Before the sun even rises on Cincinnati, 3-year-old Dont'e and his 1-year-old sister, Alliyah, are waking up on cots in a church Sunday school room. It is another long day going from place to place, moment to moment.
"About 5:30 we're suppose to wake up because the bus is going to be here at about 6:45 to pick us up and everybody has got to feed their kids and clean up and get dressed and be outside with their stuff," Laura Tolbert said.
Kevin Finn, director of Strategies to End Homelessness in East Walnut Hills, said Dont'e and Alliyah are just two of a few thousand children in Cincinnati living with no place to call home.
"Three out of every ten, 30 percent of our homeless population are children and the vast majority of those are children who are homeless in tow with a parent," Finn said.
Laura and her husband Allan along with their two children Dont'e and Alliyah are homeless. On this particular night, they are just one of three families relying on a church for place to eat and sleep. A bus takes them to one of five family homeless shelters in Cincinnati. It is in the basement of the shelter where everything they own sits in a metal locker.
While Laura and Allan spend the day applying for jobs and housing, Dont'e and Alliyah will spend the day with strangers for the first time.
"He's never been away from us. He's never had a babysitter or anything like that so he's not use to it at all," Laura said.
"When you have kids, if you are a good parent, you will do everything that you can not to show your child that something is wrong. (You) ... try to make them think that everything is normal and everything is fine and let them have a great life and childhood because you only get to be a child one time."
Laura and Allan have been together four years and married for two. They lost a third child -- Lyric -- in June of last year. Laura, an Army veteran, was too sick from the surgery to work. Medical bills piled up and Allan lost his landscaping job to stay at home with Dont'e and Alliyah. Ten months of living on couches finally led them to a homeless shelter.
"You know, we are not all equal. Someone has to be poor. There are people that have tried, that have done all the right things and just can't get a leg up, can't get an opportunity, can't get any help," Laura said.
Finn said "it's amazing what can become normal to a child."
Some of them are sleeping on couches of generous friends and others in churches or family shelters. Finn said most of them have no sense of security and the impact reaches much further than a lack of food or place to sleep.
"I think the ripple effects begin before they even come into shelter. It's not at all uncommon for a homeless child to change schools six or even eight times in one academic year which means they are perpetually behind," Finn said.
The same is true for Dont'e and Alliyah.
A developmental test conducted at the shelter aims to see how far children are lagging behind their peers. The test examines their communication, motion, problem solving and personal skills. In some areas, Dont'e is spot on in some but in others he is behind his 3-year-old peers.
"As a man, I feel like crap. I have two kids, a wife and I haven't provided for them. Period. They deserve more than what they have. They need shoes, clothes, diapers, food. It just rips you apart inside," Allan said.
A common tale
Finn said the Tolberts' story isn't uncommon and is similar to most of the families that come into a shelter looking for help.
"The lack of affordable housing is really a big part of the issue especially with families," Finn said. "The first time the family then experiences some sort of crisis and mom and dad can't go to work because someone is sick or there is a medical expense related to the kids then all of a sudden the family gets behind on their expenses. Then they can't pay their rent. Then they lose the apartment and it just spirals from there."
When those families do turn for help, unfortunately Finn said there isn't much there to give.
"The reality is that only about 21 percent of the families that reached out for shelter last year were actually able to come into a shelter. There just wasn't enough room at inn so to speak. The largest source of funding for homeless services is the federal government but those dollars are earmarked to be used for certain things," he said.
"The obvious gap to me is there is very little money available that we are able to use for homelessness prevention."
Finn said homelessness prevention means helping families bridge the gap from pay check to pay check. Paying their rent for just one month or two could keep them from even losing their home.
"It costs $787 on average to prevent someone from becoming homeless. As soon as they walk into a shelter, it jumps to $1,350 so it is a significant cost savings if we could prevent people from ever getting there," Finn said.
Getting back on their feet
Finally after 10 months without a home and three weeks in a shelter, the Tolbert family finally caught a break.
The Interfaith Hospitality Network is the shelter giving them a place to stay and resources to get on their feet. The organization moved the Tolberts through a rapid re-housing program. They got approved for an apartment in Walnut Hills. The shelter will pay their rent for three to six months while Laura starts classes to become a medical assistant. Allan is doing day labor for money until he can find something full time.
"Amazing. I don't even know how to describe it. (It's) like a big weight being lifted," Laura said as she signed the lease to her new place.
"We've been down for so long and things have been so horrible for so long and there were so many times where I thought, 'how are we going to get out of this. We are never going to get out of this.'"
For the first time, Dont'e and Alliyah have their own room, their own toys and their own home.
"I still want more for my kids," Allan said. "I want them to go to a good school and all that stuff and have a good future and do better than what we done with ourselves as adults."
Life is finally looking up for the Tolberts and they believe their future is much brighter than the past.
"I cried today when I realized we were moving out today," Laura said. "I cried because I didn't have to hold it in anymore. I could let it out and it was good. It has happy crying and it was good."
To get involved or donate, visit www.strategiestoendhomelessness.org. There you can find a list of organizations working to help the homeless and information about who they serve. You can also make a donation to help people out of homelessness.
Families in need of emergency shelter can call the Central Access Point at 513-381-SAFE (7233).
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