Homeless Children in the Valley Rising

By: Karen Campbell Email
By: Karen Campbell Email

The number of homeless children in parts of the Valley is rising.

Right now there are more than 100 children who don't have a home.

"Homelessness is really horrible for children, it really is," said Twila Lee, executive director at Mercy House in Harrisonburg.

Thirty-four children call Mercy House their home.

It's a place where they can get a warm bed, hot food, and it gets them and their families off the streets.

"Just think of children sleeping in a car, or sleeping on a floor somewhere, or being cold. I mean to me it's just a horrible thought," said Lee.

A horrible thought Lee says, only seems to be getting worse.

"We have people staying here for 10 or 11 months, when the average used to be 4 months," said Lee.

The youngest child staying there is just two months old. The oldest is age 17. Lee says the younger children don't seem to understand.

"Sometimes I don't think they realize they're homeless. You'll hear them say, 'Do you want to come to my house and play?' They're thinking of this as an apartment or their home," said Lee.

Mercy House isn't the only shelter in Harrisonburg seeing an increase. First Step, a shelter that takes in women and children who want to get away from domestic violence, is housing 7 children under the age of 10.

Candy Phillips, director of First Step, says she thought things were turning around for the better, until November. More families with kids have been in need of shelter, something she calls disheartening.

According to the National Center on Family Homelessness, one in 45 children in the U.S. were considered homeless in 2010.

That means more than 1.6 million kids were living on the street, in homeless shelters, motels, or doubled up with other families.

This was a 33 percent increase since 2007.

The center released a report in December on a state-by-state basis for child homelessness.

Virginia was ranked 21st in handling the problem.

Vermont was number one, and Alabama was the worst.

Michael Wong, executive director of the Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority says there are more homeless kids in Harrisonburg City Schools and Rockingham County Public Schools this year than last year.

Several organizations are working on a 10-year plan to end homelessness in the area.

"As part of that initiative, we have applied for $96,000 to be able to rapidly re-house youth and families that are identified as homeless," said Wong.

That $96,000 is a federal grant through Housing and Urban Development. If approved, families would be offered help with a down payment on an apartment or help with utility bills.

For now, homeless children and their families are making the best of what they've been given.

"Sometimes I think 5 to 10 years from now, we'll look back on this and say, 'What was that?' I certainly hope we're able to do that and that (homelessness) doesn't continue," said Lee.

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