published Sunday, February 13th, 2011

Kids with homeless heartache

One Friday afternoon in late January, my wife and I had our regular, 5 o'clock phone chat. It's the point in the day when we touch base and rehearse our evening duties.

"Remember, tonight is the night we've got the thing at church," she said.

"What thing at church?" I said, exasperated. In my mind, I had already made a date with ESPN.

"The thing with the homeless families," she said.

"Oh yeah," I said, embarrassed by my low energy.

A few times a year, my wife and I and our two sons sign up for a night volunteering with the Interfaith Homeless Network (IHN). About 50 churches in Hamilton County, including ours, take turns hosting homeless families for a week. Church members work in shifts, making meals and socializing with the families. Our church has a house adjacent to the main church campus where the families stay.

There's usually a bit of inertia to overcome with the Kennedy crew on the way to our IHN night, but we always walk away better for the experience.

I'm struck by the different faces of homelessness in Chattanooga.

The Times Free Press building is downtown on 11th Street. It's a major pedestrian route for homeless people. All day, a stream of homeless adults passes in front of our building leading to and from the Chattanooga Community Kitchen. There are lots of beards and backpacks. Some folks wave greetings when you cross their path. Others carry on energetic conversations with themselves. All seem to be working hard at getting through the day.

The homeless families at church are different. They are generally mothers with school-age children. The kids are often dressed in nice (second-hand?) clothes and are bubbling with stories about school. The moms often seem slightly detached, adrift in uncertainty, perhaps.

It takes us a few minutes to warm up to a new group of families, but each of us Kennedys falls into a predictable pattern.

My older son, age 9, finds the most athletic boys to play with, and they plunge into a game of hoops.

My wife, a school teacher, falls easily into conversation with one of the mothers. By the end of two hours, they are on the verge of friendship.

My 4-year-old son settles in with another quiet kid, and together they work a puzzle.

Then there's me. I always end up bonding with a child who is heart-starved for adult attention. (It took my intuitive wife to point this out to me.)

Last month, I noticed a young girl, maybe 11 or 12, striking a small stuffed football with a plastic golf club.

"Here," I said forming a V with my New Balance sneakers, "putt the ball between my shoes."

She lined up the shot from about 10 feet away and rolled it right between my feet.

"Yes," I said, raising both fists in the air. "Great shot. Here, it's my turn."

She made a target with her feet, and I missed to the left. I dropped my shoulders in exaggerated disappointment.

For the next 30 minutes or so, this is how it went. She made a shot -- I cheered. I made a shot -- she cheered. We graduated to larger distances, with dogleg shots around the island in the kitchen and "fairway" shots down the length of the hall.

I noticed she was beginning to smile from ear to ear.

"I'll bet you're good at miniature golf," I said.

She shrugged.

"Never played, huh?" I said. "That's OK. This is more fun."

Later, when it was time to put our coats on and leave, she followed me onto the front porch, the only child in the house to brave the cold.

"It that your car?" she said, pointing to my station wagon.

"Yep," I said.

"Looks like a good car," she said, resting her elbows on a handrail and cupping her chin in her hands.

"It'll do," I said.

I realized she was making conversation to prolong the moment.

As we drove out of the driveway, I turned to my older son in the back seat. "Roll down your window and tell her goodbye again," I said.

He obliged, and I watched the little girl get smaller and smaller in my rear-view mirror, never lifting her chin from her hands until we were completely out of sight.

about Mark Kennedy...

Mark Kennedy is the editor of the Times Free Press opinion pages and writes the Sunday “Life Stories” column. He also writes a Saturday automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for Best Community Lifestyles four times during his tenure. Before Chattanooga’s newspapers ...

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