Getaway from homelessness

The Associated PressAugust 19, 2008 

  • In New York and many other communities, families with children constitute an increasing portion of the homeless population -- 40 percent nationally, according to advocacy groups.

    Last year, a daily average of 9,297 families -- the most ever -- were living in New York City's homeless shelters, according to the Coalition for the Homeless, which operates Camp Homeward Bound.

    Similar trends have surfaced nationwide. In New York, the core problem is a dearth of affordable rental housing. Elsewhere, homelessness is being fueled by job losses and low wages, cutbacks in housing assistance programs, and home foreclosures.

— The giggles and banter echoed those at any typical summer camp, but the name of this lakeside getaway -- Camp Homeward Bound -- reflected an element of wishful thinking for many of the children.

All were from nearby New York City, nearly all from families that have confronted homelessness.

Among the girls grinning in a hip-shaking dance class was 9-year-old Angelica Maldonado, who lives with her brother and mother at a shelter in Manhattan -- the latest stop in an odyssey caused by family turmoil.

Angelica talked cheerfully about camp but couldn't remember where she'd last attended school.

"I forget which," she said. "I'm moving different places, so I go to different schools."

Her mother is looking for a job, Angelica said. "Now, we have just a little space. My mom says that when we move to our own place, I'll have more room."

Whatever its cause, the dislocation of homelessness can be devastating for children and demoralizing for their parents.

The toll from that kind of stress can be seen an hour's drive away from the city, at Camp Homeward Bound's bucolic site in Harriman State Park. Beverly McEntarfer, in her second summer as camp director, had to send six children home within the first 10 days because of serious misbehavior and other problems she attributed to family instability.

Often campers come from shelters accommodating victims of domestic violence, she said. Some have been physically or sexually abused; others have witnessed assaults on their mothers.

"Some of these families are perpetually in crisis," she said. "They don't have even the basics."

Seeking to ensure that the campers get personal attention, Homeward Bound has 45 counselors for its roughly 90 campers, a ratio far better than called for by state and national guidelines. About half the counselors are from abroad, getting a distinctive look at the United States through eyes of resilient inner-city children.

Warren Steventon, a 28-year-old Briton, is in his third season at the camp and oversees a unit for boys aged 7 to 11. He said some of the children talk openly about the tough parts of their lives, while many are closed -- keeping an emotional distance from the counselors.

Daily life is challenging for many: Even with campers returning for a second or third summer, counselors often need to "start all over" in terms of teaching social skills.

Many of the campers' favorite activities are simple: learning to make pizza and hamburgers, taking photographs, using a computer, strumming a guitar.

Noah Wilson, 11, said highlights of his summers at camp included learning to swim, sleeping in a tent and catching a glimpse of a deer.

"You have to go back [to the city], you miss camp after a while," he said. "You miss being out in the open. You miss all the trees."

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