By MELISSA MORGAN
Pastel colors of purple, green, pink and blue blanketed an Oklahoma City field, as 340 little fingers clenched various baskets, shopping bags and pillowcases, waiting in nervous anticipation for the “go ahead” signal.
After the eggs were cracked and 34 little stomachs were stuffed with Snickers, Gummy Bears and Tootsie Rolls, the children left to go home.
But their home was no cozy, brick house surrounded by a white picket fence. The children returned with their parents to the City Rescue Mission in downtown Oklahoma City.
Homeless women with children are the fastest-growing demographic group among homeless Americans today.
Tiffany Webb, public relations director for the mission, said in the past, the homeless population tended to consist mainly of single men. But the number of homeless women with children has increased by 51% in the last year.
City Rescue Mission is one of a few central Oklahoma homeless shelters that welcome women with children.
The mission’s family ministries department said it is focused on making sure children have all the services they deserve to stay on track at school and personally.
“We are heartbroken to see this many children need services at the mission; however, if they come, we want them to receive all the services they can to help them out of the situation without a sense of chaos and worry,” Webb said.
It’s hard to determine the primary reason why women with children are the largest growing population segment. There are many factors that lead to these women becoming homeless, Webb said.
Some of those factors are domestic violence, lack of education, lack of affordable housing, insufficient supplemental services, single-parent households and the slowing economy.
“With the large amount of foreclosures and income decreasing in relation to expenses increasing, it is a tough battle to fight for single mothers or single fathers,” Webb said.
In March, the mission’s resident population averaged 11 families, 34 children, 85 women and 289 men, Webb said.
“It is terrible that any person, man, woman or child, should find him or herself homeless,” she said. “Typically it isn’t the child’s fault that they find themselves homeless, and they don’t have the ability to change their situation, which is heartbreaking.”
Kathleen Badgley said she and her four children have been living at the City Rescue Mission for five months.
The family was living in Van Alstyne, TX, when they became homeless.
“With only one income and a large family, times got increasingly harder,” Badgley said.
The mission provides her four children – Julia, Hayden, Keiser and Judis – resources such as education, day care, medical care, counseling, spiritual guidance and basic life needs in an attempt to make the children’s lives more normal.
But not all homeless children are as fortunate as the Badgleys.
According to the National Center on Family Homelessness, more than 1.5 million of America’s children go to sleep without a home each year.
One of every 50 American children experiences homelessness, according to the center’s yearly report. It says most states have inadequate plans to address the often-overlooked problem, which is becoming worse.
Elaine Hunter, the city of Norman’s consultant on homeless issues, said the number of people turned away from homeless shelters is dramatically higher now.
“Our local battered women’s shelter [Norman’s Women’s Resource Center] turned away more than 100 homeless in the past year alone,” Hunter said.
The National Center on Family Homelessness uses this knowledge to design innovative practices, bring training and technical assistance to community-based shelters and service providers, and improve policy across the nation, according to the state report card on child homelessness.
Whether made homeless by economic hardship, domestic violence, the trauma of war, or physical or emotional challenges, these families have lost more than their homes.
“They’ve lost their health, safety, and the capacity to support themselves,” the report states.
Economic hardship is creeping its way through the states like an epidemic, leaving many people without even the option of a shelter.
California is running out of places to put its homeless population. It is building tent cities, or shantytowns, for them to live in, or simply sending them to parking garages, Webb said.
“Homeless shelters are filling up all across the United States. It is a huge issue that I don’t think will go away any time soon,” Webb said.
This is especially true for Oklahoma.
Hunter, the Norman consultant, conducted the 2009 State of Oklahoma Annual Continuum of Care Point in Time Homeless Survey for Cleveland County. The results showed that of the 69 family groups who were homeless in Cleveland County, 53 were single mothers with children.
Hunter said she doesn’t get any responses from Moore or the smaller surrounding towns, where there is a substantial number of homeless, so the count is primarily Norman.
“There’s around 2,000 to 3,000 homeless in the Oklahoma City area,” Hunter said. “We’ll have an idea about the statewide count in a month or so.”
The results also showed there are 206 homeless children up to the age of 18 living in Cleveland County alone.
The center’s report card describes many factors related to child homelessness in each state, and represents four domains: extent of child homelessness, child well-being, risk for child homelessness and state policy and planning efforts.
The report ranked Connecticut’s plan the best and Texas’ the worst. Oklahoma’s was ranked in the middle at 31 in terms of state efforts; however, the state was also ranked at a 47 risk factor out of 50.
“Our plan was labeled inadequate by this report,” Webb said. “City Rescue Mission believes that providing affordable housing isn’t the key to ending homelessness. It is a vital step to helping homeless; however, in most circumstances, there are multiple reasons a person is homeless.”
The Homeless Alliance of Oklahoma’s Point in Time survey provides a way for Oklahoma to measure its homeless population and identify needs within the population.
The 2007 survey count of the homeless concluded that Oklahoma City had a high rate of chronic homelessness.
Chronic homelessness means being continually homeless for at least one year, or having had four episodes of homelessness within the last three years. According to the Homeless Alliance, this is often due to mental illness.
Thirty-five percent of the entire population has some form of mental illness that may be as minor as mild depression, or as significant as post-traumatic stress.
“Call the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services about the deplorable lack of funding for mental health services in our state,” Hunter said.
Jeffrey Dismukes, director of communications for the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, said the lack of funding for mental health services in Oklahoma is a legislative issue.
“We’re a state agency, we have no control over the funding for these issues,” Dismukes said. “With the recession, the Legislature has to make some really hard decisions where to place dollars.”
Despite the many obstacles, Badgley refuses to give up hope.
“I know times are hard, but God put me here for a reason,” Badgley said. “All I can do is pray.”
– The author is a University of Oklahoma journalism student from Keller, TX. This story appears on the cover of the 6.25.09 Observer.