ANDERSON — Bev and Roger Sharritt eventually got into the flow of their new routine.
They woke up early in the morning, rotating days to who got to exercise and who got to get the kids ready for school. They were out the door by 6:45 a.m. to get the two girls to Kids’ Connection. After they picked them up from after-school activities, dinner would be ready at 6 p.m., and homework would need to be done by bedtime at 8:30 p.m.
“There’s a lot of homework,” Roger said. “It’s been a while, but it seems like there’s a lot more homework now.”
Even though the Sharritts are empty nesters, their days the past nine months consisted of evenings helping with homework, family meals and driving kiddos to gymnastics practices. This school year, the couple took in two girls, 9-year-old Leah and 10-year-old Ashley. (Names have been changed to protect their identities.)
The sisters temporarily moved in with the Sharritts in September thanks to Safe Families for Children of Madison County, a Christian nonprofit organization that serves as an alternative to foster by temporarily placing children in crisis in host families’ homes.
For the girls, the program offered a stable home at a chaotic time. Their father couldn’t care for them while he was in his work release program, and their grandparents had already taken in other relatives.
“I probably would have lost custody,” said their father, Jeff Beck. “I’ve raised my daughters since they were born. Their mom hasn’t been around for about eight years. (Not losing them) was probably the biggest thing.”
Mainly, he wanted them to have a home while he was away.
Safe Families Director Emma Johnson said homelessness among children has been the organization’s main reason for placement, although that doesn’t mean kids are necessarily out on the streets.
Throughout the 2015-16 school year, 422 Anderson Community School Corp. students were registered as homeless through McKinney-Vento, a program that provides services to homeless children and youth through the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. About 79 percent of those students were “doubled up,” or living with other families.
Resources through the school system, government and nonprofit organizations are available for families in need, but many local advocates say the high demand means people fall through the cracks.
Although the sisters are from southern Madison County, Johnson said the organization is primarily seeing an issue of child homelessness in Anderson.
“I think a lot of the lower income families just get shoved in this direction because there’s really not a lot of resources like shelters in southern Madison County,” she said.
About two months ago, Safe Families received a call from ACS about two boys who needed placement immediately.
A social worker discovered their family had no place to sleep that night, so the school and Safe Families scrambled to find a host family to take them in temporarily. The hours ticked by, and at the last moment, they found a host family willing to commit to a one-month placement.
“I can honestly say that without them reaching out to Safe Families, it would have just been another DCS (Department of Child Services) call,” Johnson said.
Not all of the children who are placed with Safe Families are registered as homeless with McKinney-Vento, but Johnson said she encourages parents to register if they need to utilize its resources, mainly if host families need help transporting children.
ACS behavioral specialist Dr. Treva Bostic said there are numerous ways families in crisis can receive help, but the resources are spread out across town. Navigating what resources are there and where they’re located is hard enough, but for many of these families they have no transportation to get to multiple agencies.
Many of the organizations have similar goals and work together, but they often are competing for the same grants.
Bostic said the school system works with multiple agencies, including domestic violence shelter Alternatives Inc., Meridian Services and food pantries, but she said a plan needs to be put in place for all resources to come together.
“And we need to do – and when I say ‘we,’ I mean society, our community in Anderson – we need to do more collaboration,” she said. “Because we do have a lot of resources out there, but we need them in one neutral spot because some of these parents have to go there for this, go here for financial assistance, go there for utility assistance, you need to go to the food pantry over there…
“We could come together under one big umbrella under one place for them.”
Johnson said receiving government assistance isn’t a luxurious experience like some opponents might think. It requires going to various agencies, ensuring they have to be at each at precisely the right time with the correct paperwork, oftentimes while they have their children in tow and they’re trying to juggle work or finding a job.
“People in my world complain about having to get two kids out of a car seat and walk into Marsh,” she said. “I see these moms figure out how to ride a bus, get their kids to day care, get them fed, get their government resources – which are cantankerous resources to get yourself lined up for – and that is much harder than what my world is. And that’s just the truth.”
Not homeless enough
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) 2015 Annual Assessment of Report to Congress, homelessness declined by 2 percent between 2014 and 2015.
The statistics are based on one-night counts conducted in January each year that include people who reside on the streets, in emergency shelters or in transitional housing. The study doesn’t include people who live in hotels or motels and those who are doubled up with other families.
Johnson said she often refers parents to Aspire for housing assistance, but often the families aren’t considered “homeless enough.”
She recently came across a mother who was staying on someone’s couch, but her host wouldn’t let her take a shower. On paper, it looked like she had housing through a friend, so she didn’t qualify for any programs.
She ended up moving into her car so she could get a home for her and her kids.
Ryan Robertson, PATH coordinator and grant facilitator at Aspire, said the majority of the calls he gets are from people who are doubled up with other families. Since the programs go by HUD standards, he often has to turn them away or get more information to see if he can find a program that works for them.
“I get phone calls all the time from people saying, ‘I’m homeless,’ and I have to ask, ‘What’s the status of your living situation?’ They say, ‘I’m living on my friend’s couch,’ and then I have to explain to them how HUD doesn’t describe your situation as literal homelessness.”
Robertson said normally he gets an uptick in referrals starting in April or May, because the weather gets nicer so hosts kick their guests out.
Robertson said about 60 percent of people who are literally homeless have mental illness, substance abuse issues or both, and they need to be connected with help.
Madison County is also an entitlement community because of the blows it sustained from losing manufacturing, he said.
“It’s left a bit of a dent in the community,” he said. “And some of those individuals – I don’t know how to put my finger on it, to be honest. There’s just a lot of need.”
Robertson said Indianapolis is better equipped to handle literal homeless because of its number of resources and emergency shelters. In Madison County, most people become doubled up.
There’s also a cliff effect, he said. If people receive entitlements but then get more work, they may then no longer qualify for their housing or child care.
“I definitely wish the federal government would expand this definition of homelessness to more accurately reflect what we’re seeing,” Robertson said. “… People on the ground level don’t really know what’s going on. They don’t understand what homelessness really is.
“It’s more than people just walking on the streets in major cities.”
Brian Sullivan, public affairs specialist for HUD, said if someone is at the end of their ropes and at imminent risk of losing their home, they are eligible for assistance.
He said it’s difficult to find a definition of homelessness that encompasses people in great need, without making it too broad. Sullivan said advocates can’t agree on a definition.
“We are very sensitive to the idea that the way we, HUD, measure homelessness in this country doesn’t capture the totality of the need out there,” he said.
Instead, HUD’s annual count offers a snapshot of literal homelessness to get a sense if the country is headed in the right direction, Sullivan said.
Johnson said it’s a constant battle to change the perception that homeless families aren’t hard workers, especially when children need help.
“Sometimes parents who are in survival mode just don’t recognize that they’re heading in (a bad) direction because there’s just so much going on around them,” she said. “…I’ve actually not met any parent that’s come to Safe Families that’s not trying to work hard for the sake of their kids.”
Despite what many people may think, Johnson said most of the parents who seek her help aren’t just after government entitlements – they just want to get to a place where they can better provide for their kids. Safe Families wants to aid them so that people don’t get to such a point of crisis that neglect or school problems occur.
“There’s something honorable about being in a tough situation, but being bold enough to ask for help,” Johnson said. “And that’s kind of where this soft part of what we do comes into play where all that judgment kind of falls away.”
Johnson said many of the parents who seek help grew up in chaotic environments themselves. The cycle of poverty is bound to continue unless the families are given a break, the proper tools and guidance to how to get out of their circumstances.
“…Honestly, if you’re born into a situation where you’re low income from the start, and perhaps you’re brought up in foster care or perhaps you’ve suffered neglect or abuse as a child, the chances of you coming out of that and being middle class are just really slim,” she said. “It’s just really hard to pass judgment on somebody who never had the opportunity to go beyond their circumstances.”
Oftentimes, a host family’s world is vastly different from the families’ in crisis realities, but the common goal they have is making sure the children caught in the middle are OK.
Bev and Roger Sharritt were more than happy to open up their home to the two young girls this year.
The girls hope to be reunited with their father this summer, but throughout the past year, they’ve remained in constant contact with him.
Ashley said she sometimes tells people the Sharritts are her aunt and uncle, because now they are.
“They’ve gotten to be sort of our family,” Bev said, “and we’ve gotten to be part of their family, too.”
Like Kelly Dickey on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @KellyD_THB, or call 765-640-4805.
About Safe Families for Children of Madison County
• Safe Families is a Christian nonprofit organization that serves as an alternative to foster by temporarily placing children in crisis in host families’ homes.
Safe Families will host a fundraiser, Concert for a Cause, 5 to 8 p.m. Aug. 13 at Dickmann Town Center. Shaw McDonald will perform. The concert is free and there will be a silent auction.
The organization will host a one-day training event on a yet to be determined date in the fall. The training will allow interested adults to go through a background check, screening and training to become a host family.
For more information about Safe Families of Madison County, go to anderson.safe-families.org or call 317-519-3839.