Jim, Sandy and Bobby Johnson, who is also a student at HCC, rotated among Howard County's cold weather shelters, and Jeff was able to stay with them for two nights over Christmas.

"We slept on pads on the floor, and there wasn't much to do other than read or talk," Jeff said. "But it was nice. I kind of feel this whole thing has made us closer. We're talking more."

When the cold weather shelters closed, the Johnsons — all four of them — went back to the Extended Stay in March. They knew they could afford only two months at the hotel, and Sandy Johnson was "praying for a miracle."

The miracle came toward the end of April, when the Johnsons learned they'd been approved for a two-bedroom apartment in the Bluffs at Hawthorn in Hickory Ridge. They're getting settled in the new place now, and since Jim Johnson is eligible for Social Security next year, the family thinks they're finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.

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"It's such a blessing," Sandy Johnson said. "I thank God every day."

With a roof over their heads and degrees to their names, Sandy and Jeff Johnson are looking to the future. Sandy Johnson has a degree in sociology and is applying for jobs in the area, including the Children's Learning Center at HCC, where she has worked part-time since 2011. With a degree in information technology network security, Jeff is also looking for work. Both are considering the pursuit of bachelor's degrees.

"We're still in the short-term planning phase," Jeff Johnson said. "We've got an idea of what we want, and we can make it because it seems that we're through the worst of it. We just have to get stable at the end. There were times I thought it wouldn't get better. You just have to keep going, I guess. One day you may feel like you won't make it to tomorrow, and then you're still there, however many weeks, however many tomorrows later. You just keep going."

Sandy Johnson credits HCC for helping the family make it through. Jeff has two part-time jobs at the college, as a tutor in the Learning Assistance Center and as a peer mentor for Project Access, a program to help students with learning disabilities. Beyond the part-time jobs, Sandy Johnson said the school's Helping Hands Fund — for students in dire financial need — and the availability of school psychologists have been a tremendous help.

"The whole place has a positive attitude," she said. "It's easier to stay positive when you're here."

Sandy Johnson said she has always been able to find the silver linings in the clouds of her life, but she's struggling to see the positive side of homelessness. It may be the fact that her family is closer than ever before, or the valuable social education her son Bobby, who has Aspergers, received by spending so much time around other people in the shelters.

"Maybe that's the lesson: life happens," she said. "I never thought, at the age of 56, I would be in this kind of position. But that's the thing — I would see these volunteers at the shelters, and I wanted to tell them: you could be one paycheck away from where I am now. There is a need for help when it comes to homelessness in Howard County. We were people who got hit by bad times. Somehow, you just keep going and when it feels like the end of the world, it's not."

This story has been corrected to address an earlier mistake. Jim Johnson was denied disability once.