At the annual Mother and Daughter Tea held last month at the East End Family Resource Center, one of the “mothers” stood out a bit.
With long, dark dreadlocks, a deep voice and a tall, lanky frame, Timothy Lillard is definitely not your typical mom.
Not to anyone but his 8-year-old daughter.
“He’s a mother and a father,” Angel explained, giggling at a stranger’s obvious confusion, then laughing out loud when questioned about whether her dad wore a dress and a wig for the tea.
“Nooooooo. He does all the girlie-girl stuff with me cause he loves me, like, a whole, whole lot, but he’s still a boy with his clothes,” she said, her voice revealing a slight exasperation with silly grownups who can’t seem to understand such a simple concept.
Of course, most family relations aren’t simple at all, and the story of Tim and Angel is particularly complex.
“That’s the first time that’s happened that I know of, that we had a dad come for the mother-daughter tea,” said Renee Garland, coordinator of after-school programs at the center.
“I was not surprised that he came, because he comes to everything for his daughter. But I was excited, ’cause Angel wanted him to come so bad. She had made him a present and she asked me, ‘Do you think it’s OK if he comes?’”
Like the other parents who showed up that night, Tim too got a hand-decorated container full of flowers. His face lights up at the memory.
“We have quality time, me and Angel. We have movie nights, we play at the park together. I’m from a big, loving family. We never had much growing up, but we had each other. My mom taught me how to love, and that’s what I’m doing for my daughter.”
There are roughly 2 million single dads in the United States, representing just 17 percent of all single parents, according to 2013 U.S. census figures.
But this particular father and daughter had already attracted attention long before the tea, in part for the relative rarity of single custodial dads, and in part because of their own uniquely challenging circumstance.
After a round of custody battles he says were grueling, health and employment problems, and more than a few months spent bouncing around from one friend’s couch to the next, things came to a head earlier this year.
“In February 2014, I picked up the phone and called the shelter. We’ve been here ever since,” Tim said, of the Charleston-area homeless shelter where he and Angel now reside.
Making that phone call “was strange, oh, so strange,” he added.
“There’s mothers in there with families, but I’m the only single dad, so it’s really strange.”
If single dads are not exactly the norm, single dads in Charleston-area homeless shelters are all but a statistical anomaly.
During the 2012-13 fiscal year, the shelter where Tim and Angel are staying provided beds for 398 single mothers and eight single fathers. And theirs is the only shelter in the area that houses single fathers.
Strange or not, he is grateful for a safe place for himself and his child, appreciative of the encouragement and help he’s found.
“They’re going to push you to get on your feet. They’re going to make it uncomfortable enough that you don’t want to stay,” he said, “and that’s a good thing. Everybody over there wishes they were out yesterday.”
Tim does too. Like most other shelter clients, he is eligible for four months of shelter services, and time is quickly running out.
So far he’s found a wealth of community resources for his daughter through their church, Liberty Baptist Church, and through the East End Family Resource Center, where she attended after-school programs and now attends full-day summer camps, where she is thriving, by all accounts.
He’s also found a long list of supporters.
“He has touched everybody over here with just how devoted he is to his daughter,” said Belva Mallory, a housing specialist with the Prestera Center, which provides a wide range of services including government-funded housing vouchers for clients in need.
“You couldn’t have picked a better person for a Father’s Day story.”
“I think he’s a terrific dad,” said the Rev. Jerry Staples, the pastor at Liberty Baptist. “He is always with his daughter. He watches her diligently, and she loves him with all her heart.
I’d trust him with my own granddaughter.”
More than that, Staples said, despite his dire situation, Tim has never asked the church for a thing. In fact, he said, the man is usually looking for some way he can help out.
“Some people just show up, eat and leave. And usually, people in his situation are looking for what we can do for them. He’s just the opposite. He’s asking what he can do to help out. Take out the trash, clear the tables, whatever he can do to help us out, he’s willing to do.”
So he’s found plenty of supporters and advocates. What he hasn’t found is a home or a job.
Without a clear diagnosis, Tim said at 51 years of age his health is “not good,” adding that he “can’t stand for very long, have to lean on walls sometimes,” can’t do the kinds of physical jobs like detailing cars that he’s done in the past.
Though his specific medical condition isn’t clear, Mallory confirmed that “He does have physical conditions that mean he can’t work,” and he doesn’t need a job to qualify for a housing voucher.
While Angel is at camp, he said he has spent recent days and weeks knocking on doors, trying to find a place to call home.
So far, despite a voucher that will pay just over $600 per month, he hasn’t found an available spot — preferably someplace on the East End, so Angel can continue school at Piedmont Elementary.
It’s not clear what might happen to him — or to Angel — if a solution isn’t found quickly.
“Sometimes you get down, but we can also rise, and I think that’s where he is right now,” Staples said.
“I don’t care who you are in life, you’re going to struggle sometimes,” Tim said, “but I’m going to conquer this because that little girl deserves the best.”
When it comes right down to it, he said, being a parent isn’t about providing a long list of material things, it’s about simply being there and taking care of your child, day in and day out, in the best way you can.
For her part, Angel agrees. Mostly.
“I don’t need a big Barbie Townhouse or anything like that. I’d just rather have a daddy who tells me he loves me all the time, and I already got that,” she said, and then paused for a moment to reconsider.
“Well, I mean, I would reallllly like a swimming pool. And I already got that Game Boy from the thrift store. So other than that, I just want a daddy who loves me. And I already got that.”
She looks over at him and smiles.
“I love you, Daddy.”
“I love you too, Angel.”