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The snow swirling outside reminds Louis and Ruth Conway of the snowsuits they put on Christmas layaway for Louis III, 10; Melissa, 5; Heather, 4, and Shaun, 3.

Boots, gloves and other warm clothing for the children are waiting to be picked up at the same department store.

The bill would run to $189, "but I told my wife it's worth it. Just because we're poor doesn't mean the kids have to be cold," Louis says.

That was before the family had to change addresses after getting into a dispute with fellow tenants. The move tangled their lifeline -- the red tape of the welfare system -- and consequently their public assistance checks and food stamps have been held up.

As if this were not trouble enough, the former landlord kept their rental deposit, leaving them without money to pay the new landlord or to buy food. Most evenings they've had to bundle up the kids and walk to the Night People Drop-In Center, about a mile away, for a hot meal with Buffalo's homeless men and women.

It didn't help when Louis fell off his bicycle two weeks ago, dislocating his right shoulder. The arm is in a sling.

Given these disruptions, the prospect of a merry Christmas is bleak indeed for the Conways as they struggle to get their life back in order in a lower West Side apartment that can best be described as run-down. The kids may never get those new winter clothes or other gifts most children eagerly anticipate as the holiday approaches.

Outwardly, the youngsters don't seem upset by the harsh blows life has dealt them and their parents. Louis III, a fourth-grader at School 77, manages to complete his homework on the dilapidated living room couch, oblivious to the noise created by his rambunctious younger siblings, all of whom have speech and hearing difficulties.

Melissa is a kindergartner at School 77. Heather and Shaun are in the Head Start program at Holy Cross School.
Their laughter may be stifled unless the family's lot improves before Christmas Day. There may be no snowsuits, boots or anything else to put under the beat-up artificial tree Louis has set up in the living room.

Despite the snowballing adversity, the Conways haven't lapsed into defeatism.

Reaching into a vest pocket with his good arm, Louis pulls out a bulging envelope and finds a tattered piece of notepaper. It lists his goals, starting with owning a business.

After roaming from city to city over the past two decades, holding dozens of odd jobs along the way, he thinks he has discovered a niche -- cleaning restaurants, offices and homes.

"If I can get the business going," Louis says, "we wouldn't have to be on welfare."

It's not an easy aim for someone without a car. He sold his last jalopy for scrap in Tennessee several years ago.

"The first thing would be transportation. Maybe I could get a friend to take me around or rent a car," he says.

Louis has harbored such ambitions for years, but always ended up backsliding. So his dreams contain a dash or two of realism.

"You need to take one step at a time," he says. "People say you can get off welfare if you try, but it's not as easy as they think. It's hard to escape the system. I've made more money on public assistance than on some of the jobs I've had.

"But I think I can do it if I put my mind to it."

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