ST. LOUIS, Mo. (KMOX) Your image of the homeless in the St. Louis area may be men and women rallying for a tent city so they can get off park benches and out of alleys.

What you don’t see are the scores of children sleeping on couches, in cars or at campgrounds because they have no home.

The number of homeless children has risen by at least 30-percent since the start of the recession.

This week KMOX News looks at the impact on these young souls.

“We had to sleep all together”

8-year-old Justin talks about piling onto a motel bed with his three younger siblings and mom Sharlene.

A broken marriage left her with no income and no place to go. At first she moved in with a sister. “If you have a lot of children nobody is really always welcoming for all the children because they have their own stress levels”

When they wore out their welcome it was on to another sister’s, one with five kids of her own. “It was just really tough. Can you imagine nine kids in one place… three adults?”

Working two jobs and going to school Sharlene couldn’t find a place they could afford. No shelter had room for a mom with four kids. So it was the motel — the cost eating into what limited funds and aid she had for childcare, gasoline, even food.

“When you don’t have enough money, you just… you can’t live.”

She tried to keep it all from her children.
“It’s not something that I really will talk about with them. Because when you talk to kids about that you can actually overwhelm them because they don’t understand”

But maybe they do.

Justin: “I felt sad about it because we didn’t do any work and we just left our mom doing all the work”

Homeless children lag behind their classmates

There’s been a dramatic increase in the number of homeless kids over the past five years.

You probably won’t see them on the street, even though they’re living like nomads.

“They’re living on somebody’s couch, they’re living on grandma’s couch, they’re living on the friends couch,” Pam Struckhoff, Director of Program Services at Saints Joachim and Ann Care Service in St. Charles. “Families go to campgrounds, they stay under bridges, they sleep in their cars in school parking lots”

Once a week they line the sidewalk outside the center, waiting their turn to grab a cart and fill it with groceries.

Struckhoff has seen a demand for services soar. And not from who you might picture as the typical homeless person. “Some of the people we see have masters degrees… doctorates”

Their children have gone from stable homes to turmoil. “There’s a loss of community… there’s a loss of routines… a loss of privacy… security.” And she adds many kids change schools repeatedly as their family is uprooted time and again. “Homeless children have higher rates of learning disabilities. They’re more likely to repeat a grade, because the same teachers don’t see them. There’s no routine, no consistency for them.” Homeless kids get bullied by classmates who may see them get on the bus from a motel parking lot.

Struckhoff says a lack of high paying jobs and affordable housing are preventing many families from getting back on their feet.

When homeless kids have children of their own

What would you think if you saw a child standing at an intersection with a cardboard sign asking to work for food?

We may not see them on the street, but there are scores of homeless children in this region. Some of those kids have babies of their own.

The playroom of Almost Home in St. Louis is packed with toys and happy toddlers. Almost Home is a one-of-a-kind shelter for teen moms — ages 12 to 19 — and their children. Executive Director Rhonda Gray says many are caught in a cycle of homelessness. “They either have parents who are incarcerated or drug addicted, substance abusers, or family members who are in such crises themself,” explains Gray.

For Tamara, her dad was in prison. She says her mom didn’t care. They lost their apartment and drifted from house to house… hotel to motel. “Cheap, terrible motels. Drug dealers there. There was all types of prostitution going on.” Tamara even lived in a park. “Ask friends for money to eat and ask my friends to wash up in their house and go to convenience stores and wash up there.”

She was fortunate enough to be placed at Almost Home seven days after her son was born.

Tyricha says she was kicked out of her home after she reported sexual abuse by a family member. “My mother had told me that she did not want me anymore. That really hurt for a family member, especially your mother to tell you that [sobs].” She struggled in foster homes and couldn’t make it on her own. “I remember one day my daughter didn’t have diapers. I had to wrap her up in one of my shirts.”

“It’s very difficult to find a foster home and adoption options for a young woman and her child,” explains Rhonda Gray.

Almost Home can house 15 teens and their children. Last year they got nearly 300 requests.

Gray hopes to save some by giving them stability, teaching them life skills, and pushing them to complete school.

“They almost always say, I don’t want my child to go through this!”

Copyright KMOX Radio

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