Our people must learn to do good by meeting the urgent needs of others; then they will not be unproductive.~ Titus 3:14, NLT

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Monday, January 30, 2012

The Homeless Challenge

Below is an article that a friend of a friend wrote. In it she describes some of the problems with the system designed to help the people that need it most. I encourage all of you to read it. Sadly, homelessness amongst children is on a rapid rise. Often we might see someone on the side of the road and we automatically jump to the conclusion that they are lazy or have a drinking or drug problem. Yes, that may be the case at times, however, there are a lot of good honest people that really could use all the help they can find. Often the ones that need it the most are the ones that don't ask for it. Life took an unexpected turn, and they find themselves on the streets. Their poor children have lost their hope, and don't even expect better things to come their way. I ask you all to seek them out and help them in anyway. It could be a hot meal, clean clothes, a warm blanket, but most importantly give them hope. http://hamptonroads.com/2012/01/invisibility-cloak-homelessness

Imagine how hard it would be to live in a minivan for eight months, through heat and bitter cold, covered in hives, hygienically challenged, recoiling from reality so deeply that you rarely speak or eat. You slowly accept wearing the invisibility cloak of the chronically homeless.
That's not imaginary; that's Chelsea, 16, of Norfolk, and she's not the only one.
This past Christmas my family and friends embarked on a do-gooder mission to bring toys and food to a family in need. It wasn't Chelsea's family. She popped up on my radar at the last minute, via a website called Freecycle, where people normally trade objects and sometimes favors. Her mom's request: "A good meal for my daughter for Christmas Eve." We met in the parking lot of The Virginian-Pilot.
The mom thanked me as she swiftly packed bags into the van, which contained their worldly goods, plus blankets and pillows. She admitted the van had been home since June. Then they were gone. Something felt hinky.
This is not a heartwarming story about a mom in distress, but a child being raised as a homeless person. It's not Chelsea's fault that the adults in her life, for whatever reason, are unable to work within the system and make choices to provide for Chelsea. She is deserving but hard to help.
Homeless kids like Chelsea are ghosts in the scholastic machine, wandering in a post-traumatic stress-disorderly fog. They change, deteriorate, and nobody sees or recognizes it.
I didn't hear another word from the mom until just recently, when she emailed a thank-you note. I had to ask if they were living in the van and whether her daughter was in school.
Chelsea, she replied, attends a local high school but is barely eating, not speaking much and failing two classes. The mom said she'd heard Chelsea say to a friend that she wished she could see Hunter Hayes, a 20-year-old singer, at the NorVa next month. Just a wistful wish. Not a request. I filed it away as far easier than getting them a place to stay. Which would turn out to be accurate.
Two friends and I made a four-part plan for one Saturday: 1. Get mom and Chelsea to Norfolk Karate Academy to teach Chelsea self-defense/street safety. 2. Gather intel from mom. 3. Work phones to arrange services and shelter. 3. Feed them both. 4. Work a Nashville miracle with Hunter Hayes.
Our initial YWCA shelter plan fell apart rapidly. Mom has no money for gas, food, phone and limited access to a computer, but to get help she must deliver signed letters, drive to appointments and obtain documentation of her situation. That fairytale farm girl had a better chance of spinning straw into gold.
And despite my own tenacity, and with two of Norfolk's most formidable activist-moms at my side, within 48 hours we were all ready to cry with frustration over fatal glitches built into the systems charged with helping homeless kids.
You need a permanent address to send out a Child Protective Services team. You need to get a straight story out of mom or child. It takes more than establishing that a child has been living in a motor vehicle for months, has wasted away and is covered in sores.
When the shelter plan disintegrated, a For Kids benefactor paid for a hotel until Monday.
I called the management team of Hunter Hayes. Three hots and a cot are for prisoners. Homeless children deserve more.
The team instantly responded, on a Saturday, with two tickets and backstage passes for Chelsea. That made her almost smile, and it gave her something to focus on in the smothering fog of homelessness and cold.
That Monday, after a basic intake process that allowed them into emergency overnight care, Chelsea was back in the van. Her mom said she had freaked out at the prospect of being in a group shelter and chose a friend's home and the van in 34 degrees over a place full of strangers.
I wrote this story because kids like this aren't just falling through the cracks, they're crawling into them and getting comfortable, retreating from resources, like fugitives. Chelsea told us she could not understand why we were paying attention to her. "I'm not the only homeless kid at (my high school). Other kids need help more than I do."
I was moved by my friend Amy's reply: "You're the one I'm looking at right now."
Guest columnist Lisa Suhay is director of Norfolk Initiative for Chess Excellence and volunteers with The LiveSafe Foundation of Norfolk. Email: Lsuhays2@cox.net.

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