In the shadows
Almost hidden in plain sight among the glitz and glamour of Saratoga Springs, N.Y., are homeless families who can’t afford the expensive rents demanded by this popular vacation destination. They are forced to live outside of town where they merely survive in one–room, rundown motels.
That was where Tanya Myers and her three daughters found themselves when The Salvation Army stepped in to provide food assistance and love.
Myers sold everything and left her Saratoga Springs last summer to move to Virginia, but her oldest daughter, 16–year–old Kylie, didn’t want to stay there. The family returned three weeks later.
“I moved back and found myself with nothing,” Myers recalls.
Myers and her two younger daughters, Kaitlyn, 9, and Madison, 6, lived with family before moving into a $250–a–week motel on the outskirts of town for two months. They also brought along a dog and a cat.
Too close for comfort
“We were all in one room,” Myers said. “It was cramped up, no space. It was very hard with three kids who want their own space. That wasn’t a fun situation.”
The motel room had only one bed and a broken cot; the roof leaked and the floor was damaged. There also was only one sink for everyone to get ready for school and work in the morning.
“Some of the families have been there for a long time with their kids and everything,” Myers said of the motel. “One family had five little ones. There were a lot of kids out there. There are a lot of motels around like that where the homeless live.”
One of the other mothers soon told Myers about the after–school programs at the Saratoga Springs Salvation Army. Myers called and found out there was transportation and a meal for her kids.
Kaitlyn and Madison also got fed the word of God.
“They want to do things since coming here,” Myers said of her daughters. “They’re social and talk to people now. It’s been good for them.
They’re changed kids
“It gives them something to do rather than being on all the electronic devices. It’s great that The Salvation Army came and picked them up and didn’t hesitate to let them join in.”
Kaitlin and Madison also go to church on Sunday mornings. Kylie may attend summer camp this summer.
The family had no spiritual foundation before because Myers, a licensed practical nurse, often works on Sundays.
“It has changed them for the better,” Myers said of her daughters. “They talk about what they do at church and they pray. I think it’s been good for them. I’ve seen a difference.”
Myers and her daughters transitioned into a $1,000–a–month, three–bedroom apartment in February after getting her tax returns.
“It’s a lot better because where we live is a lot bigger now,” says Kaitlyn.
Lieutenant Bree Barker, one of the corps officers in Saratoga Springs, said The Salvation Army works with the Department of Social Services to supply food boxes to the homeless at 10 different hotels.
“If they can get to a gas station near the motel, that’s the only food they’re eating,” she said. “We started seeing people coming from motels to our food pantry.
“We provide food that can be prepared using only a microwave, since this is usually the only cooking device they have.”
Meeting unmet needs
The corps supplies the homeless with food, but the motels are often several miles away, and they find it difficult to carry everything back. Barker and Lieutenant Trisha Smouse, the other corps officer in Saratoga Springs, began driving the homeless back to the motels.
“We began to realize there were a lot of kids living in motels,” Barker said. “We had no idea. You think it’s an adult or two, but sometimes there’s a lot of kids around. So we invited them to programs and they always want to come.”
The corps transports the children from the motels to the after–school program three days a week and to church on Sunday. In the last year alone, more than 15 homeless children have started coming to the corps.
“I think in the kids’ minds, there is hardly any distinction between the after–school program and church,” Barker said. “Every single one of them transitions to Sunday church services because it’s another chance to get out of that tiny room and they have so much fun at church and really enjoy it.
“They’re like, ‘So we get to come to church today?’ They’re sad when it’s a day that we don’t have the after–school program or church.”
Now they know Jesus
The 12–plus hours a week at the corps gives the kids a break from the close quarters, space to run and play, and a desk space and tutor for homework. They also attend “troop night” once a week and learn how to play musical instruments.
Barker said on top of that, the kids get a nutritious “home–cooked” meal and snacks.
“The kids also take ‘to–go’ meals home to the rest of their families at night,” she said. “This gives the kids an opportunity to help provide for their family.”
Barker said all the children “most definitely” have become Christians and some of the parents even attend on Sunday. Some of the families had attended church in the past, but not all.
“We had about three or four families where Jesus was not spoken in their households and they had no idea,” she said. “They all know the Lord now, which is pretty amazing.”
Barker said two homeless children were enrolled as senior soldiers on Easter.
“This was a huge blessing for the corps to witness,” Barker said. “Not only were these children involved in the corps enough to go through their junior soldier prep class, but they made it all the way to enrollment day and are living lives that represent Jesus in their homes and schools.”
The sadness of moving on
Barker said working with families living in motels is “very difficult.”
“Their situations don’t have a quick fix,” she said. “There are so many obstacles that stand in their way. They are also transient, resulting in an uprooting from their ‘home’ and also from their church.”
In less than a year, Barker said the corps has seen 13 homeless children leave to move to another area.
“It is hard for the corps and the families to go through another transition simply because they can’t find local affordable housing,” she said. “When they move, we try to connect them with their local Salvation Army, but there is still heartbreak in our corps when we have to say goodbye. Goodbyes come on a regular basis.
“However, we know that even if we were only able to impact their lives with the Gospel for a short time, we still were able to plant a seed that, one day, another officer or pastor will see grow.”
Barker said one of the more heartbreaking cases she saw was a family with two parents and five children living in one motel room.
“These families live in very cramped spaces,” Barker said. “The motel rooms are very small and often in dangerous places.
The corps as oasis
“There is no place for the parent or child to have their own space for work or play. There is no table for meals to be prepared or eaten on. There is usually no safe place to run outside. Parents and children easily become overwhelmed when living together in one small room.
“These children are in real crisis. Not only do they face crisis in their lives, but they witness the crises of their neighbors in other motel rooms. They are exposed to drugs and alcohol, don’t often get adequate sleep or nutrition, and feel a burden to provide for their families, even though they are so young.”
Barker said while the children are at the corps, the parents have an opportunity to find employment, look for permanent housing, and simply have a break.
“They know their children are safe, well–fed, and are learning important life lessons,” Barker said. “Sometimes, this results in a quicker transition to permanent housing, which although difficult, is a necessary part of their journey.”
Finding permanent housing can be a challenge. The corps was once surrounded by affordable housing, but today it can cost as much as $3,000 a month to live “in a shoebox” apartment, Barker said.
Yet more challenges
“When you live in Saratoga, you are either obscenely rich or you’re everybody else,” she said. “Because there are so many who are obscenely rich, and because it’s a vacation spot, the rental prices are insane. Think like New York City prices. It’s expensive to live here.”
Many are forced to move away from town, where the bus lines are “completely disastrous,” Barker said.
“These people are really struggling because they have to walk everywhere they go, since there’s hardly any buses,” she said.
Barker said when she and Smouse have time, they knock on doors at the motels just to shine the light of Christ.
“They really just enjoy being visited by somebody. It’s not somebody knocking on their door because they’re being too loud or wanting to collect a bill,” she said. “It’s just someone who wants to genuinely have an adult conversation with them. They really enjoy it.”
A more abundant life
Smouse said the number of homeless families surprised her.
“I know that it is hard for families to share one living space,” she said. “The only option to escape is to either go outside or through the use of substances. The latter option has resulted in families being torn apart and children put in the care of children services. It is truly heart–wrenching, and we knew that we must get involved.
“Through this outreach, we have watched families be reunited with a stronger foundation of family, support, and love. We have also witnessed the children grow in confidence and academics.”
The corps also helps with back–to–school clothes for the homeless children.
“Kids growing up see they don’t have the same clothes everyone else does,” she said. “They don’t get to go on the expensive vacations like their friends from school, and they see how drastically different their life is simply because they weren’t born into a rich situation.”
Barker said the children who don’t have much are often bullied and she wants to minimize that.
Light in the darkness
“We clothe them and give them new shoes and something they can feel proud about,” she said. “They can feel like they’re going to school on a good foot and they’ll be excited to learn.”
Barker said the “love of God” motivates her and Smouse’s outreach.
“That influences everything we do,” she said. “These people are truly, truly in need. They’re in crisis, and they have nowhere else to turn, but they know they can turn to The Salvation Army and we’ll help them.
“We don’t only help them with food, but spiritually, relationally, and mentally with different resources in the community. They know they can get help from us.”
by Robert Mitchell