A 2-year old boy, found wandering a Philadelphia park on Friday night, serves as a reminder of the plight of homeless families – as well as the spirit of community support that often emerges when a specific need is known.
According to Brian Jenkins, executive director of Chosen 300, an interdenominational Christian ministry, the little boy, Jeremiah, was found barefoot at Love Park after he wandered from a cardboard box shelter while his father, pregnant mother, and younger sibling slept.
Transit officers found the child and took him to the hospital for treatment. Both children were later taken into protective custody by social services, Mr. Jenkins says in an interview.
“I have known this couple for a while and I’ve known their children when they have come to our location to have a meal,” Jenkins says. “My understanding is that they have been in and out of shelter, but on this particular night they did not have any shelter to go to. They had attempted to go to the Office of Housing for shelter, but there was nothing available.”
In many cases across the nation, homeless families fail to report their lack of housing for fear of having their children taken away by social services. The result can be thousands of children sleeping on cardboard boxes in the nooks and crannies of major cities as temperatures plunge.
Jenkins adds that many parents do not ask for help, because “they desperately want to keep their families together. There is always that fear.”
“That’s a very real issue, parents being afraid to come forward to ask for help,” agrees Megan Hustings, interim director for the National Coalition for the Homeless. “We have, unfortunately, seen cases of children being taken away from parents because they are homeless and that’s not the solution. We need to help families, not split them up.”
Also, when a family says there's “nothing available” at a shelter, that could mean that either no shelter was available, or that the family was trying not to be split up. Men are not allowed into shelters designated for woman and children only, Jenkins explains.
“Whatever happened, they were left out in the cold,” Jenkins says. “They used some cardboard boxes to kind of create some barriers and walls and flooring to make things as comfortable as they could for themselves and their children.”
According to Jenkins the couple have, a two-year-old, a four-year-old and the mother is seven months pregnant.
But, for this particular homeless family, that cold night in Love Park appears to be a turning point.
The father, Michael Jones, says the publicity around their situation has prompted 55 job offers from around Philadelphia, NBC news reports. He says he's been looking for work for two years. "It's like freaking me out that all the love is being pushed out there," he said.
Chosen 300 launched a campaign which has raised $12,000 for the family. “A lot of times, you look at these situations and think ‘Well that’s a shame, but I can’t do anything about that,” Jenkins says. “But the truth is, yes we can. And after this family is helped we need to not stop there, but keep helping the others we are not seeing on the news.”
That $12,000 will pay for the family's rent from the Chosen 300 fund for the next year.
Jenkins adds that there is a hearing scheduled with the Department of Family Services (DFS) to determine if the children will be returned to their parents in light of the assistance being rendered by Chosen 300 and others in the community. Also, the Marriott Hotel has donated a room for their use for a week while more permanent housing is being secured and furnished.
“We will also be working with this family to insure that they keep moving forward,” Jenkins says. “We will provide case management. We need to address the issues that brought them to this situation sop they do not recur.”
“It’s not just homelessness that is the issue. In Philadelphia there is literally a poverty epidemic,” Jenkins says. “In Philadelphia, poverty is at double the national average. It’s at 12 or so percent. That encompasses 185,000 people and of those, 60,000 are children.”
While an April report on The State of Homelessness in America 2015 by the National Alliance to End Homelessness stated that from 2013 to 2014 overall homelessness decreased by 2.3 percent, Ms. Hustings says that there are “issues with those numbers.”
The report states that “On a single night in January 2014, 578,424 people were experiencing homelessness — meaning they were sleeping outside or in an emergency shelter or transitional housing program.” Of that total, 37 percent were families, the report says.
But Hustings suspects that the numbers are higher. “That kind of data comes from a Point in Time count taken largely at shelters funded by HUD [US Department of Housing and Urban Development] and a very large number of shelters and service organizations that do not receive funds from HUD and so they are not involved in the count,” she says.
Jenkins adds that in Philadelphia alone, “almost a half a million people in Philadelphia are struggling with food insufficiency, poverty and or homelessness.”
“There’s got to be some improvement in the system in education, reentry from incarceration, return home from war, aged-out foster care, and the list goes on,” Jenkins says. “Once they’re here, how do we provide excellent avenues for them to get out without crippling them by yanking their benefits away as soon as they make progress? That’s what we deal with on a daily basis.”