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Homeless Families Seek Normalcy While Spending Christmas in a Shelter

Kitchen Serving Food In Homeless Shelter


Last year, more than half-a-million Americans experienced homelessness on any given night. There are nearly 12,000 homeless shelters in the United States and over 65 percent of the homeless population are living in those shelters.  The rest live on the streets.

A report to Congress last year by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) said about 30 percent of the homeless population are adults and children in families.

According to the report, it was the first time since 2010 that the number of homeless families did not decrease.  And children are most often a priority for homeless programs.

The Christmas and Kwanzaa season is here, and shelters are filling up and trying to fill the void left by homelessness, making sure families and especially children are getting what they need to enjoy the holiday.

Greentree Shelter is the largest family shelter in Montgomery County, Maryland.  The clients are predominantly African Americans and each year they provide housing support to at least 115 children and their parents.  Most families stay anywhere from 30 to 90 days but many transition to a more permanent housing plan within 45 days.

The shelter is run by the National Center for Children and Families (NCCF).  For more than a century they have provided programs and services to vulnerable children youth, and families.  The shelter’s administrator says a lot of effort goes into making the holidays special.  She calls it “holiday on overload.”

“Although people are going through homelessness during the holiday season, we really help support the family so that it doesn’t feel like that. They’re not going without, and we definitely are focused on making sure children experience a wonderful holiday time,” Janice Wellington, Family Services Administrator, Maryland said. “All the children have gifts. Our Development Team sets up a secret Santa workshop where parents are able to go and shop.”

“ The parents go and pick out the things that they know that their children will enjoy and then our staff or volunteers wrap the gifts that are from the parents.  The parents give the gifts to their kids on Christmas day or depending on if they’re celebrating Christmas or Kwanzaa or whatever is unique to their family tradition, they’re able to still do that.”

“Wytonia” is a 41-year-old single, African American mother living at Greentree with her 17-year-old-daughter and 7-year-old son.  She’s been there almost six months.  Living there has been a double edged sword.

“As a parent, it’s been quite stressful having to be in a shelter with my family, especially over the holidays,” she says.  “I feel blessed enough to be able to be at Greentree in Bethesda, the staff there, actually, they’re great. They just treat you like family, it almost makes you feel like you’re not in a shelter.”

She believes her daughter has been more affected by the sudden changes in their lives than her son.

Seeking Santa Claus

“It’s harder for the older kids because they really understand more about what’s going on.  She’s at that age she don’t want nobody to know that she’s in a shelter.”

And of course, as any 7-year-old would, her son got straight to the heart of the matter:

“He asked me how Santa Claus was going to find us because we weren’t in our old house,” she recalled.  “I just told my son that Santa Claus will find him no matter where he’s at.”

Wytonia says she’s had conversations with her children about their current living situation and reassured them they’re getting the help they need and that they’ll be back in their own place soon.

Another resident at Greentree who preferred not to be identified is a 35-year-old African American single mother who will be spending the holiday there with her 12-year-old son.

“It’s a little sad, it’s a little depressing, you know, due to the reality of my personal situation.  But I am grateful though, because the shelter is really being like, you know what I’m saying, they’re really nice…The environment that they provide and everything, I’m grateful that we have at least something like this to go to during these times and during the holidays.”

They have been at Greentree a couple of months.  She says she and her son are extremely close, and that he is handling being there very well.

“He has a state-of-mind like, as long as I’m with my mom, fine.  I know he wishes that we had a place and stuff, but he understands what we’re going through.”

She says she is thankful to be there.

“You are homeless, and you are in a situation but it’s like I’m humble and grateful, you know, that we have help from them which makes it a lot easier to get through the holiday.”

“The holidays are an added factor for children living in a shelter,” said Wellington, a licensed social worker. “Families are dealing with not just homelessness, but there may have been some other trauma in their history. Oftentimes people come into homelessness for different reasons. It could be from domestic violence, or sometimes it’s simply because a person lost their income or there may be some substance abuse issues. Whatever the reason, holidays can be an added stressor for families.  Our shelter staff work to support the families, to eliminate the extra stress of the holidays that we all feel.”

Kasey Jearld-Makell is the family services administrator for NCCF in Washington, DC.

She runs two short-term family housing sites and one apartment style site in the city.  Most of their population is African American.

Christmas for everybody                  

“Each holiday season the clients are provided with several wraparound resources to accommodate the families. We ensure that each household receives Christmas gifts for the children and family. We have holiday parties scheduled for each site.  The families are able to fellowship and receive a nutritious meal.” Jearld-Makell said.

But she believes it’s still a challenge, particularly for parents.

“When you have children in a shelter, when you don’t have a permanent place for your family to live, we have several parents that do have that challenge with their children, especially the older children. Because once the children become older, they can actually realize that they are in a shelter or at least somewhere that they can’t call necessarily home. That’s where the staff comes into play at each of the locations. We do our very, very best to make the families feel as at home as possible.”

Jearld-Makell says they provide everything you can imagine for their families, including Santa because they want the children to “feel” the holidays.

“Being homeless is traumatic. Each of our families has experienced some type of trauma that has led to them becoming traumatized and homeless. So, from a holiday standpoint, we keep all of that in mind for the family unit as a whole, but in particular children…We take children very, very seriously and we ensure that their needs are met, not only for the holidays but throughout the year as well.”

The House of Ruth (HOR) has been a staple in the District of Columbia for decades.  It was founded 45-years ago by a sociology professor at Georgetown University.

Today they provide housing for more than 1,000 families. But they didn’t stop there.  They now have a child development center and a counseling center for survivors of domestic violence.

Sandra Jackson is the president and CEO.

“Our mission is that we empower women, children, and families to rebuild their lives and heal from trauma, abuse, and homelessness.”

She says holidays can be tough.

“For anyone not living in their own housing during the holidays it is a difficult period.  They have shelter, which is a great thing, but it’s not like having your own home. You know, this is a program that they’re in and so there are certain criteria for participation in the program. I mean, we try to make it as much of a family environment as possible and that’s the reason why the women and children are in their individual apartments because we want try as much as possible to make it feel like a home.”

At HOR individual donors adopt families or even a whole program and provide “Christmas” for them.  This year, they’re trying something new.

“We have a gift registry at Target so we’re now directing our donors and folks that want to donate to our families to go to Target, buy something from the registry and Target will send it directly to House of Ruth for us to provide to our families. Now if we don’t get those things that families want for their children, we will purchase those items with our own dollars. We have done that to make sure that every child has at least two gifts, every mom has a gift. We don’t want anybody to be without.”

Jackson wants people to know these are families who may have had a bump in the road. “But the difference for us is that for many of us we had support systems in place.  We had safety nets to help us through those times.  Many of these families don’t have that.”

Wellington believes it’s important for these children to feel like regular kids. “When children go to school and their friends are talking about what they did for Thanksgiving or what they did for Christmas and they can say the same thing, they say “my mom got me the doll I wanted or the car I wanted and then we had turkey and we had macaroni and cheese and so there is a sense of normalcy to them, and they don’t feel embarrassed.” They still have a sense of normalcy, celebrating with their families despite not being in their own home but working towards getting there.”

Wytonia had this holiday message for those spending the holidays in shelters: “Everybody goes through hard times, just tell other families, other mothers don’t be too hard on yourself because something has happened and you’re in this situation. Just continue to do what you gotta do and stay strong and things will get better. Everybody needs help every now and again and thank God we’re in a position and in a place to get the help that we’re getting.”

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