As the new school year gets underway, parents and children know the anticipation and excitement that accompanies the first day of school: the simple joy of a new backpack, a new outfit, new shoes, or a clean notebook. Yet for many parents and children across the US, these items are luxuries they can’t afford.
It’s something we all know – that there are poor and homeless families who live in our own cities and towns. But most of us don’t realize just how bad the situation is.
Across the United States, homelessness and poverty are at unprecedented levels. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) reports that since 2007, family homelessness skyrocketed by 20%.
It’s important to define what is meant by “homeless”. When we think about homeless people, most of us think of bums living under a bridge or winos begging for change. But this is not an accurate picture of the homeless today. Sure, there is a “chronic homeless” population that mostly lives outdoors, but the majority of people who are homeless today are working individuals and families with children who cannot afford to rent or buy a permanent home.
According to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the lack of affordable housing is the leading cause of homelessness in every city, county and state nationwide. A study by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty found that there is no jurisdiction (no town, city, county or state) in the United States where a working family of four, earning the poverty threshold wage of $24,000 can afford even a one-bedroom home at fair market rates.
So where do these families live? Where do you go if you’ve been bankrupted by an illness, lost your home to foreclosure, or just don’t earn enough to rent a suitable home? Many cities offer family homeless shelters where families can stay together. Other families live in motels, trailer parks, or camp grounds. Families often live in the basements or attics of friends or relatives, while waiting to hopefully get placed in some sort of government subsidized housing.
Wherever they stay, it’s not a permanent home and children tend to suffer the most from repeated transitional living. What school will children attend if they have no permanent address? How will the kids adapt, manage and succeed in their education if they have no stable place to live? If parents can’t afford a place to live, how will they equip their children with the supplies, clothes and shoes necessary to attend school?
About four years ago, FOCUS North America began working with school districts around the country to provide meals to poor children. Almost every school in America has a free and reduced lunch program that operates during the day when children are in school. However, over the weekend, many of these kids don’t get enough to eat. To combat hunger over the weekends when the free lunch program isn’t available to kids, FOCUS packs up meals each Friday and sends these meals homes with the children so that they can feed themselves and their siblings.
Through our work with school districts, we also learned that homeless and poor families struggle with another major item that they find difficult to afford: Shoes. Even a low cost pair of shoes from a discount store can cost $10 - $15. And even $10 -$15 is a big expense for people who are living paycheck to paycheck.
Thousands of homeless and underprivileged children attend an Operation Lace Up event in St. Louis on 8/2/14
Based on this, FOCUS developed “Operation Lace Up”, our national back-to-school program that has assisted 252,000 children in 250 school districts across 30 cities nationwide over the past two years. Operation Lace Up gives children everything they need to get back to school and succeed in acquiring an education: back packs, school supplies, new athletic shoes, clothes, and even medical and dental checkups so that they can go back to school prepared -- and healthy.
While FOCUS works on creating stability in these families’ lives by offering sustainable and affordable housing assistance (FOCUS helped almost 1,000 people assisted with housing last year) we are addressing the immediate needs that homeless children face each August as they go back to school.
Each year, thousands of Orthodox Christians, united in faith and joined by a desire to provide action-oriented and sustainable solutions to poverty in communities across America come together through Operation Lace Up and provide much needed assistance to children in need. Last year, the Metropolis of Chicago Philoptochos helped more than 25,000 homeless children get back to school in Chicago, St. Louis and Minneapolis. Throughout California - in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Orange County and San Diego – and all across America, parishes, people young and old, and communities forged a wonderful partnership that stands as a witness to the practical nature of the Orthodox faith and our combined efforts to live out the commandments of Christ to love and serve our neighbor.
This year, Operation Lace Up will continue to serve homeless and underprivileged kids throughout the nation. To learn more, or to volunteer, please visit the FOCUS North America website: http://focusnorthamerica.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=307&Itemid=231