The Johnson family has been homeless since August 2016
Every time Antonio Johnson thought about his daughter’s upcoming birthday, his stomach knotted. The family was living in their white minivan and could barely afford the basic necessities. A birthday celebration was simply not an option.
They had been living in their van since August 2016. Occasionally, they scraped enough money together for a few nights at a hotel, but most nights were spent in parking lots around West Orange.
Call it fate, God, serendipity or just being parked in the right space at the right time, but the Johnsons’ luck changed two days before Elisia Linette turned 4.
It was that day - May 9 - when a stranger knocked on the van window. Four days later, tears rolled down Elisia Linette’s cheeks as she and her family celebrated at Disney World.
Everything starting going downhill in February 2016. Antonio was working a contract job as a medical examiner. His shifts lasted at least 24 hours. But despite the hours, he loved what he did.
“A lot of people loved me,” he said. “I’m not shy. I love talking to people, and that’s why I loved it. I was able to help people in one of the worst times of their life.”
When one of his co-workers relocated to Volusia County and decided to sell her trailer, Antonio and his wife made an offer. It was a chance to decrease their cost of living and put a little extra into their savings account each month.
Everything seemed to be moving smoothly until Antonio’s co-worker refused to transfer the title. But the Johnsons had already moved into the trailer, and life settled into a routine for a while. Antonio worked his long shifts while his wife worked at Forever 21. When their shifts overlapped, their two children - 5-year-old Ja’Kari and 3-year-old Elisia Linette - spent the day at a friend’s house.
One day, Elisia Linette came home with a bloody shirt and a cut on her head. Their friend told Antonio that Elisia Linette had fallen out of bed. Then she came home with a bruise near her temple and a cut on her forehead.
“She wasn’t her usual self,” Antonio said. “She was flinching.”
It was Antonio and Marqesha’s worst fears realized. They had heard stories of people’s children being abused and hurt by others, making them wary of leaving their children in the care of anyone else.
“That was why we didn’t put them in daycare to begin with,” Antonio said. “It was like the worst case happened when we we finally trusted somebody with our kids.”
Antonio and Marqesha adjusted their schedules, working opposite shifts so the two children would never require a babysitter.
In late summer, the family was hit with a $500 fine by the property manager over displaced pavers outside the trailer. The couple tried paying the fee through insurance, but the property manager refused to cooperate. He even stopped accepting their monthly rental fee for parking the trailer on the property.
Then, on a Wednesday in August, the property manager called. They had until midnight to vacate the property he told them or else he would call the police to have them evicted.
That’s when Antonio discovered that his co-worker wanted her trailer back.
“I think we were a temporary scapegoat for her,” Antonio said.
With no title deeding the trailer to them, the Johnsons were forced to leave.
After a rapid house hunt, Antonio found his family a home they could rent. The cost was slightly more than what they wanted to pay, but at least it would be a roof over their heads.
On the morning of day one at their new home, a deputy with the Lake County Sheriff’s Office knocked on the door. His inquiry: What were they doing there?
In a matter of minutes, everything unravelled. The house was a scam.
The woman who had rented the home to the Johnsons had previously rented the home herself but had been evicted. The actual homeowner lived in New York.
When they learned of the situation, the homeowner informed the Johnsons that if they wanted to rent the home it would cost $1,200 a month plus a security deposit and the first and last month’s rent. The price tag was too high for the Johnsons.
Antonio called his wife, who was at work, with the bad news.
“It was devastating,” Marqesha said of that phone call.
That day, the family moved into their minivan, but not before assisting the Lake County Sheriff’s Office arrest the woman who had scammed them.
“I believe I was able to help out a lot of victims because she had scammed a lot of people,” Antonio said.
With limited funds, the family began searching for somewhere to live. With with a previous eviction on Marqesha’s record, the cost of getting into an apartment or rental home was too high.
They moved from parking lot to parking lot. They met others who were homeless. They shared a hotel room with a homeless family but discovered that the daughter was a thief. They learned to be wary of strangers while staying in parking lots around town.
Although they prided themselves on not accepting aid from anyone, they reached out to family members for help. They were met with scorn and silence.
“I’ve never been homeless before,” Marqesha said. “It’s really, really hard.”
When they thought things couldn’t get any worse, Antonio lost his job.
THAT SERENDIPITOUS KNOCK
The knuckles that rapped on the Johnsons’ window that day belonged to former MLB star Felipe Lopez. He had noticed the van parked in the Winter Garden Village and stopped to investigate.
“It broke my heart,” Lopez said about learning that the family was homeless and living in their van.
Lopez and his wife, Angela, invited the family to their home that night for dinner and posted the Johnson’s story on social media. It spread like wildfire.
Within days, Angela received than a dozen phone calls from people wanting to donate furniture, household supplies, clothing and toys. More than $5,000 has been raised on a GoFundMe page, and they even received tickets for the family to spend a day at Disney.
“It’s like a dream,” Marqesha said. “I don’t feel like all this is really happening. It’s overwhelming.”
By Thursday, May 11, Antonio received a job offer from Wyndham Bonnet Creek Resort. He will start on May 23 working nights - just like he wanted.
And for the last week, the family hasn’t had to sleep in their van. They’ve been staying with West Orange resident Elizabeth Haugaard, who learned of the family’s story and insisted that they all stay with her at her home.
“She’s treated us like family,” Marqesha said. “She’s like our mom. She’s such a loving and caring person.”
With a few days in comfort and time to regroup, the family is cautiously optimistic their homeless days are numbered.
“We always try not to get our hopes up until we get to the finish,” Antonio said.
And on Saturday, May 13, they celebrated Elisia Linette’s fourth birthday with the family’s first trip to Disney World.
“We were able to give her a real birthday,” Antonio said, beaming.
And, with a grin on her face and the beads in her braids tapping together as she nodded, Elisia Linette agreed.
To help the family, contact Elizabeth Haugaard at (872) 222-1847 or Antonio Johnson at (407) 704-0487.
Contact Brittany Gaines at [email protected].