What About the Children? Homeless Children in Alachua County
ALACHUA COUNTY - Being a teenager is an easily translatable experience - good or bad.
Everyone has been there.
But imagine an added layer - during the hardest time of your adolescence you are also homeless.
Governor Rick Scott is now including Florida in recognizing this week as National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week.
There is an increasing number of homeless children and families in Alachua County, and we were able to speak to one family who told us their story on dealing with homelessness.
The Lestage family was incredibly positive about their time without a permanent home and thankful to the Interfaith Hospitality Network that provided shelter to them when they had nowhere to go.
When we asked the youngest member of the family, Branden Lestage, about what he took out of the experience, he quite literally had nothing but positive things to say about it. We asked him about the bad parts, but he did not consider what he went through to be a negative - rather, he took the experience as a time where he learned. He told us the experience was "intriguing" and an "adventure."
Courtney Allen, who works with Alachua County Schools and helps identify the homeless children in our area, was able to help the Lestage family.
She says it is a family that is increasingly becoming the norm - "its time to dispel the myths that the homeless individual is a person pushing the shopping cart on the street - that no longer is the face of homelessness. The face of homelessness looks like you and I...average Americans who are working and who are trying and some who can't catch a break so the cycle has stayed even longer than they had anticipated."
For Kim Lestage, that cycle is one she never anticipated she would find herself stuck in - "I never wanted this for my kids, I never imagined this. I want to help the Interfaith Network because I don't want to see other families go through what we did."
For the Lestages, their story is a true success story.
But still the question remains - what about the children?
The homelessness cycle is one being replayed in our schools.
Allen says the most common type of homeless child is not what people typically think of when the word "homeless" comes to mind.
"Over half of the kids we identify as homeless we consider as 'doubled up' - because of economic hardship, or perhaps they have no place of their own due to eviction they are now having to live with other family members or friends temporarily."
Under an act revised in the early 2000's called the McKinney Venton Act - children in transit who are "doubled up" like this are actually classified as homeless and qualify for free breakfast and lunch. The act also says kids must have easy access to schools.
Last January, The Alachua County Coalition on Homelessness took their point in time survey and found that over 300 kids were considered homeless.
Allen predicts that number will double by the next survey this January.
But there is another section of children in our area that are considered homeless - the runaways, the lockouts, and those considered ungovernable.
For these children, they seek refuge outside of their homes, but often find the streets more unforgiving than the home they tried to escape.
Radha Sylvester with CDS Family and Behavioral Health Services says that "1 in 5 kids actually runs away in the course of their adolescence."
For Gainesville resident Larry Gaines and his son, things at home had come to a boiling point and he looked to CDS and the Interface Youth Shelter for help.
They were able to settle their family differences, his son even going on to earn the citizenship award at his school.
They were able to prevent a runaway by intervening early.
CDS and Interface help around 1000 kids a year.
So what happened? Where did things go so wrong that homeless children started appearing on our streets and in our schools?
Allen says there is no time to point fingers - "why play the blame game? people just need to know that these problems exist and these kids need help and they need to help them. Families are very dynamic - there are many factors that make up a family and cause them to do certain things and all these kids need help."
Courtney says that extra funding is tight everywhere but would be incredibly helpful in the Alachua County School system so there are extra eyes and ears to help find and locate homeless kids in our area.
Services in the story if you need help or wish to help:
Interfaith Hospitality Network - collection of churches providing shelter to the homeless and their families:
Courtney Allen, Homeless and Transition Education Services, Alachua County Schools:
CDS Behavioral and Family Services for Children:
Office number: 352.244.0628
Interface Youth Shelter:
24 hour, Toll Free: 800.854.5377
Lake City: 386.487.0190
Other sources for teens:
Safe Place: 352.244.0618
Text4Help: Teens can text the word "SAFE" and their location to 69866 for help
Runaway Hotline: 1-800-Runaway
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