Jennifer and Michael greeted their kids as they got off the school bus, hugged them and asked how their day went.

They all sat down at the picnic table and talked, as some of the kids ran around and played on the lawn.

The couple and their several children, ages 5-12, are a lot like other American families who work hard, do their best to get ahead and dream of a better future.

But a big difference between this couple and their children and most other families in Waterville is that they are homeless.

They have been staying at the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter since the first week in June, sleeping together in one large room, eating with 40 other shelter guests and looking forward to the day they will be in their own home — hopefully, a four-bedroom rental apartment or house.

“They’re really hard to find, and we’ve been looking pretty much since we got here,” Jennifer said. “They’re not very easy to come by, and some of them are just crazy expensive.”

Jennifer and Michael asked that their last name not be used for the kids’ sake, but were more than willing to share their story.

They became homeless after Michael got laid off from his dry-walling job and their car died. Everything just unraveled from there.

“We never thought we’d be homeless,” Jennifer said. “We were lucky. We called the shelter after that, and they got us in fairly quick.”

What she and Michael didn’t expect was the caliber of people living at the shelter. He always thought of homeless people as those you see sleeping on streets in cities.

“I thought they would be drunks or lazy people or people who sat around doing nothing,” Michael said. “I didn’t think it’d be families. They’re just like you and me. You would never know, seeing them, that they are homeless.”

Those were my thoughts, exactly, as I sat at the picnic table on a recent afternoon with this loving, caring couple and their beautiful children.

As they said, many people are just a step away from being homeless because of a job loss, illness or other life-changing event. But what was a devastating situation for this family is turning out to be a sort of blessing in disguise. The couple said they are learning the skills they need to have a more stable life going forward.

“First, they set you up with a case manager and they get to hear your story and find out why this happened,” Jennifer said. “If you need a job, they help you with a work search program. They have parenting classes and a budgeting class. They teach you how to budget your money, where to put money for savings.”

Jennifer said she did not know about all these things before, and she will be more confident going out into the world, armed with this new knowledge.

She and Michael, both 31, also are studying for the general educational development tests while at the shelter. Michael, who has only a fifth-grade education, was worried that he would fail at the courses, but he is doing well — and that has been a big confidence booster.

Things already are starting to look up for the couple, who met when they were 9, became childhood sweethearts and married several years ago.

Through volunteering recently, Jennifer made connections and landed a new, full-time job as a certified nurse assistant at a local nursing home. She starts her job Monday.

Michael hopes that earning a GED will help him in his job search; he hopes to work as a lineman or in a similar position.

The homeless shelter has been a godsend, the couple agrees.

“What would happen if it wasn’t here?” Jennifer said.

Betty Palmer, the shelter’s executive director, knows the answer to that question only too well.

She understands homelessness and the importance of programs that help people stay on their feet. She has been helping advocates for the homeless in other counties open their own shelters.

“We’re really a resource center, not just for homeless persons and families, but for agencies that work with the homeless or community coalitions that want to end homelessness,” she said.

Palmer says that typically, most guests at the shelter are children. She has seen families become stronger she said, as a result of having been at the shelter and taken advantage of all of the programs.

“Eighty percent of people that complete our programs are housed and stable and still employed three years later,” she said. “We have a less than 10 percent return rate.”

Jennifer and Michael are encouraged by these statistics. They say that when they leave the shelter, they will come back to volunteer and show others in a rough spot that things will get better.

Jennifer starts to repeat a phrase she often hears Palmer recite. Smiling, Palmer gives her a little help:

“Working together,” she says, “we can end homelessness — one person, one family, one child at a time.”

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 25 years. Her column appears here Mondays. She may be reached at [email protected]