When you hear the word “homeless,” do you think of a 4-year-old girl?
Maybe you should, since that’s the profile of the average person who in 2005 took refuge in one of Catholic Family Center’s two shelters for homeless women and children.
People are often surprised to learn that Sanctuary House and Women’s Place sheltered 1,019 children in 2005, said Lisa Lewis, director of CFC’s Homeless and Housing Services.
“The conception of homelessness has always been the older man that’s standing on the corner panhandling. That conception has to change,” said Lewis, who noted that so far this year the shelters have housed approximately 600 children.
Homelessness is not strictly limited to those living in poverty, and anyone can suddenly become homeless, added Ruth Fischer, volunteer coordinator for Homeless and Housing Services. Poverty often is just a symptom of an underlying problem, she noted.
Many women and children come to CFC’s shelters because of domestic-violence or substance-abuse issues, Lewis said. Oftentimes the shelters’ clients had jobs but still couldn’t afford to pay the bills and were evicted from their homes or couldn’t afford necessary medications on top of other expenses, she said.
Being homeless can be traumatic for adults, but it may be even more so for children, Fischer said. Moving from place to place can make children feel insecure, and being homeless — even temporarily — can put a strain on children’s relationships with their parents, she noted.
“The moms are going through trauma. The parents really love their children. It’s just that they’re so overwhelmed by everything in their lives,” Fischer said.
Through its shelters, CFC not only provides homeless women and children with a safe, warm place to stay but also provides ways for the women to strengthen their relationships with their children. The shelter provides activities for mothers and children to participate in together, such as crafts and trips to the zoo, Lewis said.
Shelter staff and volunteers help the mothers and children obtain holiday gifts for each other, Fischer said. They also help mothers learn how to better communicate and interact with their children through CFC’s new program, Parenthood: Guiding My Child’s Journey (see sidebar).
Although CFC is doing as much as it can to help the homeless, the community at large needs to be more aware of this issue and work to reduce homelessness, Lewis said.
Homelessness is not limited to urban communities such as Rochester, however. In Sodus, La Casa (see story on page B7) is a transitional housing center for migrant farm workers who find themselves temporarily homeless, often because of injury or inability to find work. An initiative of diocesan Catholic Charities, La Casa recently sheltered a woman and her three young children, said Mercy Sister Janet Korn, Catholic Charities’ social-justice awareness coordinator.
The family had been living in Penn Yan until the woman’s husband — a farm worker — was detained several months ago, Sister Korn said. The staff at La Casa welcomed the woman into the residence, helped her find an apartment and a job, and connected her children with the resources — such as schooling — that they needed.
So far, children who stay at La Casa have always been accompanied by at least one of their parents, Sister Korn said. That could potentially change, however. Officers from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement have recently been raiding areas where migrant farm workers gather, she noted, and several mothers with dependent children have been arrested and detained.
It can sometimes take days for such parents to prove they have dependent children, Sister Korn added, and once they do they still have to post bail before they can return to their children. When this happens, relatives usually look after the children, but recently a female farm-worker crew chief ended up caring for a group of children herself when no relatives could be found. Children in such circumstances would be welcome at La Casa, Sister Korn said.
Another group of young people at high risk of becoming homeless are children in the foster-care system, said Paula Howard, supervisor of Catholic Charities of Chemung County’s Supervised Independent Living Program. The foster-care system only provides for children until they turn 18, she said.
“What happened with 18-year old youth in the foster-care system was they were parked in the public-assistance system. It is common practice to take them to the homeless shelter at the age of 18,” Howard said.
Studies have shown that 80 percent of these teens became homeless, pregnant or incarcerated within the first year after leaving the foster-care system, she noted. These teens often have been bounced from foster home to foster home and don’t have high self-esteem, Howard said.
The Supervised Independent Living Program attempts to help these teens succeed and gives them the same opportunities other teens have.
Young people who choose to participate in this project live in their own apartments in supervised and staffed apartment buildings and earn a weekly stipend, which is based on their meeting specific program requirements. Program staffers help connect them with resources they need and help them develop their decision-making and problem-solving skills.
Participants also learn to care for themselves, budget, save and perform necessary tasks such as grocery shopping. They can stay in the program until they turn 21.
The program is in its fifth year in Elmira and has been highly successful so far, Howard said, noting that one recent participant has been able to open her own checking account, save enough money to buy a car and has almost finished working toward two associate’s degrees.