The dire situation of homelessness has more and more become an issue under discussion. While politicians and candidates often ignore this human tragedy and others are at a loss for solutions, cities in the U.S. have been forced to acknowledge and address this issue. In our travels to and from work, on the streets around us, and even on our door steps we’ve all met the homeless. But one group is decidedly invisible and decisively the most in need - the homeless child.
Most people think of the homeless as a panhandler along JFX highway or a drug user hustling for spare cash. These are not examples of all the homeless. Many people, through no fault of their own, find their lives in the grip of the quicksand of homelessness. Rising rents and property values, large medical bills, closing of workplaces, losing food stamps because of newly found jobs, can result in homelessness. But homeless children are invisible leading, some people to believe there are no homeless children. Homeless children may be kept off the streets by parents hiding them from Child Protective Services, or “couch surfing” in a relative’s home. But also, a great many of these children are not in the street in the daytime but in school. In fact, upwards of 2700 homeless students are registered in Baltimore City Public Schools and, according to a recent Abell Foundation Study, an additional 1400 “Unaccompanied Youth” from the ages of 12 to 24 wander the streets of our City all by themselves.
There are many studies that point to the effects of the stresses of homelessness on children.
held a discussion a few years ago on the impact of poverty on learning and attendance in school and how homelessness and extreme poverty actually affect the brains of children in cognitive, emotional and social areas. And the University has found that there “is a significant and growing body of research demonstrating that truancy is one of the strongest early predictors for teenage pregnancy, drug abuse, crime, dependency, dropout, unemployment, and more. A problem-solving approach to truancy reduces these risks and saves families and communities from serious and costly outcomes. Schools and communities need to develop effective and evidence-based solutions.”
In 2016 even the Federal Reserve did a study on poverty and its Chair at that time, Janet Yellen, said their survey showed that “Young adults who regularly or sometimes worried when they were children about care, safety or having enough to eat are less likely to be employed, less likely to have consistent income month-to-month, less likely to pay all of their current monthly bills in full, compared with those who never or rarely worried about these concerns as children”.
We can attest to the fact that we never knew ourselves about child homelessness or just never thought about it. We never thought about what a homeless child experiences. Low-income is one obstacle in life but homelessness is quite another. We first learned from a school principal about how homeless school students face each weekend without the free breakfasts and lunches they receive in school. How on those days the most desperate children bang on the school doors for the food they receive Mon. through Fri. That principal told us “I am first and foremost an Educator and I cannot educate my homeless students when they return to school on Monday mornings so hungry, tired and disagreeable because they’ve had little if any food over the weekend.
This is where we come in. Learning from that school principal we visited about her homeless students and their hunger, and reading the literature about the educational, emotional, and physical mark affects this deprivation could make on their futures, there was no way that Heart’s Place Services could walk away without doing anything to help these children. So we found something we could do to make a real impact on this problem and that is Heart’s Place Services’ Weekend Survival Kit for homeless students.
There are other backpack programs and everyone who gets food to homeless children helps take ease the sting of hunger. Ours, however, is more expensive because of the standards of Heart’s Place Service’s Weekend Survival Kit:
First, the registered homeless student doesn’t live alone. The majority have siblings as well as a parent or caregiver, such as a grandmother, who are hungry also. All family members share the stresses of a life without permanent shelter and need the unity of sharing meals together. We’ve seen these loving children who, as hungry as they are, share whatever food they have with loved ones. So rather than a backpack for one student, ours provides a weekend of 9 meals (3 per day for 3 people). We believe this is the most effective way to help these children emotionally as well as physically.
Second, the state of homelessness most often means that the family has no access to heating or electricity. A box of Mac ‘N Cheese, a can of Spaghettios either can’t be eaten without cooking or shouldn’t be eaten cold and most milk needs refrigeration. Our menu consists of all shelf-stable food, paper bowls and napkins, plastic utensils, and no requirements for can openers.
Third, the need is so great that we needed solutions to reach more of these homeless children in Baltimore City. So when the Maryland Food Bank asked to partner with us we realized that rather than purchase the food from local stores, we could stretch our donation dollars by purchasing the food from them. We could also reach as more schools through their trucking network to the school pantries. They adhere to our specialized menu and with our relationships with the City schools we serve, school pantries receive the food every 5 weeks. The backpacks are filled by school volunteers and distributed to the homeless children each Friday, increasing our capacity beyond what our all-volunteer organization could do as we had originally done when delivering directly to the schools ourselves.
When others heard about our program, churches and other organizations wanted to start their own weekend backpack programs which we assisted them in developing. More children being fed!
This year, with wonderful and generous donors and through a grant from the Baltimore City Youth Fund we have been able to double the number of families we served last year, now totaling 200 which equates to 600 people when you include the family members. Each backpack costs approximately $20 or $660 per family for the school year. That works out to $1.10 per meal to change the lives of these children and the future of our City, giving both hope for better and brighter outcomes. Measurable results are noted from the responses to our survey filled out by the principals and teachers at schools receiving our “Weekend Survival Kits”:
100% of the students improved in attendance and in fewer medical complaints or illnesses;
99% of the children had improved grades, less detention, less acting-up in class, improvement in self-esteem and greater feelings of security,improvement in trust and in better relationships with school personnel as well as other students.
These Educators also wrote that they sawan increase in joyin these children and that the program has a significant impact on parents as well as children. They called it “A Backpack of Joy”
The above is a photo of the Weekend Survival Kit backpack with a list of the food contained therein.