Homeless kids have their work cut out for them

Story by PARKER LEE

Kids at the Palmer Court Head Start preschool in Salt Lake City spend their weekdays learning from teachers in their classrooms and playing on the playground. At the end of the day their parents pick them up and take them home- to a room down the hall.

What is unusual about these families is that they are homeless. Palmer Court is a transitional housing facility for homeless families in Salt Lake.

This building, formally a Holiday Inn, has about 200 apartments. These converted hotel rooms provide long-term housing for homeless people who have been staying at the Road Home or other homeless shelters in downtown Salt Lake.

When the children leave the on-site preschool, they are essentially going home to a hotel room shared by their whole family. They have a roof over their heads, but they are still technically homeless.

Kids who are four years old and younger have the Headstart program available to them. Palmer Court has its own Headstart site, so the parents don’t even have to leave the grounds to take their kids to preschool.

This Headstart site currently has 37 children, 15 in the preschool-age class and 22 in the early Headstart classes (6 weeks to 3 years old).

Headstart is funded entirely by the federal government. They have been funding the program for one year and have committed to continue funding Headstart.

But the early Headstart classes could be in jeopardy. The government will decide in the next two weeks whether or not to cut that funding.

“It would be devastating to the tiny ones and their families. It is such a good resource for them,” Pett said. “It just doesn’t make sense for the government to fund it and then change their minds the next year.”

Families at Palmer Court have to meet certain criteria to stay. They have to be chronically homeless, which means they have been in-and-out of homeless shelters multiple times. There is also an application that must be completed. The families then must wait for a spot to open up. There is currently a one-year waiting list, according to Tammy Pett, family partnership coordinator at Palmer Court. That makes it a challenge for new homeless families who have lost their homes as a product of the down economy.

But once they are in, families can stay as long as they want. They have housing supplement money available to them; so coming up with rent money isn’t an issue. They just have to follow the rules. This includes no drug use or distribution, according to Pett.

Fighting is also not allowed- a rule gets broken more often than others.

“There are sometimes lots of brawls,” Pett said. “But they don’t get kicked out if they get in one fight. It is kind of a three strikes and you’re out situation.”

Assuming the Palmer Court residents stay out of trouble, they can be there for an extended period of time. Some of the children at Palmer Court don’t know anything different. Some probably never will.

“Not only are these families chronically homeless, but some are generationally homeless,” said Tess Otero, family advocate at Palmer Court. “For some of these people, their parents have taught them how to get by being homeless, like teaching them how to get welfare money.”

Pett said a lack of competence makes it difficult to get out of that rut. “Some of them have extremely low life skills.”

Getting a job and renting an apartment is the only real alternative for these families. Otero said just 15 to 20 percent of adults at Palmer Court are actively looking for jobs. It could be less.

There are a portion of residents with disabilities like mental illness who might be challenged to find jobs. There are others who could be looking but are not.

For the residents who do want to be working, they have resources available to them. Otero said she personally helps people write resumes.

Residents have other resources at their disposal as well. Palmer Court has its own set of caseworkers to help families get what they need. Each family has a caseworker assigned to them, Pett said. These workers help the families to apply for food stamps and Medicaid.

As for the Headstart program, whether it sticks around for these children or not remains to be seen. But regardless of that decision by the feds, these kids will still be at Palmer Court. Homeless shelters and Palmer Court are the only homes that some of them have ever known.

Otero said it is so normal to them that they do not even think about it.

“I ran into one of our preschool kids from last year at one of the shelters,” Otero said. “He ran up to me and gave me a hug and said, ‘I didn’t know you lived here.’ To them living in a shelter is normal and is somewhere that anybody could live.”