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Homelessness through the eyes of children

By Alex Cabrero | Posted - May 11, 2011 at 10:08 p.m.



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SALT LAKE CITY -- With warmer weather approaching, you can hear children playing in many neighborhoods -- there's nothing like that sound of fun and excitement.

But some children are learning some very grown-up lessons that take away part of that joy.

The Road Home shelter in Salt Lake City sees all kinds of people, including children. Lots of kids want the latest video game, toy, or even cell phone -- but children at the Road Home just want their own room.

What is The Road Home?
The Road Home addresses a spectrum of needs that people experiencing homelessness encounter as they work to restore their lives. In addition to operating the largest shelter in Utah, the Road Home has developed a comprehensive housing program that helps people move into housing as quickly as possible.

Road Home volunteers say in the past year, they've had more children stay there than ever before.

Reading to his younger siblings is something 12-year-old Nathan Martinez has always enjoyed. He just never thought he'd be doing it in a homeless shelter.

"My dad lost his job, so we couldn't pay for rent," said Nathan. "We slept out in the car for like a couple days."

Nathan and his family were in a Clearfield park, sleeping in their car, when a police officer found them and told them about The Road Home.

"Thanks to this place, we have beds for my family to sleep in, not outside in a car," Nathan said.

Travis Porter, 13, feels the same way. When his father lost his job, the family had nowhere to go.

"I didn't want to at first," Travis said, "because I thought it was going to be bad."

Even though the economy seems to be improving, The Road Home is busier than ever -- especially with children. Last year, 875 children called the shelter home at one point. That's 200 more than the year before and double the number from two years ago. The fiscal year before the economy collapsed, only 337 children stayed at The Road Home.

"We're seeing a lot of folks, particularly families, that are becoming homeless for the first time," said Celeste Eggert, who has worked at the shelter for the past 14 years.


Every child KSL spoke to at the shelter has been teased at school when other children find out they're homeless. "‘They'll be like, ‘Oh, you're poor, we don't want you to hang out with us,'" 12-year-old Nathan said.

She's familiar with homelessness, but she's not used to seeing so many children.

"I think oftentimes they feel a sense of responsibility," Eggert said. "It's not uncommon we get teens who are wanting to quit school and get a job so they can help out their families."

Nathan thought about it. He says he knows he costs his parents money and feels bad.

"Sometimes I get a little spoiled, but just like little stuff, like a new pair of shoes or some clothes," he said.

Dropping out of school, though, is something Mike Harman doesn't let happen. He's the homeless education liaison for the Salt Lake City School District. It's his job to regularly visit shelters, find new families and make sure their children go to school.

"We really emphasize how important it is for those kids to be in school, because even missing two or three days put kids at a much greater risk of not being successful," Harman said.

Related:

Harman says the districts provide bus passes or even gas vouchers so children can go to their regular school if outside Salt Lake City. They can do that for a whole year, if necessary.

Often, they'll enroll children in Salt Lake City schools right away and provide tutoring and after-school programs -- allowing their parents time to work things out.

Harman also works with the school's transportation department to make sure children at the shelter are picked up first and dropped off last.

"We don't want them to feel ashamed about where they are living, but it's certainly not something they want to brag about either," he said.

At their age, being embarrassed is a very real feeling. Every child KSL spoke to at the shelter has been teased at school when other children find out they're homeless.

"‘They'll be like, ‘Oh, you're poor, we don't want you to hang out with us,'" Nathan said.

"They say I have holes in my teeth and they say they're better than me," said 10-year-old Cole Martin. "That's why I can't wait until I get a new house."

KSL Cares:

It seems getting a house, an apartment -- anywhere to live other than the shelter -- means a better social standing at school.

"They keep teasing me that I live in a shelter," Cole said. "I'm sick of it."

For these children's parents, that's tough to hear.

"It kinds of broke my heart, kind of made me feel like I wasn't a very good provider," said Travis's father Tabor Porter. "I kind of felt like I let him down."

Cole's grandmother Sheri provides comfort and reassurances any way she can. "Give him a kiss and hug and say, ‘Just keep going baby, it's going to get better,'" she said.

It's a life lesson these children are learning early: that when times are tough there's always hope things will get better.

Just ask them.

"We should get a place any day now," Nathan said.

The Road Home receives money from government programs to keep the doors open, but 57 percent of the shelter's budget comes from private contributions.

They could always use more money, but just as important, they could use old toys, children's clothes, blankets and even volunteers who are good with kids.

Email: acabrero@ksl.com

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Alex Cabrero

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