Sunday, July 23, 2006 | 7:40 a.m.
Seven-year-old Lea Butterworth has been wearing the same brown crushed velvet shirt and rainbow-striped skirt for nearly a week. As dingy as the outfit is, it is carefully washed nightly in the motel room sink.
Lea doesn't understand that she is poor.
Traffic whizzes by on busy Paradise Road, just off the Strip, as she skips alongside her father, Jason Butterworth, 29. He trudges along, holding the hands of his two other children, Delaney, 4, and Dylan, 3.
While the kids pick marigolds from motel planters, Lea scans for a prize - a puffy dandelion. She wants to make a wish.
Finally! Amid the broken sidewalks and strip malls near the intersection of Paradise Road and East Twain Street, Lea finds her dandelion. Its snowy puff is perfectly round. She gingerly grabs the stem, closes her eyes and silently mouths a wish. Then she blows - three times for good measure. The filaments are carried off in a hot breeze.
What did you wish for, Lea?
She scrunches her face and shakes her head. She's not sure she should reveal it, lest the wish be jinxed.
Jason and Elizabeth Butterworth moved here from Southern California in 1999 to be near family. They were looking for a fresh start, but bad luck, drug addiction and unemployment have led them on a complex journey through homes, apartments and weekly motels.
Their three little ones are among a rapidly growing number of Nevada children growing up in poverty. Census figures show that about one in five children in Nevada lives in poverty. That's 111,000 impoverished children, enough to fill about 4,500 classrooms.
Impoverished children typically must overcome education deficits, poor health care and nutrition, a transient lifestyle and the perils of dangerous neighborhoods. The number of Nevada children in poverty rose by 46 percent between 2000 and 2004, the census showed. Local child advocates say it continues to climb.
Terry Lindemann, executive director of the charity Family Promise, said low wages, a lack of affordable housing and reduction in welfare services are all factors contributing to the growing number of children in poverty.
Parents don't want their children to grow up poor, Lindemann said.
"But their lives have become so unraveled they're just hanging on by a thread themselves," Lindemann said. "So the children get thrown into that lifeboat."
Behind each statistic is a child - and a family history. The Butterworths have moved about 10 times in the past two years. Jason says many of the setbacks stemmed from his addiction to methamphetamine. His own upbringing was steeped in drugs. Addiction runs in his family. His mother gave Jason a joint when he was 8, and methamphetamine when he was 11.
Jason says he has been off meth for two years, but knows he is susceptible to a relapse. That's why he initially rejected a friend's offer for the family to stay in his trailer. The man was a drug user.
The Butterworth kids are joyful and well behaved. The family has no car, but the kids don't complain when walking the hot streets. There are no toys in the motel room, so the children entertain themselves by bounding on the beds, laughing and using their imaginations to play. And they're bright - Lea, who is going into the second grade, writes and reads, and takes home-study courses.
The Butterworth parents emphasize education, so their children seem to be unlike most impoverished children, who start school at a severe disadvantage.
Douglas Wilson is principal of Hollingsworth Elementary School, located in one of the poorest areas of Las Vegas, near the motels on Fremont Street - places the Butterworths know well. He said his students rarely have a quiet place to study and may want for pencils and paper. Students often come from homes where parents are not educated or who, because of their jobs, don't have the time or energy to interact with the children.
"They have years of learning deficit," he said. "These children are far behind when they come here."
Elizabeth Butterworth has been the family's primary wage-earner. She worked for three years at Target, until she slipped and fell unloading a truck 18 months ago, injuring her back. Three weeks ago Elizabeth was able to go to work for the first time. She is a housekeeper at a motel near the Strip.
Jason dropped out of high school and earned his GED later. After he moved to Las Vegas he worked at a car wash and as a telemarketer, hawking vacations and credit cards until the federal Do Not Call registry dried up the business.
He speaks longingly of his most recent jobs, working entry-level positions in restaurant kitchens. One day, he would like to become a chef. He had a job at a steakhouse for a while, but said he was fired after he traded a work shift with another man who then didn't show up.
Jason is now unemployed, and he said getting a job is all but impossible because his ID was stolen about two months ago. To get a job he needs to get a new ID, which requires his original birth certificate - which is with his family in California. He hasn't gotten it yet.
Jason said he looks forward to getting a job, but right now, he is overwhelmed with more immediate concerns, such as finding a place to live and watching the children.
Elizabeth sometimes panhandles to feed her brood. She shields her children from this indignity.
Food has been scarce, but they stress that there has never been a time when the children have gone without three meals a day, even if Mom and Dad skip meals .
Jason said he can't bring himself to beg, as uneasy and sad as he is to see his family in this situation.
"How I can't provide for us is the worst part," he said. "To know that there're people out there doing what they have to do - and I can't do that."
Elizabeth's mother recently let the family stay in the living room of her small apartment. But the arrangement caused too much conflict, so the family left. Their few possessions are still at the home.
The Butterworths have always lived on the brink of an eviction or unpaid bills, but in seven years in Las Vegas, this is the closest they've come to living on the streets. In the past, family members have come through with help, but Jason said he is determined to gain his family's independence.
"They've never said 'no,' " Jason said of his family's assistance. "But there's a point where you want to do it on your own."
It's just after 9 on a weekday morning, and the kids are putting on shoes. For the past five days, the room and the family's meals were paid by a benefactor. But the assistance will run out any day. Jason's going to hit the streets in search of a new place to live.
Mom's busy at her maid job, so the kids tag along with Dad.
"You want to bring anything?" he asks Lea as they're walking out the door.
The little girl shrugs.
"I don't have anything," she said. "All I have is my clothes."
So she carries a tattered Apartments For Rent book.
Jason has a county Social Services voucher that promises to pay up to $942 for first month's rent, pending approval.
One of Jason's complaints (and part of the reason he agreed to share his story) is the difficulty of navigating the welfare system. The Butterworths have been on welfare before but were dropped about two years ago when they failed to reapply.
He must risk $20 to apply for the apartment and get approved by the apartment manager before going to county Social Services to get the voucher approved. But before he can sign up for county assistance he must schedule an appointment with the state welfare agency. It takes 30 days to receive emergency assistance from the state, he said.
Jason is also frustrated that so few charities provide housing for needy families. Family Promise can help only 14 people at a time. And the Las Vegas Rescue Mission forces its residents out early every morning. He asks incredulously: What are the kids supposed to do in 110-degree heat?
Jason feigns a positive attitude in his apartment search. He has a history of evictions, and no money to pay the first month's rent or damage deposit . The children gamely plug along beside him.
The apartments are surrounded by fences, with locked gates and bars on the windows. It's hot and no one's outside. After 30 minutes he finally tracks down a manager who says he'll take the voucher. But first he needs to apply. And get the voucher approved by Social Services. And come up with $1,020 for first month's rent. And a deposit. After that, the monthly rent is $720 a month, 54 percent of Elizabeth's gross income.
Jason and Elizabeth don't like the neighborhood - its junkies, drug dealers and prostitutes. It's a bad place for children and terrible for Jason because of his drug addiction.
The couple don't trust anybody in Las Vegas because they've been victimized too many times. An overnight visitor stole most of their tax refund from Elizabeth's purse in February, and then someone stole most of their possessions when they were left at a friend's house during a prolonged move from a weekly motel to Elizabeth's mother's house.
The Butterworths try to maintain their children's innocence by insulating themselves from the streets. They have no friends and the children are not allowed to play with other boys or girls. In the city's worst neighborhoods, parents don't take care of their children or train them to be well mannered, Jason said.
Recently, the Butterworth children picked up head lice from three neighbor kids and had to have their heads shaved. Their hair is just now growing back. But it was more than just that. A 10-year-old neighbor girl was sexually inappropriate with men, and all three of the kids spewed profanity.
The Butterworth parents are nomads, an isolated unit, trying to build a cocoon around their children in the midst of an unforgiving city's chaos.
Back at the motel after the apartment-finding trip, Lea is asked again about her wish, the one she made right before blowing the filaments from the dandelion. She's often full of giggles, but she's serious now.
"I wished for friends because I don't have any," Lea said.
Jason, lounging on the motel bed beside his oldest daughter, pats and rubs the small of her back. She buries her face in a pillow.
Several days later the family is out of the motel and staying in the place they had tried to avoid - the trailer with Jason's friend. They were able to hang on there until Friday, when Elizabeth was paid. Then they were moving to another weekly motel with the hope that the county rental voucher will soon help them land a monthly apartment.
That same day, the family heard from Lindemann at Family Promise. The charity had an opening for another family. A free place to stay in a church. Meals included. A connection to a network of support for the family. Were the Butterworths interested?
Jason declined the offer. The family has never stayed in a shelter, and he believes he has better options. He wants his kids "to feel as much at home as possible."
"Now we actually have some money and we can get a place," he said. "We're going to be scraping by for a little bit again. But we're on the right path. It's a leap of faith type deal."
The Butterworths' refusal to accept help may be maddening to observers, but Lindemann says it's common. Families are afraid of the word "shelter," she said.
So, for the third time in as many weeks, the Butterworth children will move .