The Chattanooga Homeless Coalition's next Point-In-Time Count of the homeless is scheduled for Jan. 26.
ON THE WEB
Read "America's Youngest Outcasts" homelesschildrenamerica.org.
BY THE NUMBERS
• 1.6 million American children are homeless.
• 1,000 children attending public schools in the Chattanooga area are homeless.
• 19,775 children in Tennessee are homeless.
Source: Chattanooga Community Kitchen, National Center on Family Homelessness
Source: National Center on Family Homelessness
Interfaith Homeless Network case manager Linda Smith said she gets at least 100 calls a month from families with children on the brink of homelessness.
"I've had clients break down crying in the office because they don't know how they're going to make it with their kids, how they're going to eat or where they're going to sleep," she said.
A new report from the National Center on Family Homelessness counts Tennessee and Georgia in the top 15 for percentage of homeless children, and Alabama as worst in the nation.
"America's Youngest Outcasts 2010" states that more than 1.6 million children, or one in 45, are homeless annually in America. Child homelessness grew 38 percent from 2007 to 2010.
"If we do nothing, homelessness can become a cycle," said Jens Christensen, the Chattanooga Community Kitchen's assistant director. "And it is not something that affects people of only a certain race or a certain religion. It's something that can affect anyone."
More than 1,000 children attending Chattanooga-area public schools are homeless, according to the Community Kitchen website.
Most of those children are not on the street, said Mary Simmons, executive director of the Chattanooga Homeless Coalition. Instead, they live doubled up with other relatives or friends, or in shelters. But Community Kitchen officials said at least one family with children has stayed in its emergency shelter almost every night since it opened in November.
Simmons said local organizations have been working to reduce family homelessness since the organization reported a 51 percent increase among homeless families from 2010 to 2011. There were 27 homeless families counted in 2010 and 55 last year, she said.
She said a count of homeless people set for Jan. 26 will help measure progress toward alleviating family homelessness.
"We've diligently worked to end homelessness for as many families as we can, but there is still more work to do," said Simmons.
Heather Hanegan, a 35-year-old mother of four, has been homeless in Chattanooga for about a month. She lost her home after her husband of 13 years left her.
The Mississippi native said she came to Chattanooga with her children, ages 13, 7, 4 and 3, after hearing there were better resources for homeless families here.
She slept at the Chattanooga Community Kitchen one night before getting into the Interfaith Homeless Network.
"The hardest part is having to watch the kids have to deal with it," she said. "And being able to offer them no stability."
She said the best part has been the help she's received through the Interfaith Homeless Network, a group of about 25 churches, synagogues or mosques that house a family for a week at a time. The Interfaith office on Baldwin street also provides activities and classes for families to help them become more independent.
Hanegan said she and her children have had food and shelter. She said she's also gained encouragement from other women in the program to become more independent. Her goal is to get on the state's Families First program so that she can get financial support for day care, and then find a job.
More than 130 families are on the waiting list to receive shelter through the Interfaith Homeless Network, Executive Director Mary Ellen Galloway said.
If more congregations participated in the network, more families could have shelter, Galloway said.
"America's Youngest Outcasts" blames the economy for the growing number of homeless children.
The minimum wage in Tennessee is $7.25 an hour. But a worker would need to earn $13.47 an hour to afford the average two-bedroom apartment, the report states.
More than a quarter of Tennessee's residents pay more than 50 percent of their income for rent. And Tennessee has no active state Interagency Council on Homelessness, nor does it have a 10-year plan to end homelessness that includes children and families, according to the report.
"The recession has been a manmade disaster for vulnerable children," said Dr. Ellen L. Bassuk, according to a news release by the National Center on Family Homelessness on the report. "There are more homeless children today than after the natural disasters of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which caused historic levels of homelessness in 2006."
Bassuk is the president and founder of the National Center on Family Homelessness and associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
Being a homeless child means more than not having a stable place to live. Those children also are at risk for poor health and education, local officials said.
"It has a dramatic impact on children's health," said Simmons. "Children are more likely to experience illness as they are experiencing homelessness. Young children are more likely to be behind in school. They're more likely to experience difficulties that other children their age are not experiencing."