Carrie Dyer

When Carrie Dyer and her family became homelessness, they turned to COTS for help. She had no idea her time in a COTS family shelter would lead to the creation of a book designed to help children and families experiencing homelessness. Carrie tells COTS about how writing “Our Busy House – Living in Shelter” helped her see things differently.

In the years immediately following the Great Recession, Carrie Dyer, her husband, and then her 5-year-old daughter were guests at the COTS Main Street Family Shelter. Carrie’s daughter struggled to make sense of her new surroundings and all the changes confronting her family during this stressful time. Carrie noticed that other children and families in shelter experienced similar challenges.

To help her daughter and other children, Carrie decided to write a book about life in a family shelter. The book would be from a child’s perspective recounting some of the unfamiliar sights, sounds, and experiences of shelter. By providing opportunities for self-expression through activities like drawing and coloring, the book encourages children to tell their own story about their family and time in shelter. The book also features a community resource guide with phone numbers and Web sites. There is also space for a family to note their personal information, such as upcoming appointments or important contacts.

Carrie hoped that by sharing her own experience, she could provide support to other families during what can be an extremely stressful and disorienting time. She also wanted to create a simple yet accessible resource for families to use while in shelter. COTS will soon provide a copy of Carrie’s book to families in our shelters. (Visit to see an excerpt from Carrie’s book.)

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

COTS: When you saw your daughter struggling to adapt to life in shelter did you know initially that you would write a book about it?

Carrie: No, I had no idea at the time. When we were in shelter, my husband and I began discussing the challenges our family was experiencing. We couldn’t find any resources to help, and we thought, “What would be helpful to us in this moment.” I believe a volunteer came into shelter during that time and offered her experience as a writer to those in shelter if they wanted to use writing to express themselves. Basically, she saw a need in our community that she could fill. I enjoy writing children’s stories. Just about every story I have written has been inspired by my kids so I decided to do it.

Why did you think a book would be the best way to help people experiencing this challenge? Why a book as opposed to hosting presentations or a series of talks?

Because I wanted it to be accessible to everybody. In terms of attending a presentation people don’t have time or they might be embarrassed to attend, but something that is right there, that you can pick up in your hand and bring wherever you go — when you are in such an overwhelming situation like shelter, that’s important.

You mentioned that while you were in shelter you had an opportunity to observe the other children and families staying there and noticed that they were having difficulties in some of the same areas as your daughter. Are all of the topics in the book ones that your daughter personally experienced or struggled with?

It’s definitely a combination of her experiences and things I saw other children struggling with. I wanted to keep it very organic and keep it to our experiences and what we saw directly. I wanted it to be relatable to as many people as possible.

With how overwhelming an experience staying in shelter can be, how were you able to add another thing to an already overflowing plate? Was it cathartic for you?

I mean it was definitely helpful for me. Within one to two months of entering shelter, I started the rough draft of the book. I also designed the cover during that time. It gave me a chance to focus and quiet my mind at the same time. It helped me figure out what I wanted to say to my own child. It also helped me focus on what was most important during the whole experience.

Do you have a background in writing and illustrating? Were you the type of child who would create “books” on a variety of subjects, like creating a storybook after a memorable vacation?

This has really been a hobby for me forever. In school, I really enjoyed writing, and my whole family is very artistic. It’s a skill I’ve been working on little by little. I was the type of kid who didn’t sleep well, and I woke up often during the night. I kept a notebook by my bed so when I couldn’t sleep I would write poems or do some sketching, anything really. I would scribble down ideas and try to interpret them in the morning. I just couldn’t sleep until I got my ideas on paper.

What was the one thing about shelter life that surprised you the most?

The diverse friends we made in shelter. Many of them were not originally from America. Getting to know them and learning about why and how they came to America – it really opened my eyes to things I was not aware of. I’ve never liked to watch the news – too depressing – so I didn’t necessarily have a well-rounded worldview. Living with people from all walks of life and a variety of backgrounds – made me more understanding and empathetic.

What would be your hope or vision for the book both short-term and long-term?

I want to get a copy into the hands of every family entering shelter for the next two years or so. I was also hoping COTS could use it as a fundraiser for family shelter. In the future, maybe bringing it into schools to build empathy among kids who have been fortunate enough not to have experienced this themselves, and give them some perspective on what some of their peers might have gone through or are going through.

What have you learned from creating this book, whether about the subject itself or about you personally?

I’ve always struggled with depression. This process helped me to see both sides of the coin, so to speak. It allowed me to focus on the positive and let go of things I couldn’t control. The theme of the book is about being accepting of new things, letting go of things you can’t control, and seeing the positive. You have control over how you react to a situation and how you decide to feel about it. It’s been a growth experience for me.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

It’s been a labor of love. I’m excited to see something tangible come from it.