MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Karen was 22 years old and the mother of two when she first became homeless.
Her mom died when she was 10. Her aunts refused to accept her because of her biracial children, and she went to live with her grandmother.
Until her grandmother died, too.
For the next 10 years, Karen and her children bounced between an emergency shelter and the sofas of friends and acquaintances, all while she worked jobs including at Wal-Mart and a nursing home.
It wasn’t until a coworker noticed bruises on Karen, the result of an abusive relationship, that she was referred to the Dorothy Day House. (Because Karen is a victim of domestic violence, we are not using her real name.)
If she hadn’t, options for where she could take her family would have been limited.
Few emergency shelters in town accept families with teenage boys.
Every night in Memphis, 160 families are on the streets or in a shelter. In Shelby County Schools last year, 860 children were considered homeless.
Like Karen’s family, many other families live in shelters, cars or with people they meet. Families have the potential to be split up, with men, women and children going to different shelters.
“The Dorothy Day House saved my life,” Karen said. “My kids loved it there.”
The house, run by Sister Maureen Griner, is one of the few places that accepts families with boys, along with YWCA Confidential Shelter.
But the Dorothy Day House turns away an average of five families a day.
MIFA: Fighting to find places for the homeless
Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association (MIFA), a program that refers homeless families to shelters, reported that between July 1, 2016 and July 30, 2017, some 1,699 families requested assistance and were screened to determine if they were homeless.
Cecelia Johnson-Powell, vice president of family programs at MIFA, said out of the nearly 1,700 families requesting help, the program referred 507 families to emergency shelters.
“We determine the problem and how to solve it,” Johnson-Powell said. “It’s very client-based — we believe the client has a right to determine their future.”
Due to partners finding other endeavors, MIFA lost around 80 beds for families in crisis, Johnson-Powell said.
“We are replacing shelter space with paid motels,” Johnson-Powell said. “We would never turn away a family with a teenage son who is seeking help.”
To determine where each family goes, Johnson-Powell said MIFA looks at shelter inventory and composition of families.
“A family with a teenage son may be harder to place,” Johnson-Powell said. “Some shelters only take men, some only take women. We try to find places that work with the family’s criteria.”
Dorothy Day House: A legacy leads to intact homes
Since opening its doors in 2006, the Dorothy Day House of Hospitality has served 51 homeless families in need of a safe place. The three-bedroom house offers a haven for intact homeless families, including teenage boys.
Sister Griner, executive director of the house, said 99 percent of people do not realize boys are not accepted into shelters after a certain age.
“Some shelters take them in until the age of 6, and some to age 11,” Griner said. “Most people do not realize family homelessness exists since families are not standing on the side of the road.”
Griner said homelessness is caused by three things: trauma, unemployment or underemployment and generational poverty.
“Statistically, 160 families sleep in shelters or uninhabitable places every night in Memphis,” Griner said. “We turn down around five families a day.”
But for the families who move into the house, the four-member staff at Dorothy Day House strives to create a place that feels like home, Griner said.
“In the best world, the children wouldn’t even know they are in a shelter,” Griner said. “The families are not monitored 24 hours a day, so it doesn’t feel like an institution.”
The house runs on an honor system, with residents signing a ‘house covenant’ saying they will follow house rules.
When a family moves in, everything is provided for them, Griner said.
“We provide whatever they need, if that’s shoes, clothes or school supplies,” Griner said. “Whatever they need to get back on their feet again.”
Griner said they sometimes provide cars for families who can pay insurance and tags, and they furnish the families’ house or apartment when they move out.
Most families stay around five or six months, but Griner said it depends on the needs of each family.
“We don’t have a timeline,” Griner said. “As long as they’re working on their goals, they’re welcome to stay.”
YWCA Confidential Shelter: A domestic violence shelter becomes a haven
The cheerful, yellow hallways at the YWCA Confidential Shelter portray a feeling of safety for those who stay in the 78-bed shelter.
The shelter is divided into two levels with 13 rooms filled with bunk beds, baby cribs, walk-in closets and private bathrooms. There are two rooms for children to play, a laundry room with detergent and a cozy dining room where the residents eat three meals a day. Everything at the shelter is free for residents.
Marquiepta Odom, director of Abused Women’s Services, said one of the requirements of the residents is that the mother or head of household must stay with the children at all times in the shelter. The rule results in stronger bonds between parents and their children.
“At dinner, kids will say things such as this is the first time that my family is here eating as a family,” Odom said.
From July 2016 to June 2017, the YWCA admitted 405 families to the shelter, including families with teenage sons.
Odom said the goal is to keep the families together.
“Anyone who has a teenage son who is still in school up to the age of 18 are able to come,” Odom said. “For many mothers, that’s what kept them sleeping in a car, continuing to make bad choices or staying in an abuse relationship because many of them don’t want to make that choice of letting their sons go somewhere else or be in an unsafe environment. That’s a choice I don’t wish any mother would have to make.”
Odom said security may be a reason why many shelters do not accept teenage boys.
“A lot of shelters are open areas,” Odom said. “We have added security measures and have staff monitoring.”
Odom said the YWCA mainly houses families who are homeless due to domestic violence, but they also accept visitors who just need to stay for a few days.
“Our shelter is a minimum of 45 days, but we can let them go beyond 90 days based on cases,” Odom said. “Our goal is to help them get employment through our community partners and connect them with the services they need. We aren’t going to kick anyone out that needs our services.”
Information from: The Commercial Appeal, http://www.commercialappeal.com