Brittney Sparks plays with her children Aamiyah Avila Stevenson, 1, and Adrian Quintanilla, 5, at a Milwaukie park. The family has been homeless off and on.
Brittney Sparks plays with her children Aamiyah Avila Stevenson, 1, and Adrian Quintanilla, 5, at a Milwaukie park. The family has been homeless off and on.
MILWAUKIE — Brittney Sparks, 20, has a job. She has two children. What she doesn’t have is a place to live.  

The first taste of homelessness came five years ago when Sparks was pregnant at 15 and living with her mother in a tent near Oregon City. The winter of 2009 was harsh.  

“Every few hours we would have to kick off the snow collected on our tent roof,” Sparks recalls. “I was scared, alone. I lay up late at night, tossing and turning on the stiff floor in our tent. Lots of thoughts ran through my head each night but the recurring thought was, ‘How could I give my child a good life with little to nothing to offer?’”

Her own childhood had been more burden than joy. In a two-bedroom duplex not far from La Salle Prep, Sparks was raised by parents addicted to drugs and prone to violent fights.

When she was 5, she and her siblings landed in state custody. At that age, she says, being taken from parents, even misbehaving parents, is so traumatic that you deal with the separation the rest of your life.  

Eventually, her mother divorced her father and married a new man. The children returned home to her custody, only to suffer psychological abuse from their stepfather. He often told the girl she’d amount to nothing.

Her mother spoke of God and taught the children to pray but never took them to church. When she was 7, Sparks decided on her own to “hunt for the Lord.”

“I was curious and had only heard great things about him, so I felt the urge in my heart to pursue him,” she says. She asked a neighbor lady to take her to worship and got a delighted response — a ride to Flavel Baptist on Sundays and a set of church clothes. Sparks was baptized at 10 and got involved in youth activities. That gave her strength for what was to come.  

When Sparks was 13, the duplex sold and the new landlord remodeled and raised rents out of the family’s reach. They moved to a second flat, but were evicted after a year. The family was homeless.

Sparks, then attending Oregon City High School, moved in with her boyfriend. It was then that she became pregnant. Her mother, at this time homeless, ordered her daughter back. The two lived in a shelter for as long as they were allowed, but then had no option but a tent.  

“How do I stay strong when all statistics are against me?” Sparks asked herself. “And how do I overcome this harsh cycle of poverty? I was too busy fighting off the  hunger in my belly, snow off my tent, and the fear of the unknown to focus on school. Every day was an ongoing challenge and every day I had to fight.”

Three weeks before her son Adrian was born, Sparks and her mother were accepted into an apartment complex. The nightmare seemed to be over, but it would return.
She has been homeless three more times since 2009, including now. She has stayed with friends and paid for hotels when she had work. Now a mother of two, she is currently sleeping in her van in Milwaukie, making sure a coffee shop is close enough that she and her son can use free internet.   

“As a mother, you only want the best for your children,” she says. “It breaks my heart warming their dinner in a 7-11 microwave and eating on the floor of our van instead of a nutritious meal where we can sit around a table and eat together. I feel an overwhelming feeling of guilt. Guilt because I know my kids deserve the world and I can only give as much as I have, and it's not enough.” She pawns belongings when she needs diapers, hygiene products or food.  

Sparks feels vulnerable. She imagines attackers or police coming to roust her. She sleeps fitfully. To survive, she prays on her own and with her children.

“I have full faith that my obstacles in life will be put to rest one day,” she says.  

More than anything, she wants to finish her education, but knows that is not possible during the scrabble just to survive.

Sparks has been a volunteer leader in a campaign led by Madonna’s Center to change housing laws in Clackamas County so teens have better opportunity. The Catholic Campaign for Human Development has helped fund the project.   

When it comes to homelessness, youths are falling between the cracks, says Valerie Aschbacher, founder of Madonna’s Center and a member of St. John the Baptist Parish. State and federal law is unable to deal with minors who are also parents, Aschbacher says.

Teens with no rental history are blocked from getting into an apartment. The federal Housing and Urban Development Agency can’t help teens, who are not recognized as legal guardians of their children. Even shelters won’t offer space to an unaccompanied youth with a child.

Madonna’s Center, run by volunteers, offers supplies like food and clothes to teen parents, plus job training, but Aschbacher and Sparks say good housing is the key step to emerging from poverty.

“People need to understand all of the barriers that come with homelessness,” Sparks says.

It’s hard to get a job with no access to your legal documents and no way to charge your telephone, she explains. She can’t afford childcare and mostly she can’t focus on what she needs. There is not much chance for her to advance in education or work without stable housing.  

“I wake up each day with one goal in mind,” she says. “Find a place for my kids and myself to lay our heads down tonight.”