The recent closing of family shelters in Salem leaves only two shelter options for children and their parents who face the devastating crisis of homelessness. On a recent week, at least 18 families were unable to get the help they needed.
Living without a safe, warm place to sleep, without a place to enjoy a home-cooked meal or care for young children — this is what it means to be homeless. While the loss of a home is a crisis for anyone, it is particularly devastating for families.
The National Center on Family Homelessness shared that homeless children:
• Are sick four times more often than other children.
• Have three times the rate of emotional and behavioral problems as non-homeless children.
• Are four times more likely to show developmental delays.
• Are twice as likely to have learning disabilities.
Until recently, many people believed that only alcoholics, the lazy or the mentally ill made up the homeless population. However, these stereotypes have never accurately portrayed homeless people and certainly do not reflect today’s sad reality.
Families with young children are the fastest-growing segment of those without homes. They’re the people sleeping in a parking lot, in a tent or doubled up on someone’s floor or couch.
Many families find themselves caught in the growing gap between family income and the cost of housing. Those families — our neighbors — often are only one paycheck away from homelessness. The loss of a job, an increase in rent, sudden illness or the lack of family support — any one of these issues can drive a family to a “Do we have to sleep in our car?” conversation.
I serve as executive director for Salem Interfaith Hospitality Network. Thirty-two congregations with 1,500 volunteers provide safe shelter, meals and compassionate assistance to homeless families working toward sustainable independence.
Generous volunteers treat families like guests during their short stays. In 2013, families stayed in our program for an average of 33 days and 89 percent left our program for their own home. Many lives were changed, but 18 families should not be turned away when we as a community can do more.
The city of Salem, United Way and the Salem City Club are having conversations about how to respond to our neighbors in need. We urge you, your church, your business and our community to partner with us as we work on a long-term solution that will invest in the future of our children and their families — especially housing options that keep families together and in their own home.
T.J. Putman of Salem is the executive director of Salem Interfaith Hospitality Network. He can be reached at email@example.com.