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February 29, 2012

Striving for stability

Low-income, working families continue to linger on the edge of homelessness

It’s 8:30 on a Monday morning. A school bus idles outside a former school building that now houses more than 20 homeless families, including 42 children. The bus is one of many that will stop at this corner of Preston and Ormsby, ensuring that kids who have lost the familiarity of home still maintain their normal school routine.

Inside the Volunteers of America family shelter, Craig Acres and his 11-year-old twins, a boy and a girl, rush to catch their bus. Acres urges his children to down gummy vitamins before he slides on a knit, gray cap, and walks them down the shelter’s pale yellow halls and out to the bus stop.

In the span of about one year, Acres went from working single parent to hospital ridden to homeless. With the VOA’s help, he’s employed again and will soon move into an apartment. It’s a full circle journey that’s spanned two states and stretches of dizzying despair.

“I wish you could go to work at 9 and be home at 5,” his daughter says as she walks down the sidewalk in a colorful, polka-dot coat.

“Unfortunately, I can’t,” he replies, his arm resting on her shoulder.

Acres now works three evenings a week in the office of a roofing company, clocking out at 10 p.m. It’s a long day away from his kids, who spend evenings at day care. Still, he feels lucky — life’s looking up.

For several years now, an increasing number of families like the Acres, classified as working poor, have lost their footing and wound up homeless. This isn’t a surprise given the economy, lack of affordable housing and rise in individuals without health insurance. But Jennifer Hancock, VOA’s vice president of external relations, didn’t expect this population to struggle for so long.

“It’s been more prolonged and more difficult than what we anticipated in 2008 or 2009,” she says.

Data released this month from the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s KIDS COUNT report reveals a persistent uptick in children living in low-income and poor families.

In 2008, 19 percent of children under 13 years of age in Louisville were living in low-income, working families. By 2010, that number had risen to 26 percent. The number of children under 18 years of age living in poverty (about $22,000 a year for a family of four) has risen from 35,000 in 2006 to 38,000 in 2010, according to the report.

Furthermore, census data shows that in Louisville, 21 percent of children live clustered in high-poverty communities, a rate similar to Nashville and Indianapolis but still troubling, says Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates.

“These highly impoverished environments create health and developmental challenges for children throughout their lives,” Brooks says.

Craig Acres is determined to leave his financial spiral behind. Over the last few months, Volunteers of America has put a large portion of his income into savings for use as a safety net upon his departure. He’s also completed budgeting classes.

As the family waits for the morning bus, Acres’ son wraps his arms around his dad’s waist, pressing his cheek into Acres’ belly. He releases his grip and runs off waving when the bus slows to stop.

“Bye, dad!”

But before he boards, he halts, pivots and waves one more time. Despite all of Acres’ reassurances that even in hard times the three of them will stick together, he knows scars have formed where stability has been shaken.

As Acres climbs the steps to the shelter’s second floor, wheezing coughs envelop his upper body. A year ago, the 46-year-old caught pneumonia. He wound up in the hospital for five days and left with a diagnosis of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, a condition that makes breathing difficult.

Unable to continue his job as the head of a maintenance crew, he found himself unemployed. Savings dwindled. Soon he was spending nights in his car.

“When I lost my job it was a big blow,” he says. “I never considered myself homeless or having to go to a shelter.”

Counting exactly how many working families slip into this downward trajectory is difficult. The Coalition for the Homeless estimates that close to 500 families were homeless and living in Louisville shelters in 2010. But the agency knows far more families exist on the fringes. For the last few years, Jefferson County Public Schools has reported around 10,000 children residing either in shelters, bouncing from relative to relative, or staying in other non-permanent residences.

Acres tried living with family briefly. Over the summer, he and the kids moved to Louisville from Illinois after he was unable to find work there. While hunting for jobs, his sister offered room in her home. But problems soon arose. Her lifestyle clashed with his children’s needs. Fights over money followed.

It was late August, and Acres says he spent entire days walking around Louisville with his kids just to escape, only returning at night to sleep.

“We’d just walk, spend time together. I’d try to save a little change so I could buy us a little something to eat while we was out,” he recalls. “But really we just enjoyed each other.”

At least they tried. It’s easy to mask exploring a new city as a summer adventure. In reality, his kids were grappling to understand these strange circumstances. Acres knew JCPS had started school but he didn’t know where to enroll them.

“I know they were miserable. I saw it in their faces,” he says wiping tears from his hazel eyes. “It hurt me.”

He tried to get into Wayside’s family shelter, but they were full. At first, so was Volunteers of America. That month, the VOA shelter had to turn away 109 families. By December, the number of families they were unable to house fell to 57, mostly because of the availability of seasonal work and holiday shelter with relatives.

“I really didn’t know what I was going to do,” he says. “I was hurting.”

Fortunately for Acres, a few days after approaching VOA, a room opened up. He moved in and enrolled his children in a nearby school. He reports that both kids are excelling. His daughter can’t wait to have sleepovers when they move into their apartment — a simple luxury after a year’s climb out of homelessness.