Has your child ever complained about a school mate for being smelly or wearing dirty clothes? “Out of the mouths of babes” is one of those old phrases that remains in our vocabulary as a simple truth. Children can be brutally honest, with no intention of being hurtful since it takes time for them to learn the limitations of polite society in the U.S. This honesty can be ugly when children tell their families and friends about others in school they try to avoid. Homelessness as the reason won’t usually leap to mind for parents or caregivers who live in a home where they feel secure. It’s easy to assume the parent is neglectful of their child’s cleanliness.
Perhaps the story is far more grim.
Behind the scenes
What do you say to children who lack a place to bathe or brush their teeth? Sure, parents could use public laundromats. All they have to do is carry their laundry and detergent the distance to the laundromat, wherever it is. However far that is they have to keep a close eye on their children in areas that could be…ahem…a little rough. Possibly they can’t carry just their laundry. Street homeless people carry everything they own everywhere they go so it won’t get stolen. And have you seen the cost of using a washer and dryer in a commercial laundromat? On average it costs $4.00 to do one load in the washer and dryer. That is a lot of money to the average homeless person. Then they have to drag their children, belongings and clean clothes back to the spot where they hide their homelessness.
On January 28, 2019 volunteers spread out across Stark County and found 91 children living in emergency shelters. Families entering shelters are often street homeless and the shelter gives them a respite from all of the physical pains of homelessness. They have access to bathtubs and laundry facilities.
The maximum stay at most shelters is 90 days. That is how much time a parent has to solve the problem that led to homelessness. Common causes include low wage jobs, medical debt, disability, a severe illness, safety from an abuser, alcohol or drug addiction. If these problems could be resolved in a few weeks Stark County would not have much of a homeless problem in the first place.
Short term fixes don’t work when it comes to housing.
There are some band-aids. People can stay with friends and family sometimes. This has its own set of barriers. Sleeping on the sofa is fine as long as the host is willing to make their sofa available. Crowding, fractious relationships or unacceptable behaviors will strain even the most generous hosts.
The host is risking more than a line for the bathroom. When they allow others to stay beyond a few nights hosts who rent their homes may jeopardize their own housing. Landlords generally restrict tenants from letting people move in unless they go on the lease, That may be a no go from the start if the guests don’t meet the property owners requirements. Moreover, adding the guest on the lease conveys rights that the host may not want to convey.
Finally, staying with a host family will get the guest off of the streets for a limited amount of time. Everyone involved knows it’s a temporary situation, adding little stability to the homeless person’s situation. Children will pick up on the uncertainty as well, undermining any chance they have at feeling safe and settled.
Emergency shelters in Stark County fill up about as quickly as affordable housing. There are times when homeless people must go on a waiting list for a bed in the emergency shelter. People with children get priority, so they are more likely to get into one that same day. If not, some agencies have vouchers to pay for a night or two in a motel, which will tide them over for a bed in the shelter. None of these solve the underlying problems.
Tents lack showers
Then there are the children who show up at school unbathed or in dirty clothes. There’s a good chance their family is sleeping in a car, tent, vacant building or some other place not meant to be a home. They sure won’t have showers to bathe or sinks to use to brush their teeth. Many generous people donate hygiene items to agencies that serve very low-income or homeless people. Alliance for Children and Families receives boxfuls of shampoo, soap, toothbrushes and toothpaste. But they don’t do much good to a child without access to clean water.
If your child comes home from school complaining of such a school mate it could mean their family needs a safe, decent place to live. It’s an opportunity to be a role model for compassion and empathy. Send a note to the teacher with your concern, and the phone number for Stark County’s homeless navigation system at 330-452-4363.
If the school mate’s family does need shelter, they may be referred to the Alliance for Children and Family. They will get more than a bed; ACF works with their shelter residents to make a plan to get back on their feet. The agency also operates affordable housing and rent subsidies clients can use in privately owned rental properties.
The long term solution to homelessness is – no surprise – a decent home at an affordable price for everyone who needs it . With enough local support Stark County could eradicate child homelessness so every child has more than a place to bathe every night; they will have a home where they can thrive.
To help end child homelessness in Stark County, call ACF at 330-821-6332 or email them at Shirene@allianceforchildrenandfamilies.org and ask what you can do to help.