Homelessness by the numbers
Homeless students in local schools (2009-10, 2010-11):
- Lawrence: 164, 178
- Eudora: 13, 18
- Baldwin City: 11, 23
- Perry-Lecompton: Under 10, 0
Kansas overall: 9,010 in 2010-11, up from 3,064 in 2005-06
— As reported by each school district. Numbers include families “doubled up,” or living with relatives.
What the Lawrence Community Shelter needs:
- Storage bins, large and small
- Cleaning supplies
- Gift cards to Target or Walmart that staff can use to purchase supplies
- Groups to make dinner for residents
- A barber to give residents haircuts
— Donations can also be made online at lawrenceshelter.org. For more information, call 832-8864.
A $13 plastic storage bin is a hot commodity at the Lawrence Community Shelter, 214 W. 10th St.
The 12 families currently housed at the shelter are guaranteed one bin to house all their possessions. What they can’t fit in the bins gets scrunched up in bundles on a makeshift shelf that runs throughout the basement where most of the families stay.
On a recent weekday, Kate Nichols, 33, is emptying out the extra bin she had for her husband, Joe Moon, and their 6-year-old daughter, Johanna. Jennifer Davis, family case manager, tells Nichols they’re low on bins, and another family needs one. The shortage of storage bins is one of many examples of how stressed the shelter has become with a recent influx of homeless families.
Ask Nichols what else the shelter could use, and other families start chiming in: formula, cleaning supplies, sheets, pillows, kids shoes ...
But many of the families here are lucky to have a place to stay.
Davis said she gets about three calls a day from families in Topeka or Kansas City looking for shelter because their local shelters are all full. Most of the time, Davis has no choice but to tell the families there’s no room. Sometimes they show up anyway.
“It’s heartbreaking,” she said.
Getting ready for school
Shelter staff from across the state say the same thing: They’re seeing many more families than they did last year. At the Lawrence shelter, more than half — 42 of 75 shelter residents — are members of families. Last year, the shelter was able to allocate the basement, a space about 40 feet long and 15 feet wide, for the two families housed there. Now, 25 people are cramped in the same space, and the other families creep into other areas of the shelter, separated from the single adults.
It all makes for an interesting and hectic beginning of the school day.
Theresa Reeder, mother of six, says she’s become an expert in ushering her kids in and out of the three showers and two bathrooms they share with the other families. She and her family, including her husband, Kerry, have been at the shelter for about a month. Their home in Lenexa was foreclosed on about the same time their youngest child, now 6 months old, contracted meningitis.
The Reeder family’s story of how they became homeless echoes what the other families say: a job loss or an illness, or both, sent them into a downward spiral. Once they’d exhausted family resources and drained bank accounts, they sought refuge here at the shelter.
Reeder explains the process while she serves as coordinator of the morning rush. Five of the Reeder children, ages 9 to 12, are in school-preparation mode. It’s noisy, but the kids joke and play while grumpy parents try and get them dressed and ready to go. Reeder will shuttle the family to school in two shifts in her two-door car, while many of the families walk their kids to Cordley School, 19th and Vermont streets.
Meanwhile, the parents prepare for the second part of the morning: cleaning up their limited space at the shelter. Thin blue mats serve as beds, and when all spread out in the basement, there is only a narrow walkway — maybe 2 feet wide. Come daytime, the families pile the mats up against the wall to serve as makeshift seating areas.
Homeless student increase
Most area public schools reported at least some increase in homeless students during the 2010-2011 school year. Under federal education law, schools are required to ask students about their housing situation, and if a student identifies as homeless, the school can offer extra services.
What’s considered homeless is less strict than other homeless counting methods, said Baldwin City Schools nurse Carrie Enick, who acts as the school district’s appointed homeless liaison.
In Baldwin City, which doesn’t have a homeless shelter, their 23 homeless students in 2010-2011 were made up mostly of families “doubled up” and living with relatives, which counts as homeless under federal guidelines.
Enick said the increase in homeless students from the 2009-10 year, when Baldwin City had 11 homeless students, is probably due to an improvement in how the district identifies them.
On the state level, it’s also equally complicated, said Tate Toedman, state coordinator for the education of children and youth with the Kansas Department of Education. Since the 2005-06 school year, Kansas has seen the number of homeless students triple, from 3,000 to 9,000.
But is there actual increase in homeless students, or is there better work being done by schools to identify them?
“It’s probably a little of both,” he said.
In Lawrence, which saw its number of homeless students increase from 164 in 2009-10 to 178 in 2010-11, the anecdotal evidence at the shelter shows a spike this summer. Davis, the case worker, said the increase at the shelter resulted from job losses in December, which eventually caught up with families who expended all their resources before ending up at the shelter’s front door this summer.
And there’s one other big difference this summer, she said: It’s becoming much more difficult to push homeless families through the system and into permanent housing than in the past. Basically, the whole system is overloaded and clogged.
“There is no shortage of demand,” said Shannon Oury, executive director of the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority. Oury’s agency receives federal stimulus funding from the Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program. In July and August, 44 people — including 35 in families — inquired about the program, which seeks to quickly re-house the homeless. The program isn’t able to help everyone, but Oury said the good news is the agency expects to receive additional funding through the program.
Seeing how slowly federal and state housing assistance works, many at the shelter talk about securing jobs, saving up money and finding a landlord willing to rent to families with black marks — and sometimes evictions — in their credit history.
Nichols, for instance, wants to find a full-time waitressing job. She estimates that if she can work 40 hours a week at about $8 per hour for a month or so, they’d have enough saved for a small apartment. Her husband, Moon, has been dealing with a serious blood clot in his left leg that makes one calf look like that of a bulked-up weight lifter.
An Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran, Moon is not eligible for veterans benefits because he was dishonorably discharged in 2004. With the health issue, full-time work now would be risky.
Moon spends his days selling the shelter publication “Change of Heart” downtown for $1 a copy, and he uses the money to fill in some of the gaps in what the family needs and what the shelter is able to provide.
The family became homeless earlier this year when Moon lost his job as a roofer in Blue Springs, Mo. A lack of help elsewhere led them to Lawrence.
The family has been at the shelter for about two months, and they say the cramped living conditions are difficult, but also breed a tight-knit camaraderie.
“I consider them friends,” said Moon, talking about how the families help each other watch the gaggle of kids that call the shelter home. “It’s like one big family.”
Nichols puts on a cheery face and says they hope to be out of the shelter by September. Despite her optimistic comments, her last request when asked what donations the shelter needs hints at the reality that the family will probably be at the shelter a while longer.
“Halloween costumes for the kids,” she said.