Fortunately, most of us will never experience homelessness or even know someone who has or is.
Unfortunately, not everyone can say that. Most heartbreaking of all is that roughly 350 of them in a given year in Eau Claire are school-age children.
Next Sunday, more than 100 golfers are scheduled to tee it up at Wild Ridge Golf Course to raise money to help these children and families. The event is the 10th Annual Border Battle to benefit the Homeless Children and Youth Fund of the Eau Claire Public Schools Foundation.
Funds raised at the event are used to help these students and their families get through the tough patch in their lives and to help ensure these young people aren’t excluded from school activities and other opportunities that most other students take for granted.
“We tell the parents that their child can play sports or do whatever they want,” said Dani Claesges, who coordinates the Homeless and Homebound programs for the Eau Claire Area School District. “Any club they want to be in, any instrument they want to play, any sport … anything. They should never be held back because they’re concerned about resources they don’t have.”
Hundreds of community members such as the Border Battle golfers are the ones who step up to make it happen. Taxpayers fund Claesges’ position, but pretty much everything else that helps level the tilted field for needy students comes from regular folks stepping up.
“We would not be able to do what we do if it wasn’t for the community,” Claesges said recently in her office, which that day was cluttered with backpacks, school supplies, donated books (mainly from Books-A-Million), personal hygiene items and other things that will be disseminated to the students as the new school year begins.
“Individuals, church groups and community organizations donate money, time and supplies. (The program) completely runs off the community,” she said.
Fortunately, the vast majority are not homeless long term. Most are served through the program only once. And families identified as homeless in an average school year means they are in that situation for any part of the school year, not the entire period.
Families end up homeless for a number of reasons, Claesges said. Sometimes it’s a serious illness. One family lost their residence when the father suffered a heart ailment that put him in the hospital for 45 days, she said. Other times it’s a loss of partner (a little more than half of the families are single-parent, Claesges estimates), sudden loss of job or child support, loss of vehicle or inability to find an affordable apartment.
“I’ve been told that vacancy rates for affordable apartments here are very low,” Claesges said. “As a result, rents are inching closer to $800 a month (on average) for a three-bedroom apartment. That’s a decent mortgage on a modest home.”
Other costs hit struggling families hard and sometimes push them over the edge to homelessness, Claesges said. Day care can cost as much as $200 a week for a baby, she said.
Case workers tell Claesges that transportation is perhaps the single largest struggle for families seeking to get back on their feet.
“Can you imagine going even a week with no vehicle and three children in tow and try to get to your job, job interviews, medical appointments and get your children to where they need to be?” Claesges said. “Riding the bus is expensive, not to mention the transit time.”
Claesges strongly disagrees with those who think homeless programs “enable” the needy or that most of those in that situation got there through a lack of concern about their children.
“Some people want to go with the stereotypical poor choices, such as using money for smoking rather than paying the rent, or buying things they shouldn’t,” Claesges said. “But very rarely do I see parents who are substance abusers. They are good families who for one reason or another become homeless.
“They’re really trying hard,” Claesges added, “but most of them are making about 10 bucks an hour. There are jobs, but you’re making a wage that is barely supporting you, then you add the cost of what your kids need, transportation, etc. …
“If you’re not immersed with these parents, it’s easy to assume they are being irresponsible and don’t care about their kids,” Claesges said. “They love their kids very much, and they are working extremely hard to get out of the situation. They feel awful about the situation they put their kids in.”
Whatever your opinion about the homeless, Claesges has found during the 13 years in her position that support and encouragement are better than judging or demeaning comments.
I’ve long thought that if we all waited until we were financially secure enough to have children, not very many of us would have become parents. And that’s something we need to remember before we get too judgmental.
“We can argue whether someone should have had a baby,” Claesges said. “But once it’s here, it’s here, and it is going to grow up and be a really functional member of our community, or it’s not, depending upon how it is helped.
“We try to mitigate the trauma that being homeless can have on a student,” she said. “If a student is going hungry, it messes with their brain, their self-esteem and what they think they deserve in life. And that will cause them to not go for other things if they think they don’t even deserve a hot meal.”
I know this sounds cliché, but if this community can afford roughly $60 million for an arts center, we also can afford compassion for families scrambling to find a place to sleep.
Kudos to the Border Battle golfers and all the others in our midst who do.
Huebscher is a contributing columnist and former Leader-Telegram editor.