Homeless Families On The Rise

Between rising rates in unemployment and foreclosures, it's no wonder that families are now the country's fastest growing homeless population. In Arizona, the number of families experiencing first-time homelessness jumped by more than 10 percent last year. That's created a big challenge for homeless children, trying to balance both school and survival. Gillian Ferris Kohl of member station KNAU in Flagstaff visited with some homeless families and teens, and has this story.

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Between rising rates in unemployment and foreclosures, families are now this country's fastest growing homeless population. In the state Arizona, the number of families experiencing first-time homelessness has jumped by more than 10 percent last year. That creates a big challenge for homeless children, trying to balance school and survival. For member station KNAU in Flagstaff, Gillian Ferris Kohl reports.

(Soundbite of choir)

GILLIAN FERRIS KOHL: As Flagstaffs first congregation choir rehearses holiday songs, about 20 women and children quietly make their way into the cozy church, backpacks and sleeping bags in hand. In a few minutes, the church will transform into their bedrooms for the night.

Ms. SHARON BASILE(ph): It's kind of like camping. It's like a big slumber party pretty much.

KOHL: Forty year old Sharon Basile and three of her six children have been staying at the church's emergency shelter for much of the last year, ever since Basile lost her job and then her home.

Ms. BASILE: What I miss about having my own home is being able to know that we are all together safely under one roof because being in a homeless situation and living in a shelter, it takes that away.

KOHL: For her 11-year-old daughter Shinell(ph), the stress of the situation is overwhelming.

Ms. SHINELLE BASILE: I miss staying up late and watching TV and being able to (unintelligible)...

(Soundbite of crying)

KOHL: The Basile's are among nearly 2,000 families waiting for low income or emergency housing in Flagstaff. Each month nearly 100 women and children are turned away from official shelters because of overcrowding. That's exactly why Bill Guys opened the shelter at First Congregational Church, where he's pastor.

REVEREND BILL GUY (Pastor): I didn't see any reason why that it would have to be when we've a building that's warm and dry and empty overnight.

KOHL: And he didn't wait for the city's permission to do it.

Rev. GUY: We're a church. And we're going to do what we need to do, whether or not we have the blessing, you know, in paperwork or not. I don't think anyone would fault us for it.

KOHL: More then 600 students in the Flagstaff Unified School District are classified as homeless; that number is almost twice what it was a year ago, as is the case with more than 300 school districts nationwide. Seventeen year-old Daniel Blasingim(ph) is one of those students. Now most mornings Daniel walks his mom and two little sisters to the Flagstaff city bus stop so they can get to school and work on time.

Mr. DANIEL BLASINGIM: Don't lose your bus pass.

Unidentified Female: Who's picking me up?

Mr. BLASINGIM: Me.

Unidentified Woman: Probably Daniel will pick you up, okay? You have a good day.

KOHL: Daniel hasn't been in school over a year, not since his family became homeless.

Mr. BLASINGIM: They won't let me in high school because they say that I won't have enough credits by the end of the year to pass, so I just said screw high school and I going to give my GED.

KOHL: For Daniel, his family's need has become so great that he really doesn't have time for school. By the end of the day Daniel has ridden about 25 miles on his bike, applied for several jobs, picked up two little sisters from school and after school programs, and taken to the women's shelter for dinner with their mother, showers and a change of clothes. At 8:30, the family gets dropped off back at that First Congregational Church, where they'll sleep for the night. Tomorrow they'll start whole routine over again.

Ms. BLASINGIM: It really don't matter the situation, as long as me and my family are doing okay and that we have a roof over our head every night and stay warm at night. It's not a scary experience, it's just normal, and I'm getting used to it.

KOHL: And so apparently are a lot of other kids.

For NPR News, I'm Gillian Ferris Kohl in Flagstaff.

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