When thinking of the homeless in America we often call to mind images of the isolated, and possibly mentally disturbed, individual living as a vagrant. Maybe you see them in the park or under a bridge or sleeping on the street. Yet we rarely envision entire families who, for various reasons, have fallen on hard times and are unable to afford housing.
The occurrence of homeless families is more common than one might expect. A January 2007 “Day In Time Homeless Survey” conducted by the Warren County Housing Coalition in Ohio found that of 344 homeless persons in their county a full 52 percent, or 179 of this total, were children under the age of 18. Families which are defined as one or more parents with one or more children made up 85 percent, 293 persons, of this total. The number of families containing these 293 persons is 96 – approximately 3 persons per family. Homeless individuals in Warren County accounted for 15 percent, or 51 persons.
Interfaith Hospitality Network of Warren County Ohio (hereafter, IHNWC) is an agency that assists homeless families in their transition to a more stable living environment. As stated in its name, this organization is a cooperative of many faith communities working toward providing intermediate care to homeless families as they make their way through a program of education, job training, life skills preparation and housing search. Typically a faith community will provide their facilities to IHNWC for an entire week. Families will eat dinner and sleep at the facility. IHNWC has their offices and Day Center in Lebanon, Ohio, which also has showers and storage facilities.
Families are picked up from the hosting facility at 6:30am and delivered to their work, childcare and education locations by IHNWC-provided transportation. Some clients will spend the day at the Day Center doing paperwork or searching for housing, childcare or jobs. Another transportation run at the end of the day collects clients from their various sites and returns them to the Day Center where they can make phone calls, meet with Case Managers as needed, swap out clothing, take showers if the host facility does not have them and prepare for their overnight stay. Clients are then transported to the host location for dinner at approximately 5:30pm.
In addition to the hosting faith community, a network of partnering faith communities – many without adequate facilities to host 5-6 families at a time – assist in evening duties. The designated host faith community or partner will provide the evening meal, activities for the children and two overnight chaperones who assist families with any needs or emergencies. IHNWC provides training for hosting and partnering congregations to ensure they are prepared to respond accordingly.
I wanted to approach this topic in “Day-in-the-Life” fashion – one 24 hour period in which to collect as much meaningful information for the essay as possible. I contacted the Director of IHNWC, Linda Rabolt, with the plan and she eagerly sought the participation of clients and staff alike. Background information and releases were obtained, a schedule was established for the topical areas I hoped to capture and the day, March 21, 2007 arrived.
One peculiar note, and a departure from the hosting arrangements noted above, is that the day I was to photograph fell in a week when a hosting faith community facility was not available – one of the coordinators had fallen gravely ill. This gap in the hosting network meant that the clients were all housed at the IHNWC Day Center. Every available space that could be used for sleeping was converted for that use. The families made the best of the situation – often teaming up to provide support for one another. Two families slept in the dining room, two families in the nursery area, a larger family in the living room, and one in a spare office. To say the Day Center was crowded is an understatement. Their willingness to endure uncommon conditions in pursuit of their family’s well being is a testimony to the resolve these families have.
I arrived at the IHNWC well before dawn to observe the families getting ready for the day. Nothing within reason was off-limits from my cameras or questions. Dressing, eating, working, studying – everything was fair game. I appreciate the families’ openness with me – their availability and honesty made this essay possible. I traveled to work, daycare and school on the bus with the families. I visited job sites and Head Start. I went to the Housing Authority. I made several stops at the Day Center. I shot in classrooms and cramped rooms and shower rooms converted to bedrooms. I ended my day at 9:00pm as one client family finished moving into their apartment.
- Alycia Doughman and son Zachary. New arrivals to IHNWC the Sunday prior to my assignment.
- Jamie Hoefler and son Brandon. Had spent just over a month in the IHNWC program. Jamie works at a local convenience store.
- Ruth Pearce and daughter Hadley. Entered IHNWC with Jamie. Ruth is six months pregnant and attending life-skills training at the Warren County One Stop education center.
- Kim Purifoy and sons D’Juan and Cameron. The day I am with them they will move into their new apartment. Kim is attending GED preparation classes at the Warren County One Stop.
- Don Reynolds and Amanda Pottorf, daughters Geneva and Kylie and son Avery. They have also been in the IHNWC program just over a month. Don works at a manufacturing plant and Amanda attends GED preparation classes at the Warren County One Stop.