Cover Story: A Family Problem

Homelessness isn't for men alone

Nov 25, 2003 at 2:06 pm
Jon Hughes/

Shelters for abused women also have to care for kids, for whom long-term effects can be severe, Theresa Singleton says.

As you gear up for the holiday shopping blitz, think about this: Families make up 40 percent of the homeless population, according Project Connect, a nonprofit agency providing supportive services to homeless children.

The leading cause is the lack of affordable housing and family earnings at or below the poverty level. But women and children fleeing domestic violence constitute half of those families who are homeless.

The average age of a homeless individual is 9 years old, according to Project Connect.

In an effort to serve the educational needs of homeless children, Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS) has operated Project Connect since 1995. Since then the program has served more than 10,000 homeless children, averaging 1,300-1,500 per year.

Project Connect has pilot programs in three CPS schools, and the staff works closely with agencies and school districts in Warren, Butler and Clermont counties.

"This is a federal program and it is in every school district in the country — urban, rural, suburban, everywhere," says Debbie Reinhart, executive director of Project Connect. "It's mandated with the No Child Left Behind Act. Every school district must have a liaison.

We actually have worked a lot with the counties. Like in Clermont, there are a lot of homeless people sleeping in state parks."

In rural areas, shelters are scarce and homelessness among families is treated differently, Reinhart says. Many have a tendency to "double up" with friends or relatives.

But that's not the case only in rural areas. In Cincinnati in 2001, 4,425 individuals "doubled up" and 526 families stayed in shelters, according to the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless. Among those families, 175 single females were heads of households.

"Domestic violence is one of the biggest reasons for single women with children and homelessness," Reinhart says. "We serve women and children in the (battered women's) shelters."

Three to four times weekly, Project Connect staff and volunteers go to shelters around the city to aid children in completing homework and act as a liaison between school administration and parents.

"Most people don't understand the terrible impact that (domestic violence) has on children," says Theresa Singleton, director of protection from abuse programs for the YWCA, which operates several programs and shelters that focus on helping women survive abusive relationships.

In an undisclosed location in inner-city Cincinnati, 40 staff members at a battered women's shelter serve up to 75 families in a facility that is equipped to house 60-plus. The shelter can be up to or beyond capacity on any given night, Singleton says.

"Imagine how difficult it must be to live with 60-plus strangers who have different standards of living and cleanliness," she says.

Providing a safe and clean environment while families are in transition is a high priority for the shelters. The facilities are handicapped-accessible; women sometimes arrive in wheelchairs or on crutches.

"What we try to do is create a space where they feel valued and honored," Singleton says.

Each room reinforces standards of cleanliness and self-worth that the YWCA programs emphasize.

"While the women are here, we teach them to act as their own advocates, because when they leave here they still have to live on their own," Singleton says.

Each woman entering the facility is assigned a case manager who conducts a needs assessment. Are there legal issues pertaining to custody? Are there medical or psychological issues? Case managers help clients define barriers and how to overcome them.

The shelter has nurses, doctors, social workers and attorneys who provide services without charge. Organizations from around the city frequently provide goods and services to the YWCA facilities. When one shelter was refurbished, the outpouring of generosity from the community was overwhelming, Singleton says.

"We were really fortunate that the community responded to our call," she says.

Though most of the women who become homeless because of domestic violence find a way to permanent housing, the potential for repeating the cycle is great and the children are often emotionally scarred, Singleton says.

"Kids shouldn't have to live in drug-infested neighborhoods with roaches in impoverished situations or anything," she says. "It's really simple. If you take a child, love that child, give him or her structure and certain expectations, chances are you're going to have a productive adult. If you have a child who is subjected to repeated violence, then you're going to have issues with that child as an adult." ©