Editor’s note: This article includes a firsthand account of homelessness from “Dawn,” a Nicholasville resident who prefers to remain anonymous. The Journal was put in touch with Dawn through Jessica Dodgen, the Jessamine school district’s homeless liaison.
They’re not on the street here. They’re not in a cardboard box on the sidewalk with a cup of change at their feet.
Society’s picture of the homeless is the urban picture — the homeless you see in big cities at the base of skyscrapers. Jessamine County’s homeless don’t make it into the picture.
The homeless are more than those who don’t have a roof over their heads. The federal McKinney-Vento Act defines the homeless as those who “lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.”
In her third year working in the Jessamine school district under a McKinney-Vento grant, Jessica Dodgen has seen hundreds of homeless children, most of whom have been forced to find temporary shelter with family or friends and are sharing accommodations.
“That is the biggest thing that we see in Jessamine County, the shared houses, doubled and tripled up under one roof due to a job loss or their home got foreclosed or something like that,” Dodgen said.
This was the case for “Dawn,” who with her husband and four children spent two months this fall with her brother and his family of five in a three-bedroom house. Dawn’s family was able to move into their own three-bedroom unit in November, but her brother lost his apartment just weeks later; now all 11 are together under one roof again while her brother seeks a new place to stay.
Dawn said she was hesitant to seek help through Dodgen’s work at first because she didn’t think of her situation of living with family as homelessness.
“I got three weeks into living here, four weeks into living here, and I realized, ‘I have to have help; I can’t do it by myself,’” she said.
Dawn described the two months living with her brother as “the most humbling, helpless, eye-opening and embarrassing experience.”
“You have no connection to anything; you have nothing to call yours; you’re in somebody else’s home,” she said. “I had a storage unit with all my stuff in it; that was mine. My kids couldn’t bring friends home from school. You can’t have play dates; you can’t have birthday parties; that’s really hard.”
Where do they live?
Dodgen worked with 310 students who experienced homelessness in the 2009-2010 school year. That number dropped to 255 last year, largely because of more diligent standards, Dodgen said. This year, the figure has already passed 100.
Of the homeless children she works with, Dodgen said about 70 percent are in shared housing. Ten percent are living in hotels, motels, cars, campers or abandoned buildings, and 10 percent are awaiting foster-care placement — a population likely to drop from the homeless category soon because of the other supports available to them.
The other 10 percent is “unaccompanied youth” — those who are homeless and not in the care of a parent or guardian. Dodgen said half the 30-40 unaccompanied youth she works with each year have to find a new place to sleep each night. And it’s in this unaccompanied group that she sees not only need for the homeless but harm to the community.
“I love them, and I love working with them, but they are committing crimes, and they’re 18-20ish; they’re in and out of the detention center; they are selling drugs,” Dodgen said. “That number is growing. So it’s not just that they’re on the street and don’t have resources; it’s impacting our community in a negative way; it’s costing our community a lot of money.”
Dodgen said some of the night-to-night homeless have stayed in parks, including a shelter at Lake Mingo Park in Nicholasville that has since been removed. City commissioner Doug Blackford, who oversees the parks, said the shelter was taken down because the structure was in bad shape. He knew of one instance in the summer of 2010 when someone was living in the park; he said he has not heard of other homeless people staying at parks in the city.