Gordon and Hinko Tell NCJW about Homeless Children Enrolled in JCPS

[by Phyllis Shaikun]

While many of us feel the pinch in the economy and have chosen to handle our finances so as to minimize its effects, there are others in our community with little income at all and too many are homeless. Everyone suffers in a situation like that, but especially the children. Figures put the rate of homeless students in the public school at a sobering 9,000 (up from 7,600 in 2008).

Marlene Gordon, former head of the local Coalition for the Homeless, and Cathy Hinko, executive director of the Metropolitan Housing Coalition, explored the issue of homelessness in the schools at a National Council of Jewish Women program, chaired by Linda Engel, on Wednesday, April 21, at Congregation Adath Jeshurun.

“The largest problem we are dealing with today is single women heads of households with no money,” said Gordon. “It doesn’t take you out of poverty when you only make $7.25 an hour and do not have medical care.” In households like that, the children carry the load of their family problems, bringing chronic emotional and social stress to the classroom with them. Their basic needs are not being met, yet expectations remain high for them to learn.

Doctors believe that these children need stability and kindness to overcome the challenges presented by their circumstances. However, because of their poverty, they live in overcrowded conditions in settings where there are no utilities, no books and no solitude, and they are surrounded by violence, which they sometimes recreate. Stability and kindness can only go so far. These children are twice as likely to develop asthma and twice as likely to need professional help by the age of five. Who could even think about a career path for them?

Hinko says that for every four families that come to shelters, three end up back on the streets. Both she and Gordon agree the cost of homelessness could be reduced by employing preventive services rather than management services after the fact. It is particularly frustrating that HUD keeps narrowing the criteria for homelessness and “defines out” many people for services.

More than nine percent of all JCPS students were homeless at some point during the past year, they reported, and this year’s figure is already well over 10,000 children. Every Metro Council district has scores of homeless children, but through zoning, most low-income households are located in the same place – the city’s West End.

The impact on society is huge. Hinko and Gordon said, we are a “skyscraper society.” The future of our society depends on each successive generation being able to support the generations that came before. They must be educated and prepared to enter the job market to support and grow the economy so that the older members can retire. As more people leave the middle class due to lack of income, more children are put at risk of being unprepared to become productive members of society. And the more at-risk children there are, the shakier the society as a whole becomes.

So what to do? If you like children, help start the YMBY program (Yes in My Back Yard) and allow shelters to come into all neighborhoods, especially those with large immigrants populations. Those living in shelters make great neighbors who try really hard to be helpful to others living in the area because they know they were not particularly wanted at the outset. A shelter was planned in the Bowman Field area, said Gordon, but they were not even considered for permission to build there.

The Coalition and the MHC are trying to establish a local housing trust fund with dedicated money with which to begin building much needed shelters. They are seeking funding from multiple sources. Gordon says, “We know we can change policy and make our society better and more responsive than it is now. We didn’t have a homeless ‘situation’ years ago; we took care of our own. We must do that again so homelessness becomes a boutique problem rather than a main issue.”

The most important to do is to establish mentoring, mentoring and more mentoring programs. Reading programs and the Middle School Connection are just two projects that come to mind, Hinko and Gordon noted.

Their parting thought: When you are homeless, you lose most of the things dear to you, including your pets, and your net worth is packed in the two garbage bags you are allowed to bring with you to the shelter. The rest is gone. How would you feel?

To become involved contact the Metropolitan Housing Coalition, P.O. Box 4533, Louisville, KY 40202; call 502-584-6858 or online at www.metropolitanhousing.org.

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