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Homeless teens find shelter

Threadbare economy means longer lines for rooms so many kids call home

Published: Sunday, November 2, 2008 at 3:56 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, November 2, 2008 at 1:02 p.m.

Megan Hamilton has family, food and shelter and that's all she says she needs.

Photos by JOHN BURGESS / The Press Democrat
By 6:30 a.m, Megan Hamilton leaves the room she shares with four family members and heads for school.

Even if everything the 13-year-old has fits in one room at a family homeless shelter.

"I'm not ashamed of where I live," she said. "As long as I have a roof over my head."

At Catholic Charities Family Support Center, a shelter for families in Santa Rosa, more than half of the residents, about 55 to 60, are under the age of 15.

Many of them are teenagers, and like others their age, they deal with school, peer pressure and young romances.

But one thing distinguishes Hamilton and other homeless youth from their peers.

Their formative years are influenced by a degree of transient uncertainty, moving from couch to couch and bed to bed without a home to call their own.

"Whenever I move there are things I trust, but many things I don't," Hamilton said. "I feel like I'm missing or leaving something behind."

The center tries to fill that void by offering security, activities and counseling, but social workers face a monumental struggle when it comes to giving the kids a stable environment.

The 28 rooms inside the Family Support Center stay occupied throughout the year. Vacant rooms usually fill up within a day, and social workers say this year's economic challenges have prompted longer waiting lists and an increase in the number of youths and children admitted through emergency intake, a temporary stay offered to families in last-minute need.

In previous years, about 12 families on average waited to enter the facility. But now, the list has more than doubled, the most families seen all year.

Nationally, families comprise about 34 percent of the total homeless population. Workers at the Family Support Center -- and elsewhere around the county -- said they are seeing their share of that number.

In September, the shelter provided 28 children with emergency shelter, compared to 17 in the same period the year before. The shelter took in 73 children from July through September, compared to 44 in the same period a year ago.

Nearby, at the 23-bed Rose Women and Childrens Emergency Shelter run by the Redwood Gospel Mission, a new family room is being added in response to the fact that there are more women with children in need of shelter, said Jeff Gilman, director of the mission.

"We've had as high as 20 kids and as low as zero," Gilman said, "but it's been pretty typical that we have between one and five kids staying with us at any given time over the last several months."

On Friday in Petaluma, there were 19 children staying at an emergency family shelter operated by the Committee on the Homeless, or COTS. Last Halloween, there were 21.

The shelter, which has 35 rooms for families who can stay for a maximum of 50 days, is generally full, said COTS executive director John Records.

He said the waiting list has grown longer, with 12 families with children waiting for spaces this week, compared to 10 at the same time last year.

And at other Catholic Charities' programs serving homeless people -- a drop-in service center, the Brookwood Center and the Russell Avenue Shelter -- 140 additional children were registered in the three months ending in September. That's about the same as during the same period last year.

At the Family Support Center, caseworker Carol Kempton said some of the shelter's parents lack stable credit, clean rental histories, savings, financial planning skills or stable employment.

Some parents, many of whom are single mothers, have struggled with addiction or turbulent relationships.

Many are part of a cycle of homelessness that spreads from one generation to the next.

Kempton said just one or a combination of these factors might be enough to bring a family into the shelter.

"We do our best to give them routine," she said. "It puts structure into some kind of dysfunction."

Studies show that children of homeless families are more likely to be exposed to violent events, academic disruption and emotional, physical and behavioral issues.

At first glance, the greatest concerns affecting Megan are boys, homework and convincing her dad to let her have a boyfriend before she turns 16.

"Megan is a perfect example because she's been in the shelter three times," Kempton said. "She's a typical normal teenager despite the fact that she's in the shelter. She's happy to be here, because she feels secure."

But the blue-eyed teenager, who has freckles on her face, mourns the loss of the cats she had to give away when the family lost their rental home six months ago. A few weeks shy of turning 14, she's already planning on getting a job and saving enough money to buy a home for Ashleigh, her six-year-old sister, who has Down syndrome.

"Every three to four years, we'd switch houses. That's not the kind of childhood I want for my little sister," Hamilton said.

"I'm going to start saving my money. Hopefully, I can afford a house so my sister can stay there."

Her parents are doing the same.

"We're trying to save money so we can get into another place," Megan's mother, Andrea Hamilton said.

"The economy has gotten really bad."

It has been uphill battle for the family of five.

They rely on Megan's dad, Steve Hamilton, a contract painter, who struggled with drug addiction years ago and has since been clean.

Hamilton said an unstable rental history and the challenges of raising a child with special needs make finding a place hard to do.

The Family Support Center teaches life skills such as financial planning, job hunting and parenting classes, which require mandatory participation from adult residents.

For the children, the shelter runs a structured schedule to give the younger ones stability by knowing when their next meal will come, when to play, when to study and when to sleep.

"They're living a normal life just like any other kid in a regular home," Kempton said. "They love for you to hug them and know that we are supportive of them."

The eighth grader at Hilliard Comstock Middle School in Santa Rosa said she's not crazy about academics, but tries her best to make good grades.

She takes pride in her voice and dancing abilities that she hopes will provide a future, some security and a home.

"When I'm 16, I want to try out for American Idol," she said. "Hopefully, I'll win."

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