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The Youngest Homeless: Mercy Network Offers Kids Peace, Stability

3:51 PM, May 2, 2011   |    comments
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ORANGE PARK, Fla. -- It's moving day for Jennifer and her family.

It's something they've done a lot lately, but not by choice.

This time, however, it's different. They are about to have a real home for the first time in almost a year.

Jennifer and her husband, Jerry, lost their jobs in the recession. "I lost mine first and then he lost his a few months later," said Jennifer.

Then they lost their home. "Pictures and everything, gone," she said.

The last names of Jennifer and her family, and the other families in this story are being withheld for privacy reasons. 

Everything they own has been reduced to a few plastic bags,  but at least they aren't on the street with their two small children. Today, they'll move from a tiny hotel room to a group home through a program called The Mercy Network. It began with a phone call to a Clay County pastor.

"One day the school board called me and said, 'We have a family of five living out of their car. Can you help?'" said Pastor Andre Van Heerden. "How do you say no to that? You don't."

He said that call from the school board was the first of many; 850 children in Clay County are facing homelessness this year. "Initially, we asked churches to pay for one family, one week. But they pay that every month," he said.

Now thanks to those churches and other community partners, the Mercy Network has added two group homes where families with children can live together rent free until they find a permanent home. 

For 7-year-old Travis, a new bunk bed is a welcome change. "I'm happy that I got out of that hotel...Because I'm not that comfortable over there," said Travis. 

He's also happy to stop shuffling from place to place which has taken him away from school and friends. "Five or six schools in just the last couple of years," he said.

Another family, mother Danielle and her three children, is also looking forward to a more stable life at one of the group homes. "They've switched schools three times," Danielle said.

Zach, 5, said it's been lonely. "Bad. Why? I miss my friends," he said.

"It's real bad about losing friends," agreed Sammy, his 7-year-old brother.

Eight-year-old Lucy said it is hard to keep up in school. "Different schools. It was like hopscotch. One square and then two squares...You lose all your rocks. Rocks are your friends.  It feels pretty ugly," she said. 

But at the group home, it's better. "We get our own back yard and there's enough chairs for all of us. It wasn't like that at the hotel. We had to sit on the floor," she said.

Ten-year-old Joanna, whose mother lost her job and then their home, said she wasn't sure what would become of them. "It was strange. I didn't know what to think," she said.

Joanna and her mother, Melissa, were in the group home, but Melissa now has a job, and they are finally out on their own. 

Without the program she might have lost her daughter, said Melissa. 

She said most people have a misconception about the homeless, especially now.

"I don't look like a homeless person, but I was. People always think of the grizzled old man standing on the corner with the sign," she said. "There are some that are like that, they are mostly the addicted homeless, but there are economic homeless too. People who have had a massive crisis in the family."

Melissa is now an advocate along with pastor Van Heerdon, helping other families make it back, and Joanna said she is proud of her mom. Now instead of worrying about home, she can concern herself with homework.

"Fractions," she said, squeezing her mother's hand.

HOW VOLUNTEER OR TO GET HELP:

In Clay County: The Mercy Network, contact Pastor Van Heerdon at Andre@themercynetwork.org

In Duval County: Duval County Public Schools, contact Lisa Hubbard, school social worker, (904) 390-2546, HubbardL2@duvalschools.org

For assistance with homelessness: Sulzbacher Center, contact Sara Dougherty, (904) 359-0457, SaraD@tscjax.org 

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