VOL. 130 | NO. 147 | Thursday, July 30, 2015
Family homelessness may be an extraordinarily difficult problem to solve, but in Sister Maureen Griner’s experience many homeless families are just regular folks.
Polly Jones reads to her sons, 2-year-old Da-Khari, left, and 3-year-old Dontavious, at the Dorothy Day House. Jones and her sons are residents at the nonprofit, which addresses family homelessness.
(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)
“Ordinary families with ordinary problems,” she said.
That truth led to the 2006 founding of the Dorothy Day House of Hospitality in Memphis. Since then, more than 40 families have resided at a two-story, three-bedroom house on Poplar Avenue.
There is only room for three families at any one time so Griner, as executive director, is forever tasked with telling families in need that there is no space for them.
“Family homelessness is an invisible problem in this city,” Griner said.
The situation is complicated by the fact that there are shelters for men and shelters for women and young children, but really no options for families with adolescent boys.
“So families are split. They don’t get to stay together,” she said. “And they know if they’re seen on the streets, their children will be taken away.”
A recent $7,500 grant from the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis’ GiVE 365 project aims to help with teaching students about family homelessness.
The program is called “Shaping the Next Generation” and during the upcoming school year Griner has a goal of making presentations on family homelessness to at least 500 students. The nonprofit Dorothy Day House staff, which basically means Griner, a new development director and volunteers, are putting together presentations geared to children by grade level, from early elementary through high school.
Using print materials, worksheets, audio-visuals, and discussion, each presentation will last 30 to 45 minutes and cover at least two of the following four topics: the question, “What does it mean to be poor?”; family homelessness; the Dorothy Day House’s role in helping homeless families; and service project opportunities for students and others at the Dorothy Day House.
Polly Jones, 22, is currently living at the house with her two sons: 3-year-old Dontavious Dean and 2-year-old Da-Khari Jones. But it’s not her first time here.
When Polly was 16, she stayed at Dorothy Day House with her older sister who at the time had custody of her. More recently, Jones was living with her sons in an apartment but was chronically underemployed and falling behind on rent and other bills. Now, she is only behind on her Sprint bill, is working full-time as an administrative assistant, and nearing the completion of her GED with an eye on the long-term goal of becoming a nurse.
If all goes according to plan, she and her sons will be back living on their own sooner rather than later.
“I don’t want my sons to go through what I went through,” she said.
Although Griner says family homelessness is not visible to the masses, about 150 Memphis families on any given day are homeless or living in a compromised situation. That could mean staying several days in a hospital emergency waiting room, the bus station, living in a car, or living for months or even years in extended-stay motels because poor credit prevents renting an apartment and getting utilities.
One family that recently contacted Griner was living by a lake and subsisting off the fish they could catch.
It’s another world that middle-class students probably don’t even know exists. Griner said these “ordinary families” find themselves in trying circumstances for a variety of reasons: medical bills, a house fire, totaling out a car, losing a job, or holding a job that doesn’t pay enough to cover daily expenses.
Dorothy Day House does not take families with alcohol or drug problems, and alcohol is not allowed on the premises. Funding is entirely through private donations.
“It’s amazing how many kids don’t know about poverty and family homelessness,” Griner said, adding that at one presentation high school students were asked where they would go if their families lost their homes to fire. “They all had a place.”
The nonprofit has applied for a three-year, $75,000 grant from the Hope for Memphis Fund. Long-term, Griner hopes they can add other houses so they can help more families get back on their feet and out on their own.
Polly Jones believes the Shaping the Next Generation project is crucial for students to grasp the hard realities beyond their daily frame of reference. And to show that life can change in a hurry.
“They’ll get knowledge and maybe want to help,” she said. “And not get in that situation themselves.”