MINNEAPOLIS -- Minnesota researchers say the number of homeless families in the state is higher than ever.
"There is no question that the economic downturn of 2007-2008 made a bad problem even worse," said Wilder Foundation researcher Greg Owen.
Wilder Research reports, since their study on homelessness began in 1991, children and their parents have been the fastest growing segment of the homeless. A count on October 22, 2009, found 1,455 homeless families with 3,251 children age 17 and younger, a 19 percent jump from the 2006 study.
"Those numbers are a significant concern," Owen added.
A family in crisis
"I was surprised that it happened to me," said 13-year-old Kayla Sletten. "I never thought this would happen, because everything was going so good."
But it did happen. Kayla and her family became homeless after her father lost his roofing job.
"I could not pay my rent and the property we were in was going into foreclosure," said Joey Sletten, Kayla's father.
Officials say there are an increasing number of families who are forced out of their homes when the landlord is no longer able to make the mortgage payment.
The decision to leave
The Slettens stayed at their apartment as long as possible, surviving by melting snow after the water was shut off.
"We would fill up five gallon buckets," Joey Sletten Sr. said.
"We would melt it on the stove," Sylina added.
It was a big process that Joey knew could not continue.
"I just realized I'm doing more damage keeping my family here than just going into the shelter," Joey said.
So in mid-March, Joey and his wife Tina brought their four children to People Serving People, Minneapolis' largest shelter for homeless families.
"I was kind of scared that someone would make fun of me so I really didn't tell anybody," 11-year-old Sylina Sletten said.
At first Sylina kept it secret that she and her family had moved into a shelter where they all share one small space.
They have water, food and shelter. But they left a lot back at their south Minneapolis apartment.
"My friends and my backyard," 7-year-old Joey Sletten Junior said about what he misses most.
"I really miss my kittens. We couldn't bring them here," Kayla said. "They were like my little kids. I loved them so much."
A link to their old life
The kids have given up a lot, but they still have a strong link to their old life.
Like many kids in shelters, they are still enrolled in the school where they started the year.
On April 19th, the Slettens were among more than 100 students catching the bus at People Serving People.
The school district transportation is mandated by the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.
Among other things, the act requires school districts to identify homeless kids and then get them immediate access to education, including the option of staying in the school in their old neighborhood.
"Here at this shelter we have children who are going to Stillwater, Apple Valley, Eagan, Eden Prairie," said Margo Hurrle, Minneapolis Public Schools Shelter Services Coordinator.
Hurrle has spent more than 20 years helping homeless students find a way to school.
"My job is to connect them to transportation as quick as we can," Hurrle said.
There were less than 50 kids when Hurrle started. This year she is helping hundreds of students every day.
"On an average day we see anywhere between 35 and 45 school buses from all the various districts," she said. "There's definitely been a spike recently."
A spike so big, Hurrle's boss calls it a community catastrophe.
"I don't know how to speak anymore to people who don't want to acknowledge this. We are not gaining on this," said Elizabeth Hinz, the Minneapolis Public Schools Liaison for Homeless and Highly Mobile Students.
"It's the only way this generation is going to succeed," Hurrle said. "The schools themselves see it as important to embrace the kids and keep them stable in their school."
"Kids are only 7 years old for one year. There are certain things that they already need to have learned by the time they are 7," Hinz added. "If they don't, they will likely be playing catch up for the rest of their lives."
The growing preschool population
The same is true of preschool age kids who, according to Wilder Foundation, figures now make up the largest segment of homeless children.
On April 19, while 100 kids caught a bus outside People Serving People, 100 others younger kids stayed back.
To meet the increased need, the shelter now staffs four full-time classrooms and has created lessons specifically designed for homeless kids.
"Even moving can be traumatic for a child," said Angie Kimball, Director of Children's Services for People Serving People. "We teach them to use words to talk about their feelings or draw pictures and deal with what they are experiencing."
It's much-needed consistency, structure and some fun too.
"It is good to hear the kids enjoying themselves and just having some normal childhood experiences," Kimball added.
Hope for the future
Officials from Wilder Foundation and Minneapolis Public Schools say the long-term solution to this problem is more affordable housing, livable wage jobs and continued support services for families facing homelessness.
"When we are not attending to the long-term interests and their families, we are really putting further debits on the ledger for future generations," Owen said.
"Many families can be resilient. But long periods of time spent living this way can chip away at resilience," Hinz said
Heading Home Minnesota, a statewide initiative to end homelessness, is the umbrella organization for 13 county or regional initiatives. The local initiative, Heading Home Hennepin, has a 10-year plan to end homelessness in and around Minneapolis. The group has produced a documentary about Hennepin County's 10-year plan to end homelessness that you can watch on its website.
Hope for a new home
"All these kids have promise and they all have hope," Hinz said. "That, to me, is the number one mark of resilience and possibility in their lives.
You'll hear that resilience in conversations with the Sletten kids.
"I know that eventually we are going to find a place. And we're going to be together and it's going to be okay," Sylina said.
"I think it'll get better," Kayla added. "I don't care if other people know I'm in a shelter. Hey, it could happen to you."
Without a home, they still have hope.
(Copyright 2011 by KARE. All Rights Reserved.)