Homeless in Greene County
By MAKAYLA TENDALL
The cities in Greene County are often perceived as sleepy towns nestled amid cornfields where there’s little hardship and more boredom.
In reality, two siblings, 5 and 10, were sleeping on front porches around Jefferson, drifting from home to home every night.
A pregnant mother and her 2-year-old lived out of their car that they parked outside a gas station at night.
A mother whose husband left her lived in a tent in a friend’s yard while her children slept in the house. She was able to upgrade to a camper until she found a job and moved into a house.
Most think of summer as nice weather, vacation, maybe a job.
The homeless are grateful for the weather, too, because they can live in a tent or camper at Spring Lake for a few months before it gets cold.
Though it may not present itself in the form of a grizzly old man lying in an alley next to a trash can, homelessness is still very much a problem in Greene County.
The number of teenagers alone who face homelessness range from four by a recent count to as many as the 35 who were considered homeless or displaced when the Homeless Teens Coalition was founded by community members two years ago.
Most Greene County residents are unaware that homelessness is a problem.
“I’m not blaming them, because there are other things going on, but if you really told them the statistics, it would probably shock them,” said Jefferson resident Matt Roberts, who took in a displaced teen three years ago.
Greene County has no homeless shelter.
The homeless or displaced must rely on community members and organizations whose donors often don’t see the effects of their help.
“I wish there was more people that would just open their eyes because a lot of people, I think, they don’t want to know,” Roberts said.
Teresa Lansman, a co-founder of Jefferson’s Homeless Teens Coalition who provides energy assistance at New Opportunities, said everyone needs be aware of the struggles of the homeless in Greene County.
Most are living paycheck to paycheck, Lansman said. One unexpected incident or crisis can result in poverty, food pantry groceries and the loss of a home.
“Everybody’s a step from it,” Lansman said.
Teens and Families
Imagine most of the typical teenagers you know.
They’re acutely self-conscious and obnoxious at the same time, dropping wads of cash on energy drinks and pizza that they inhale on the couch as soon as they get home from school.
Some of the teens in Jefferson cannot scrounge up enough change to pay for those luxuries.
And they don’t have a permanent couch to sit on — they bounce from friend’s house to friend’s house, biding time until they can drop out or graduate from high school.
These teens have names, real identities in Greene County.
They attend school events, laugh with friends and worry about whether or not one of those friends will let them camp out on their couch for a few weeks.
“If a kid is worrying whether they will eat, they really do not care about King Edward III or whatever,” said Kyle Kinne, special needs counselor at Greene County High School. “If they’re worried about not having a safe place to live that night, they’re not worried about linear equations.
“Those kids are at risk of getting behind academically because they’re worrying about things that other students here do not worry about.”
Kinne said the school’s focus for homeless and displaced students is “to have them overcome any obstacle for them to be in school and to be in class.”
For these students, the Homeless Teens Coalition has also become a surrogate provider.
The coalition was founded in 2012 by Lansman, of New Opportunities; Pam Mentzer, who works at Greene County Medical Center Public Health; and Pastor Julie Poulsen of First United Methodist Church.
Through their work, all three women noticed a need for change.
They provide assistance to teens in high school and the teens recently out of high school that are trying to build their lives.
“Helping them right at that moment could turn them from a life of crime on the streets to somebody that says I’m going to make a difference because somebody was there and helped me,” Lansman said.
Mentzer, who has also worked with Adopt-A-Family providing meals and gifts through sponsors at Christmastime for 35 years, said it’s important that teens not develop a mentality that it’s normal to be homeless.
With help from the coalition, churches and local donors, students are now able to have a daily shower at the school using donated toiletries.
Donated clothes keep homeless or displaced students from becoming the butt of a joke if they were forced to wear the same few outfits they were able to buy on their own.
The school received a donated washer and dryer, allowing students to do laundry inconspicuously.
The Homeless Teens Coalition has even paid for things like haircuts and tennis shoes.
They’ve paid for the caps and gowns, leftover school fees and sheet cakes that made up the last steps toward graduation.
Kinne said he works with local employers to encourage their teen employees to attend school. Many students in dire finances have the idea that working is more important than attending classes because they only see the short-term effects.
“That’s frustrating because if those kids lose schooling, that’s all they’re going to have the rest of their lives: working minimum wage jobs. It’s not the best thing for the future,” Kinne said. “They might say, ‘I don’t have money, so I might not go.’ No, no, no, that’s the least of our worries. Academics and knowing how to study should be the number one thing, and then you can go to college because there are loans.”
Kinne said some homeless students in Jefferson are considered displaced, meaning they have lived in Jefferson for an amount of time after their parent or guardian moved away and they found a temporary home.
Those students choose to stay because they’re already familiar with the school system and don’t want to leave friends.
However, there’s a lot of risk and financial pressure in taking in a displaced teen.
“Our observation is that the families that take these kids in are not necessarily the ones that are thriving financially themselves, because they understand,” Mentzer said.
The coalition works to provide groceries and whatever funding they can to the families who take in homeless teens. In the best of cases, the teen will be able to graduate high school and go on to college.
Jacob Peterson is one of the success stories.
Jacob moved in with the Roberts family two days after meeting them.
A recent graduate of Jefferson-Scranton High School, Jacob was a sophomore when his mom decided to move back to Clarion with his sister for drug treatment and a support system.
Matt Roberts said he and his wife were unsure they wanted to take in another teen they didn’t know. The Roberts’ daughter and two grandchildren were also living with them in their sometimes-cramped Jefferson home.
Jacob was friends with the Roberts’ son, Marshall, who had the idea to ask his parents if Jacob could stay with them.
“Marshall was upset that he was leaving, and (Jacob) told us that he really didn’t want to leave. I said, ‘Well, we have this extra bedroom,’ ” said Stephanie Roberts. “Then six months became almost three years.”
Within two days of that conversation, Jacob met the Robertses, asked their expectations and moved in.
“One thing that I did tell him was if you move in here, we’re not going to be able to provide you with a lot of money for extra things like clothes, but we can put a roof over your head. But if you get in trouble whatsoever with the law, if you get in major trouble at the school, you’re going back,” said Matt, who works dispatch at the Law Enforcement Center.
Imagine a teenager who can easily greet an ultimatum from someone who had never been his authority figure with gratitude — which is what Jacob did.
While the initial process was smooth, Jacob and the Robertses had done something more than let their son’s friend stay in a spare room.
They had to learn to live together, and Jacob had to learn to live every day, good or bad, without his own parent in his own home.
At the very least, the family had to figure out how feed another teenage boy.
“We said, ‘This is your home. If you’re hungry, go get something to eat. If you’re thirsty, go get something to drink. Don’t be shy about it.’ But he was at first. I was like, gosh, we’re starving him,” Stephanie said.
“I didn’t eat for a while,” Jacob laughed. “I ate a lot at night when I knew they were sleeping.”
“Now we’re so used to each other. He’s like one of our own,” Stephanie said about Jacob, who’s included in the family pictures hanging in the living room.
While Stephanie is considered disabled after a bout of cancer and two heart attacks and Matt works five jobs, they said they haven’t needed assistance.
This is their way of giving back after the community’s help during Stephanie’s illnesses, they said.
“I figure there’s always somebody that needs it worse,” Stephanie said.
“People would ask me, ‘Why aren’t you going to get money for being a foster parent?’ That’s not the reason that we did it,” Matt said.
After taking in a teen that would have been homeless if he did not choose to move to Clarion, the Robertses have managed to help pay the deposit on Jacob’s housing when he goes to Iowa Lakes Community College to study culinary arts next fall.
The soon-to-be freshman said he will split his weekend visits between Clarion and Jefferson.
“We’ve even said before if we knew there was a child right now that needed a place, we would do it again. We would just hope that we got as lucky as we did with him,” Stephanie said.
For those who have never faced homelessness, it’s easy to perpetuate the stigmas.
Maybe some are lazy, given to unhealthy habits, or don’t know how to manage their money.
Many Greene County residents who live in homes can claim the same characteristics. There is no one reason on which to pin homelessness.
Causes can range from the unexpected loss of a job from an accident or budget cuts, mental or physical illness, absence of the main provider or one unexpected crisis that throws the balanced budget of many living paycheck to paycheck.
Often, Pam Mentzer said, it’s a snowball effect in which homelessness can be traced back to one event that leads to a spiral of unfortunate events.
They just can’t catch a break, leading a homeless person to feel like a victim of life’s circumstances.
“My feeling is most of us are a step from it,” Teresa Lansman said. “I had people come in here and say, ‘I donated to this and now I have to go?’ I don’t see a middle class anymore.”
Matt Roberts said it’s important not to point fingers.
“I think we all have our things that we need to work on,” Roberts said. “Just because someone goes to treatment or loses their job, I don’t think there’s a fault.”
Kinne said that all Greene County High students must take a financial literacy class to learn how to manage finances. However, Kinne also said it’s important not to place blame.
“We have our beliefs and values. We’re constantly trying to put them on other people,” Kinne said. “I know a lot of people get very frustrated with how individuals in poverty would spend their money. If we looked at the rich class, their way of doing things is so different from the middle class, too.”
As for the paranoia of those cheating the system and relying too heavily on charity, Kinne said “if you’re helping 70 percent of them and then 30 percent of them are abusing it, isn’t it better helping 70 percent of kids?
“Some people would say if you help one kid, then it’s worth it.”
Lansman believes it’s easy to tell who is looking to benefit off charity, and who is willing to give back because they have been helped.
“The ones that you definitely help that do need it, they’re willing to do anything because you helped them,” she said. “That makes you feel like you’ve helped for a reason.”