For years, a family just scraping by has lived in a storage unit. Now CPS has taken away their six children
Tucked behind an iron gate at the end of a long gravel driveway in east Houston sits a small storage shed.
Outside, the corrugated steel structure is identical to the 76 others next to it, but the inside holds more than someone's possessions.
It is a home.
Inside the 12-by-25-foot shed are hand-built shelves where children's clothes are folded neatly next to canned goods, boxes of cereal and a stack of family photos. On another shelf, beside two king-size beds, textbooks lie next to board games.
Despite the cramped conditions, it overflows with love, said Charlomane Leonard, 35, as she stood in front of the shed that she, her husband, Prince Leonard, and six children have called home for years.
"That's what makes it comfortable," she said.
But to Child Protective Services, the shed is an unsafe environment for the children. After receiving a phone call about the Leonards' living conditions, agency caseworkers removed the couple's children last month.
The Leonards said their children were safe and happy and felt they were targeted by the agency because they are poor.
CPS spokeswoman Gwen Carter said poverty was not an issue and that the agency does not remove children from their parents' custody based on the family's economic circumstances, but on other factors such as unsafe living environments, abuse and neglect.
"You could live in a mansion and be in an unsafe living environment," Carter said. "It's not the place as much as it was the circumstances."
She said the agency uses removal only as a last resort, and that caseworkers try to help parents in need find ways to provide safe living conditions for their children. Carter said CPS was committed to helping the Leonards.
Hearing set for August
Prince Leonard and his wife said CPS caseworkers made one three-hour visit to their home and removed the children immediately.
"They didn't ask us if we needed help or anything," Charlomane Leonard said. "They just said, 'You can stay here, but your children can't.' "
Carter referred further questions to the court where the Leonards' case is being heard. No one at the court returned calls for comment Wednesday. The family is scheduled to appear in court again in August.
The agency, which was granted temporary custody of the children June 30, has placed them with their maternal grandparents. The Leonards are allowed to visit their children for only six hours a week, according to the couple.
"I really miss them," Charlomane Leonard said. "I'm used to being with them all day every day."
The couple has struggled to make ends meet since they married 14 years ago. Their situation got worse about four years ago, when they were living in an apartment in northeast Houston.
Prince Leonard, who now works as a welder, said the family was forced to move out of the crime-ridden apartment complex after he was hurt while working at a discount warehouse, and the couple could no longer afford the rent.
The family lived for a while in their pickup, parking in the Lyndon B. Johnson Hospital overnight, where security guards made them feel safe. They then resided at a Star of Hope shelter for three months before moving into the storage unit in the 12000 block of McNair, where they were already storing some of their belongings.
While it's small and can seem crowded, the Leonards said the storage shed is the safest place they've lived in a long time. Prince Leonard said management is aware the family lives there, as are others who rent space at the facility.
"No one can get in and no one can get out without the remote," Charlomane Leonard, a stay-at-home mom, said as she pointed to the automatic gate at the front entry.
The couple said they have done their best to turn the shed into a suitable living environment for their children — Sabrina, 12; Prince Leonard II, 10; Raheem, 8; Saleem, who turns 7 today; Abdullah, 4; and 2-year-old Jamil.
Prince Leonard built all the shelving and a makeshift loft. There's a refrigerator, an air conditioner and wood-burning heater. On land behind the storage units, the children and their mother plant a garden every summer, harvesting squash, tomatoes, okra and peppers.
Lacking in the shed is running water, but Prince Leonard fills a 55-gallon barrel daily from a spigot at the end of the storage lot so the family can take baths. They fill jugs of drinking water at grocery stores and use a "compost" toilet, Charlomane Leonard said.
Plan to rent a house
The older children are enrolled at Texas Connections Academy, a Houston Independent School District online school. The shed is also furnished with two computers, one on loan from the school, Charlomane Leonard said.
The couple said none of their children has ever gotten less than a B in school, and they hope all of them can attend college.
"That just speaks volumes about the kind of people we are," Prince Leonard said. Around the time they moved into the shed, the couple were able to buy land in Liberty County where they planned to build a home.
They've had troubles getting a loan to build the home while also paying for the land. Now, they will use the money to rent a house.
"We were building ourselves up and trying to get out of the hole," Prince Leonard said. "That's their (children's) future we've been working hard for."firstname.lastname@example.org