One week back in February, I noticed something amiss at the Miller ranch when I came home from work. Our kid’s friend, Travis* was sitting on our couch enjoying Comedy Central. That wasn’t unusual, but after two weeks I came to the sneaking suspicion that Travis was actually living with us.
After some investigation, we found he was spending his nights on a futon in our son’s room. When asked, our son said he felt sorry for him because he’d been kicked out of the Army, and then lost his job, which caused him to lose his car, which made him homeless because it was where he’d been living.
Like many young people, Travis skated on the edge of homelessness because of a toxic cocktail of life circumstances and the poor economy. How many young people are couch surfing, spending an unfriendly night under a bridge somewhere or attempting to find an empty bed in an overflowing shelter? A report by the National Center on Family Homelessness says that as many as 1.5 million children per year in the United States are homeless.
I was surprised Travis’s parents didn’t provide a soft spot for him to land, until I discovered he lacked a stable family. Divorce, step-families or parents with substance-abuse issues have decimated the stable family units, the ones that used to dominate the 1960’s television screens.
More than 50,000 children under the age of 12, live in precarious situations in Georgia alone. According to the National Center on Family Homelessness, the state ranks 49th in providing services to homeless children. (Texas is at the bottom, while Connecticut has the fewest number of homeless children.) The Children’s Restoration Network (CRN) in Roswell, Ga., in suburban Atlanta, works to solve some of the long-term impact from childhood homelessness. According to CRN’s Project One on One Director Ben Minor, “Children's Restoration Network is a nonprofit organization that provides direct and supportive services to homeless children and homeless mothers to help meet their physical, emotional, and academic needs. We work with 134 group homes (basically, modern-day orphanages that generally house 6-10 kids at a time) and emergency shelters throughout 20 metro Atlanta counties. These group homes and shelters house 2,300 - 2,500 homeless children each day and work with over 3,900 homeless children each year.”
CRN’s work touches just the tip of the iceberg. “There is a much greater demand for services for mothers than there is a supply of those services,” said Minor. “The fastest growing segment of the homeless population is children under the age of nine and their mothers.”
The Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless estimates there are up to 8,000 homeless children sleeping on couches, staying in extended-stay hotels, living on the street or attempting to find an empty bed at a shelter or group home. Even IF a child lands in a shelter or a group home, it’s unlikely that more than their basic needs such as food, clothing and a place to sleep will be provide.
“Homeless children are in some of the most desperate need of services,” said Minor. “They’re more likely to experience malnutrition and also come from abusive, neglected, or tragic backgrounds so they're twice as likely to have psychological issues (such as anxiety and depression) at a young age and to have behavioral disorders. Academically speaking, they're really behind the eight-ball.”
When a child doesn’t know where he’s going to be the next day and is worried about the basics of clothing and what he’s going to eat, they struggle in school. “Almost 30 percent of homeless children attend three or more schools during an academic year,” said Minor. “As a result of all of these factors, less than 25 percent of homeless children in Georgia graduate from high school.”
So, what’s a Georgian to do to help homeless kids? According to Minor, “The first thing I would say to legislators is that not all homeless people are drug addicts, criminals or layabouts. Most homeless people are diligent members of society who are poor and who hit some bad luck, like a single mother with kids who had an emergency room bill or a person who got laid off from work and had three months expenses saved but has been out of a job for six months. Sixty percent of homeless people have jobs. I've met homeless people with PhD's. We need to recognize that most homeless people need a helping hand and some support to get back up on their feet.”
To tackle the thorny problem of homelessness, Minor had a couple of suggestions to apply prevention to Georgia’s strategy to address homelessness: provide more subsidies for food and housing, assist nonprofits that work in this area with more grant opportunities and expand educational and job-training opportunities for at-risk youth. But, most importantly, provide resources for kids who turn 18 while living in a foster care- or group- home situation.
“Some kids will be "aged out" of the group home when they turn 18,” said Minor. “I don't know many 18-year-olds who are ready to live on their own. So giving these kids at least a couple of years to save money and transition into living independently can also make the transition smoother, so we don't have a homeless child living in the group home when he's 17 and the same young man being a homeless "adult" on the streets on his "18th" birthday.”
So what happened to our futon sleeping Travis? After a couple of weeks and discussions with him about his options, we agreed that his best option was to plug into a local homelessness program. So one Monday night we dropped him by MUST Ministries, a local nonprofit that serves the homeless in our county. MUST Ministries has job training, job placement services and transitional housing that could help him climb back out of his homelessness.