With homeless, child development second to survival

With homeless, child development second to survival

Cassie Shaum


Increasing numbers of Wooster and Wayne County families are living on the edge of homelessness. One of the ways we know this is by the rocketing levels of hungry residents.

The national nonprofit, Feeding America, which supplies the Akron-Canton Regional Food Bank, estimated in 2020 the food-insecurity rate in Wayne County was “14.9% of the total population — a 27% increase caused by COVID-19.” The child food-insecurity rate was “23.3%, a 35% increase caused by the pandemic.” This translates to 6,620 hungry children right in Wayne County.

To date, the pandemic’s eviction moratorium has surely helped some children and families avoid homelessness. However, the moratorium only postpones the day of reckoning as rents are not expunged. Payments are only delayed in hopes of herd immunity and future economic recovery. Yet, according to the annual Point-in-Time count completed by local agencies and the Wooster City Schools liaison, as of Sept. 29, 2020, 78 enrolled students were considered homeless. A total of 144 children were considered homeless throughout the county.

Social service manager Cassie Shaum of Community Action of Wayne/Medina reported that during the previous program year, Community Action served an additional 52 homeless preschool Wooster children between the age of 0 and 5 in its Head Start and Early Head Start programs.

So where are all these children, you might ask? Why don’t we see them? The fact is the homeless individuals we see loitering or sleeping in alcoves or on benches are generally the more or less chronic homeless. Many of these community members suffer from mental illnesses or have been homeless for so long they have given up on change. But the vast majority of homeless individuals — especially those with children — are struggling to provide food, shelter and protection to the extent they are able.

For instance, Shaum said of the 52 young homeless children served by Community Action in Wooster last year, 41 were doubling up and sharing housing due to economic hardship, four children lived in a motel or campground, six lived in a shelter and one lived in a vehicle. Other social services agencies have reported that in the past families also have been found living in barns or tents.

The McKinney-Vento Act (part of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001) defines “homeless children and youth” as individuals who lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence. The term includes the following:

—Children and youth who are sharing the housing of other persons due to loss of housing, economic hardship or a similar reason (sometimes referred to as doubled-up); living in motels, hotels, trailer parks or camping grounds due to lack of alternative adequate accommodations; living in emergency or transitional shelters; abandoned in hospitals; or awaiting foster care placement.

—Children and youth who have a primary nighttime residence that is a public or private place not designed for, or ordinarily used as, a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings.

—Children and youth who are living in cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, substandard housing, bus or train stations, or similar settings.

“Doubling up” is common and is often called “couch surfing” or involves living in someone else’s basement. Often families have to split up with adults living in cars and children being shuttled around to different friends or relatives. Even such seeming comfort is devastating for children.

Shaum said, “Kids crave routine. Inadequate sleep and a disrupted nighttime routine interrupts the child’s ability to learn and damages their sense of self-worth.”

Shaum overheard one young Head Start participant ask her mother, “Where are we going tonight?”

In terms of the family dynamic, Shaum said, “Child development will come second to survival. Behavior issues result as the children try to exert control in other ways.”

These disruptive behavioral issues are then played out at school and elsewhere. She said she often sees a “lack of sympathy and empathy” toward these children on the part of others in the community and asks all to have more understanding.

Whatever we may believe about the choices or general competency of the parents, we can all certainly agree homeless and hungry children are not responsible for their plight and deserve our help and support.

What can you do? Give a kind word and volunteer time and monetary contributions to Boys and Girls Club, Community Action of Wayne/Medina, OneEighty, OHuddle, Salvation Army, United Way and local faith-based initiatives.

If you have children or grandchildren in school where they may meet a homeless peer, pick up one of these books, which help address the problem in terms a young person can understand:

Early reading stories: “On Our Street: Our First Talk About Poverty” by Dr. Jillian Roberts and Jaime Casap, “A Place to Stay” by Erin Gunti, “Fly Away” by Eve Bunting, “The Lady in the Box” by Ann McGovern, “Last Stop on Market Street” by Matt De La Pena, “The Shoes” by Maribeth Boelts, and “Still a Family” by Brenda Reeves Sturgis.

Chapter books: “Crenshaw” by Katherine Applegate, main character fifth-grader; “Rich/Dyaonde Daniel” series by Nikki Grimes, main character third-grader; and “No Fixed Address” by Susin Nielsen, main character 12 years old.

Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of articles from the Wooster Homelessness Task Force on aspects of homelessness in Wooster. The Wooster Homelessness Task Force is a group of local community volunteers seeking to understand the nature and effects of homelessness in Wooster, support current efforts to alleviate the conditions of unsheltered fellow community members, develop new shelter resources, and increase the availability of affordable housing.

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