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DeGraw: Becoming self-sufficient key for homeless women, children

For women and children, homelessness is quite traumatic and can have long-term lasting effects.

Families represent the fastest growing segment of the homeless population, accounting for about 41 percent of the nation’s homeless in 2009, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. More than 1.3 million children are homeless at some time each year. On any given day, at least 800,000 Americans, including about 200,000 children, find themselves without a home. What do these numbers mean for McHenry County?

Over the past year, Home of the Sparrow has experienced a 65 percent increase in client population. With an ever-growing wait list for services, the need for shelter, permanent housing and supportive services for homeless women and children become more apparent.

An average rental cost for a two-bedroom housing unit is about $958 per month. A person would need to earn $18.42 per hour or work 89 hours a week at minimum wage for this unit to be considered affordable. Most of the women that come to Home of the Sparrow are at poverty level and cannot afford the rental costs in McHenry County.

According to the Heartland Alliance Poverty report, the self-sufficiency wage for a one-parent family with a preschooler and a school-aged child would need to earn $59,908 annually in order to be considered self-sufficient in McHenry County. The most recent study completed in 2009 through the efforts of the McHenry County Continuum of Care to End Homelessness identifies a substantial gap in the number of affordable housing units available in McHenry County.

Home of the Sparrow provides transitional shelter, affordable housing and supportive services that help direct homeless women and/or homeless women and their children into a life of self-sufficiency. The agency receives more than 1,600 calls a year from women in need of shelter or affordable housing.

Home of the Sparrow is a very progressive agency on the forefront of emerging new ways of confronting homelessness. Providing emergency shelter is not a permanent solution to ending homelessness. It’s needed, but follow-up steps are needed to support families exiting these situations.

Through United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) initiatives, there has been a strong push for Housing First or Rapid Re-Housing model. It is the new method of combating homelessness – place people into housing first and work on barriers second. The cost is less per person, and the success rate of maintaining housing is greater. Combined with strategies of evidence-based services, Home of the Sparrow is a leader in the community in women’s and children’s complex trauma situations and has implemented its own Rapid Re-Housing program in combination with transitional shelter, affordable housing and an array of services from offering educational programs designed to help mothers and single women obtain employment and safe stable permanent housing.

Home of the Sparrow operates two transitional shelters (42 beds) and a transitional apartment program consisting of five housing units, has added 18 units of affordable housing, and recently implemented a Rapid Re-Housing program that currently houses about six families – all within the past year.

The numbers of women and children served are expected to be over 220 this year – up from 159 the prior year – with an overall 85 percent to 88 percent success rate of achieving and maintaining self-sufficiency.

Many of the women and children who come to Home of the Sparrow have experienced trauma before becoming homeless, which can aggravate the consequences of trauma or retraumatize a child, resulting in a cycle that is tragically damaging and costly to both individuals and communities.

Home of the Sparrow provides effective services and appropriate interventions that can break the cycles of homelessness for good.

• Debbie DeGraw is vice president marketing and development for Home of the Sparrow.

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