The Faces of Homelessness: Children often victims of families on the move

A common homelessness stereotype includes adult males panhandling on the street. Groups like Shepherd's Shelter constantly attempt to increase awareness about many different types of victims, including families, single parents, the disabled, the elderly and veterans.

Families and single parents mean there are also homeless children in the community.

Linda Nason, social worker with Bullitt County Public Schools, acts as a liaison for Shepherd's Shelter. She said children were the most difficult homeless victims to identify.

According to Nason, children are considered homeless by educational standards if they do not have a permanent home. Some live temporarily with friends or relatives while others stay in transitional housing provided by Shepherd's Shelter.

"Often the children move repeatedly," said Nason. "Unfortunately for the child it leads to instability that effects their school life."

Nason detailed the effects, including tardiness, absence, change of schools, lack of schoolwork prioritization and lack of proper school supplies.

"With more technology it's harder for them to keep up due to lack of access," she said. "Our responsibility in the school system is to help even the playing field a little bit."

Nason said BCPS and Shepherd's Shelter provide stability for homeless families and moral support to students and parents. Before offering support, Nason said homeless students needed to be identified.

"Families are understandably leery to share their situations with schools," she said. "Part of our responsibility is to identify students with help from teachers and Family Resource Centers."

Once identified, students and families are assessed and offered proper assistance for their unique situation.

"Most families are very relieved that we want to help and support them," said Nason. "Most parents do want to keep their children in school. They're relieved to know we want the same thing. We do what we can to provide support."

Nason said school stability could enhance any student. Staying at one school allowed the student to join clubs or sports teams.

"It helps them fit in," said Nason. "Very few (in the school) know who they are, they're like any other kids. Just to be as much like any other kid as possible helps."

For parents Shepherd's Shelter worked with local agencies and churches for necessary assistance, including GED acquisition.

"I really believe in looking at the entire family situation," said Nason. "Mom getting her GED helps the kids as well. Not only can she look for employment, but it inspires the children to do better in school."

The primary goal in assisting homeless families, according to Nason, was helping parents do whatever was best for the children.

"The same thing we want for our children, these people want for their children," she said. "We try to achieve this whenever possible."

BCPS fundraisers for Shepherd's Shelter act as both donation drives and learning experiences, Nason said. When a school participates, it becomes an opportunity to discuss homeless issues with students.

In a recent district-wide canned good collection challenge, Bullitt County Day Treatment, with only 30 students, collected 1,375 canned good items over a 10-day period.

"Our students have done a phenomenal job with the food drive," said principal Doug Roberts. "The kids and the staff got into it and really made it overwhelming."

Roberts credited students for brainstorming donation ideas, including a stuffed animal Christmas drive for Shepherd's Shelter.

"This is being generated by ideas from the students and it's great," he said.

Along with the projects, Roberts said each student discussed homelessness with peers, learning about various causes and conditions.

"In today's world anybody can suddenly find themselves in dire straits," Roberts said.

Day Treatment was among the schools honored at a Shepherd's Shelter volunteer recognition dinner. Representatives from the Shepherd's Shelter Samaritan program publicly thanked students for donation efforts.

"These kids actually get it," said Samaritan member Karen Miller. "I wanted them to actually see who they were helping. The kids do get it. Why can't the parents?"

The canned good collection led to over 7,000 donated items. Winning schools were based on number of donated items and number of school students.

Bullitt County Day Treatment received the first place award. Second was Nichols Elementary with 921 items from 151 students. In third was Pleasant Grove Elementary, with the most actual donated items, 2,175.

Participating schools included Shepherdsville Elementary. Principal David Pate initiated the challenge to other schools. Also participating were Mt. Washington Elementary, Zoneton Middle and Riverview High School. Bullitt Central band and FCCLA students also donated over 1,000 items.

Shepherd's Shelter co-founder and Mr. Gatti's owner Pat Doctor donated free child's buffets to participating students.

Nason noted that schools not participating in the collection had already established food collection drives for other county agencies.

Along with financial assistance, Shepherd's Shelter needs local volunteers to help in various ways.

A list of volunteer positions includes exhibit coordinator; GED program coordinator; GED classroom instructors; GED orientation coordinator; basic needs coordinator; coupon coordinator; youth coordinator; food drive coordinator; SSI/SSDI coordinator; administrative assistant; office assistant; client transportation coordinator; moving transportation coordinator; maintenance; faith community coordinator; special events coordinator; holiday program coordinator; outreach coordinator; employment program coordinator; finance assistant.

Shepherd's Shelter seeks volunteer mentors for low-income individuals, offering advice on handling resources and offering moral support. Mentors work in teams and commit a required one year toward the service.

Local organizations may participate in fund raising efforts and sponsorships. Local churches may 'adopt' individual Samaritan Program members, helping with medical expenses and collecting transitional home supplies.

Organizations may also sponsor monthly donation drives. Groups adopt a calendar month to supply the Shepherd's Shelter pantry with non-perishable foods, household supplies, hygiene items and baby items, along with snacks and activity bags for children.

Another way for organizations to help is donating items for New Family Welcome Kits. Shepherd's Shelter provides the kits to families entering emergency shelter hotel rooms or transitional housing.

Welcome Kits, kept in storage containers, include bath towels; bottled water; broom and dust pan; cups; deodorant; dish soap; disinfectant wipes; disposable plastic containers; foam cooler; household cleaning items; kitchen towels; laundry detergent; mop; paper plates and bowls; personal hygiene items; razors and shaving cream; shampoo and conditioner; soap; toothbrush and toothpaste; utensils; Ziploc bags.

Shepherd's Shelter accepts general donations such as school supplies, paper products, household supplies, hygiene items, baby care products and non-perishable food and beverages.

Specific clothing items may include new child and adult size socks, t-shirts, underwear, gloves, hats and scarves, along with new or gently-used baby items.