WINCHESTER - The effects of a struggling economy can be seen in a small but meaningful way at the Henry and William Evans Home for Children in Winchester.
Executive Director Marc Jaccard said seven of the 13 children and teenagers at Evans are homeless, placed there temporarily while their parents try to get back on their feet.
The other six youth came through foster care and different social services agencies, which formerly accounted for most of the home’s placements.
Evans Home draws children from social services departments in Winchester and surrounding counties, but the homeless youth come from the city schools.
Willie, a canine resident, stands by Henry and William Evans Home for Children program manager Kris Short (from left), program director Laura Regan and Executive Director Marc Jaccard. (Photo by Scott Mason/The Winchester Star)
The home - which opened in 1949 after a trust from Molly Evans Janney was set up to establish a residence for children who needed help - has been offering to take in homeless youth who meet certain criteria since summer 2011, but it usually only had a few at a time, Jaccard said.
"It took a couple of years before it really took off," he said. "There was a good deal of trepidation on the part of the parents. They would get a call from the school to have a meeting and the family would disappear."
Filling a growing need
The slow increase in numbers was not reflective of a lack of need, said Natalie Gerometta, homeless education liaison for Winchester Public Schools. The school district currently has 160 homeless students, up from a peak of 145 last school year.
She considers the Evans Home’s program one of the best things the community has done to help homeless kids and families.
"It provides some stability to these kids they normally wouldn’t have when their parents are bouncing around," she said. "It also allows the parents to not fear that their child is going to be taken away."
Fran Ricketts, director of the Congregational-Community Action Project in Winchester, says she sees "on a daily basis" how homelessness can tear families apart. Sometimes the children can stay with relatives or friends, but that isn’t always an option.
She commends parents who are struggling but will let Evans Home help because they "do not want the children in that type of situation" and hope the community will rally around them.
"The children need it, and it is something I think everybody feels good about when they reach out to help a child," she said. "Not only are we helping that child, we are helping that entire family."
The home tries to allay parents’ fears by letting them know they retain full custody of their children, and can visit as often as can be scheduled, Jaccard said.
When a homeless family is referred by a school or individual, the parents and children visit the home so staff can learn about them and vice versa. The children have to meet the same eligibility requirements as those who come to the home through foster care.
"It is almost like you would apply for a scholarship to a boarding school," he said. "It is a purely private placement."
That provides more security for the family, which now has its child or children in a warm, safe environment where they have consistent access to regular meals, baths, and laundry and the means to participate in normal activities, said Laura Regan, program director at Evans Home.
"The circumstances are pretty dire with homeless families," said Regan, who is from Woodstock.
"They are in [the] WATTS (Winchester Area Temporary Thermal Shelter) program, at the Salvation Army, day-by-day hotels, or living in a car or tent."
That constant pattern of uncertainty - not knowing where they will sleep that night, what they will eat, and what the next day will bring - all are huge stressors for children, Gerometta said.
"The Evans Home is giving them the opportunity to have that stability and to have belongings that they can come home to and not worry about where they are going to lay their head down that night or if they are going to go hungry - all of those things we take for granted," she said.
Despite the obvious need, it sometimes takes real persuasion to even get the parents to consider letting their children stay there, she said. Hopefully by the end of the child’s stay their parents have come to respect the home and its staff and will tell other families in similar situations about it.
Normally, the Evans Home receives $75 a day for each student placed there by social services. Many of those children have been removed from their home because of severe and sustained physical and/or sexual abuse and neglect.
Social services also allots $435 a year for clothing for each child, he said. The home supplements additional needs with donations.
Because the homeless children come in as a private placement, the Evans Home doesn’t receive state or county funds to cover their living expenses, Jaccard said. This puts a strain on the home to raise funds through private donations, although it is "not a one-for-one strain."
Some changes aren’t as big a factor - "the kids don’t really eat that much and the lights are already on," Regan said.
But then there are clothes, toiletries, haircuts, activities, trips and other needs specific to each child, she said. For those needs, they have been turning to regular donors and supporters.
Jane Capehart’s Sunday school class at Braddock Street United Methodist Church has been donating items to the home for 15 years. Earlier this year, as she saw a greater need, she asked her church to send out an appeal to the entire congregation.
Each Sunday in April, they will have themes where people bring in related items, such as nonperishable foods and paper products.
"Hopefully through the month of April we will supply them with a lot of things that they would otherwise have to buy," said Capehart, who is from Winchester.
In the past, the Sunday school group offered to help with clothes and other items but were told they weren’t needed, she said. That, too, might be changing considering they were recently asked for help with socks and underwear.
The Evans Home staff "care tremendously for these kids" and want to help regardless of any hardships that might come with the placement, she said.
"I am in awe of them. Their hearts are in the right place. They care about these kids," she said.
Jaccard noted that one positive aside that has come out of having the homeless children at Evans is how it is affecting people’s perceptions of those that stay there. "It lets people know kids aren’t here because they have done anything wrong."
Contact Laura McFarland at firstname.lastname@example.org