It’s hard to believe there are homeless children here in Wheeling and in the Upper Ohio Valley.
One in 45 U.S. children in the United States experiences homelessness each year, according to the National Center on Family Homelessness.
That’s over 1.6 million children nationwide.
While homeless, they experience high rates of acute and chronic health problems, According to Mike Toothman from Wheeling’s Youth Services System. The constant barrage of stressful and traumatic experience, he said, also has profound effects on their development and ability to learn.
It’s difficult to fathom because we usually do not see them.
Sometimes they sleep on a friend’s couch because their friend’s parents understand the situation. They let the kid crash at night, feed them in the morning, and set an extra plate for dinner, too.
When the child goes to school, those sitting next to him or her likely do not know their classmate is homeless.
Too often, though, they wear out their welcome, and that’s because they are embarrassed to mention to anyone the reasons why they no longer live with one or both parents. They wish not explain why they got kicked out, or why they decided to leave on their own accord.
If they are unable to bounce from one friend’s couch to another’s, they find themselves with few alternatives other than an automobile or, yes, a box in the woods. This is also when they vanish from the classroom. On the stat sheet, these children are listed as “runaways,” and technically they are.
The National Runaway Safeline estimates that 1.6 million youth leave their homes each year. If all ran to the same location, such a place would represent America’s fifth biggest city behind New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston.
But it’s why they are running that is most concerning.
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Toothman reported that YSS’s best estimate is that, on any given night in the Upper Ohio Valley, there are between two and seven children who are away from their homes and families. YSS serves 24-30 youths a year in the organization’s emergency youth shelters and another 45 youth (between the ages of 17 and 21) through its Transitional Living Program. Toothman revealed that those statistics include children who have traded sex for a couch on which to sleep.
A recent Associated Press story indicated that as many as 8,300 West Virginia children are currently receiving McKinney-Vento homeless education benefits. The story stated that 75 percent of those were homeless, but with their families. Another 20 percent were in shelters similar to YSS’ Samaritan House or Helinski Shelter.
What is most worrisome is that last 5 percent or more who are alone and homeless right this moment. That means, right now, there are more than 400 Mountain State children who are all alone without a home.
The good news is that many local people are making efforts to assist these kids, and YSS will stage its Fourth Annual Wheeling Sleepout this Friday night at the J.B. Chambers I-470 Complex in the Elm Grove section of Wheeling. More than 150 participants are expected to construct their own box-made houses beginning at 4 p.m., and then they will sleep in those boxes overnight.
Live entertainment includes the Sarah Hayes Band, Hit Play, and The Muddle, the Ye Old’ Alpha providing the food, and the Wheeling Oddfellows will provide several different games after 11 p.m.
If you would like to assist with the primary goal – to raise awareness about this reality – you also can visit the fundraising link and select whichever project and participant you wish. Every dollar travels in the same direction, and that is to help fund what YSS does to redirect these children.