her parents were gone, cooking and making sure her brothers went to school.

You grow up fast in a situation like that, but you also become angry and scared. Once, when her parents were gone, Rodriguez says she saw the devil when she looked out the living room window. Another time, she says, she encountered an evil spirit.

"I've had a lot of encounters with the evil spirit," she said.

• • •

In 1991, at age 9, Rodriguez moved with her family to Minneapolis and life got a little better because she had more friends and there was more to do. She had her first boyfriend. Her dad got a job as a security guard. They lived in a duplex in south Minneapolis, near other relatives.

But her family was still poor and her parents still drank, often spending what little money they had on alcohol. The kids were left on their own much of the time, and they wandered city streets with little supervision. Rodriguez started drinking herself.

Her parents fought frequently and often those fights turned violent. Once, when her mom caught her dad at a motel with another woman, she used a crowbar to break every window in his car.

"There was a lot of violence between them," Rodriguez recalled. "My dad used to kick her ass all the time. I remember him hitting her over the head with a bottle."

Fed up with being mistreated, Rodriguez's mother picked her up one day at a friend's house and told her to get ready to leave town. They moved to Wichita, Kan., where her mom had relatives. Four of her brothers came, too.

Almost immediately, her mother lost custody of the children. Rodriguez doesn't remember all the factors that prompted authorities to take the kids, but apparently the final incident came when a police officer saw them riding in a car without seat belts — one of her brothers was standing on the back seat when the squad car drove by.

The kids were put in the Wichita Children's Home, then a series of group homes, and finally in foster care. Rodriguez and one of her brothers were placed with a foster family in Kansas City. Her mom was arrested, convicted, and placed on probation. Rodriguez doesn't remember why, though public records show her mom was charged with theft about this time.

Foster care wasn't much of an improvement over life with her parents because her foster mother also drank to excess.

Rodriguez told her mother that she didn't want to live with her foster parents anymore, so a few days later her mom met her down the block, then took her and the rest of her siblings back to Minneapolis.

Once in Minneapolis, Rodriguez's mom was arrested for violating the terms of her probation and her brothers were taken back to foster care in Kansas. Rodriguez managed to escape authorities, but she had no place to live.

Two of her aunts refused to take her because she was perceived as a bad influence, always on the street and drinking. She experienced homelessness for the first time, often sleeping in abandoned houses. Her boyfriend's aunt sometimes allowed Rodriguez to stay with her.

Her boyfriend was 23, eight years older than she was.

"He was drunk all the time," she remembered. "I started to drink a lot. I took that life in — 8 o'clock in the morning, 'Liquor store's open, let's get going.' I didn't want to live that way, but I didn't have a choice. I went along with him. I felt dreadful about my life."

• • •

Rodriguez dropped out of school in the ninth grade. She and her boyfriend sold their blood to get money for alcohol.

Drinking brought out her anger. Once, while drunk, she got in a fight with her boyfriend's aunt. The aunt pushed Rodriguez, who then attacked her with a knife, slashing her face.

Rodriguez, only 15, was arrested, charged as an adult, and convicted of aggravated assault. She was placed in juvenile detention until she turned 18, then was transferred to the women's prison in Shakopee, Minn.

She was released from prison at age 20, but was far from rehabilitated. She moved to Mobridge, S.D., just across the Missouri River from the Standing Rock reservation, where her mother was living.

One night while partying, she got in a fight with three people. She was arrested and thrown into the back of a police car. She kicked out the window of the police car, and ran away. She was caught and charged with escape. Because it was her second violent crime, she was sentenced to five years in the South Dakota Women's Prison.

She continued to fight in prison, earning a reputation among inmates who needed protection, but also resulting in her frequently being placed in solitary confinement. It was there that she had a religious experience that inspired her to change her life.

"My heart was broke," she said, beginning to cry. "I started to pray. I said, 'God, I need you to talk to me.'" She then quoted from the Bible: "'From the bottom of the pit, O Lord, I cried out to you .... You answered me and told me not to be afraid.' At that point, I felt like He was holding me like a baby."

She reformed, stopped fighting, did push-ups to quell her anger, and gradually earned the trust of guards. She was transferred from the maximum-security unit to medium security and finally to minimum security. She earned her GED certificate. She was released from prison in 2008 when she was 26.

Rodriguez moved back to Mobridge. Her mom was still there, but by this time was homeless. She had no contact with her father for years.

Soon after getting out of prison, she met her husband at a party. He is part native: His mom is enrolled at Standing Rock and his dad is Mexican. He worked at the Grand River Casino on the reservation. She got a job at a Burger King. She quit drinking.

"He told me he doesn't usually drink," she recalled. "That was what encouraged me to stop drinking. I never had met anybody that didn't like to drink, that didn't like to smoke a joint, that was straight. I said, 'Wow, that's awesome.' I wanted to live like that."

Three months after they met, in September 2009, they married. They moved to a trailer in McLaughlin, and both began attending Sitting Bull College. Her husband was a veteran, and dreamed of becoming a police officer. She studied business.

But they only lasted one semester in school. One day while she was at home in their trailer she says she felt a spirit that made her want to leave the reservation.

"They have a lot of suicides on the reservation," she said. "One day I was in the trailer house — I felt this gust of wind. It was a feeling in my entire soul and body. My soul was full of dread. At that second, I knew why people kill themselves. I said, 'We've got to go, I'm not staying here no more.'"

• • •

Rodriguez and her husband left the reservation. By 2013, they were living in the Fargo-Moorhead area, after detours to Dallas, Bismarck, and Bullhead, and times spent living in their car. Their move to Fargo-Moorhead was inspired by a need for higher-quality health care after Rodriguez got pregnant three times, but lost all three babies to miscarriages.

Doctors at Sanford Health determined that she was diabetic and had a blood-clotting disorder, which may have caused her miscarriages. She began taking aspirin daily. In 2014, she got pregnant again. She required daily injections to thin her blood.

Rodriguez and her husband were living in Moorhead, and he was working as a long-haul truck driver. But when she got pregnant again, he left the road and found a job driving a tow truck and later as a mover. He earned enough money to enable her not to work.

"It was a good marriage," she said. "We had our ups and downs. But it was better than all my other relationships. We didn't drink. He didn't do drugs. He had a goal in life. He still wanted to be a police officer."

Their first child, Jimena, was born in 2014. Nine months later they moved to public housing in Fargo — living in a duplex on 22nd Street South. They had another daughter, Esperanza, in 2015. Their third daughter, Isidra, was born in April 2017.

The marriage began to sour, however. Rodriguez discovered her husband had been cheating on her. They fought. He occasionally hit her. Once, he punched her in the face, but she bloodied his nose.

Her husband left for good in June 2017, two months after Isidra was born. Rodriguez has seen him only twice since then, once when he confronted her at their house and they fought, and another time in court, when she tried unsuccessfully to have a restraining order imposed on him.

She has had no other contact with him. She doesn't know where he's living. She says he hasn't provided her any money for the kids or responded to multiple texts pleading for help — when she ran out of formula, when their car blew a tire while she was driving on the interstate, and after Isidra was admitted to the hospital in December.

"I think he's found someone else," she said. "To this day, I'm still in shock. I can't believe he left us and he's gone."

She moved out of their duplex because she feared her husband, but also because her brothers frequently used it as a place to party and she had to call the police on them three times. Plus, the duplex held too many memories.

"It was hard to live in that house," she said. "It was overwhelming and heartbreaking."

• • •

In October, Rodriguez moved with her daughters temporarily into a YWCA women's shelter in Fargo. They stayed a month. Eventually, she was asked to leave because she missed curfew twice due to car problems — her 1999 Chrysler Concorde has 400,000 miles on it — and because she had an accident in the parking lot.

She stayed five nights in motels and briefly with a friend in Sioux Falls, S.D. She had difficulty obtaining permanent housing because she had poor credit and a criminal record. She was able to raise money for a deposit and first month's rent from several area churches and Mahube-Otwa Community Action Partnership in Detroit Lakes, Minn.

In November, Rodriguez finally found a landlord who would rent to her and she moved with her daughters into a trailer in Frazee, Minn., but almost immediately that proved to be a mistake. The trailer was in poor repair, and the landlord refused to fix anything. It was drafty and cold. Every day something new would break.

Eleven days after they moved into the trailer, they moved out and were back on the streets.

The emergency housing options for homeless women with children in the Fargo-Moorhead area are limited. The YWCA on University Drive in south Fargo has 27 rooms for families with a capacity for 67 women and children. Churches United for the Homeless in Moorhead has eight family rooms.

The YWCA gives priority to women such as Rodriguez who have been the victims of domestic violence; about 80 percent of women they house are domestic violence victims. Women can stay there for 45 days. Beyond that, they can apply for weekly extensions.

Demand for family rooms at both the YWCA and Churches United exceed supply.

"There's never enough shelter space to go around," said Sue Koesterman, a minister and executive director of Churches United. "There's always someone waiting to get in. The family rooms are occupied all the time. We are always completely full."

When Rodriguez and her daughters moved out of the trailer in Frazee, they were able to secure a room at Churches United, but only on a short-term basis. All of the family rooms were occupied or being held for other people, but they took Rodriguez and her kids as "overflow" since one of the rooms was temporarily vacant, waiting for someone else to move into it.

"Overflow" occupants, unlike regular shelter residents, must leave each morning by 8 a.m. and check back in during the evening, if space is available. Rodriguez and her girls would go to the library during the day, wander around West Acres shopping mall, or just drive around.

They stayed at Churches United until Dec. 9, but that morning Rodriguez had an altercation with a staff member because they were late leaving. They returned that evening and, according to Rodriguez, were told by the woman at the desk they could stay again as "overflow."

But then, she said, someone in the back said something to the woman at the desk, she closed the window, consulted with another staff member, and then came back and said they were not taking any "overflow" that night after all.

Rodriguez believes they were turned away because of the altercation in the morning. She says the staff member told her, "I can make it so you can't come back here again."

She later filed a grievance with Churches United, but after the organization investigated her claims, Koesterman left her a vague phone message that didn't confirm or deny what Rodriguez said happened. Contacted by The Forum, Koesterman said she couldn't comment on specific cases.

It was already evening by the time they were turned away by Churches United. Temperatures were predicted to drop into the single digits overnight. One of her daughters was already sick. Rodriguez didn't know what to do. She called police and area churches asking for help.

Desperate, she drove to Cash Wise supermarket on 13th Avenue South and stood in front of the entrance with her three daughters, begging shoppers for money to help pay for a motel room. Finally, a woman agreed to pay for one night for them at a Motel 6. A man paid for a second night.

The next day she began calling shelters throughout the region looking for a place to stay, but none had room for a mother with kids. She placed ads on Craigslist asking for help. She received a few responses, but all sounded risky.

Finally, the YWCA called and said they had a room for Rodriguez and her daughters. They've been staying there ever since. It was a relief, but her difficulties are far from over.

Rodriguez is once again trying to find permanent housing. She needs to obtain daycare for her girls so she can look for a job. But her problems don't end there.

All three of her daughters have significant health problems. All were born premature after high-risk pregnancies because of Rodriguez's medical conditions. None have developed normally.

Jimena, 3, can say only a handful of words and has been classified as disabled. She's supposed to start speech therapy if their lives ever become more stable. Esperanza, 2, also has speech problems and will be evaluated soon. She's severely pigeon-toed and may require surgery. Isidra was born with a hole in her heart and also appears to be developing slowly.

"Honestly, I just feel like I'm lost," Rodriguez said. "It's hard. The whole time I've been thinking, 'How can I get myself back together? How can I be happy? How can I be normal?' I've been feeling like I don't belong anywhere."