By Todd Cohen
RALEIGH, N.C. — Twenty-nine homeless children in Wake County who otherwise might not get critical health and social services they need will now be connected to them, thanks to $2,900 raised by a fourth-grade class at Grace Christian School in Raleigh.
The students raised the money as a class project after hearing a presentation from Project CATCH, a program of the Salvation Army of Wake County that coordinates collaborative services and serves as an advocate for homeless children.
The presentation was part of a new effort by Project CATCH to raise awareness about Wake County’s 5,000 homeless children, including 2,900 who are school-age and over 1,250 who need mental-health care.
Every night, nearly 300 children in Wake sleep in shelters. Thousands more are forced to double up in the homes of family or friends, or live in cars or hotels, or sleep on the streets.
Children who are homeless typically have experienced or been exposed to violence in their neighborhood or family, says Jennifer Tisdale, coordinator of Project CATCH.
Yet those children often can seem invisible, with their needs not understood or addressed, she says.
Homeless children face health problems and lack access to health care, she says. They experience high rates of problems with mental health, learning, cognition, language development, and academic achievement.
Yet shelters typically focus mainly on addressing the immediate needs of homeless children and families for jobs and housing because those needs are critical and the shelters’ resources and staff are limited, Tisdale says.
And most shelters have limited protocols for screening and assessing children, as well as procedures for referring children with needs to appropriate mental-health providers, she says.
Shelters also typically lack sufficient resources to keep track of children over time to ensure they get effective services, she says.
Project CATCH — Community Action Targeting Children who are Homeless — works to fill those gaps.
Formed in 2011 in collaboration with the Young Child Mental Health Collaborative and initially funded by Wake County SmartStart and John Rex Endowment, the program partners with 11 shelter programs, including the one at the Salvation Army, and with 18 community programs, to offer physical, emotional and education services.
Operating with an annual budget of $141,000, two full-time staff members and four interns from N.C. State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, it receives child referrals from the shelters and the Wake County Public School System and has served 1,500 children.
It also provides a child-abuse-prevention program in three shelters for parents experiencing stress from homelessness. And it serves as lead agency in a collaborative effort to address the needs of families living in hotels.
“We are aligning and providing children with services they otherwise would not have,” Tisdale says.
Project CATCH refers every child it serves to five or six agencies, on average. It provides food and clothing for 80 percent of the children it serves. In partnership with The Diaper Train, it provides diapers to homeless families.
It also provides families with food through the Salvation Army or gives them food vouchers from Catholic Charities or Wake Relief. And it connects homeless children with after-school camps and extracurricular activities.
Child and Family Well-Being and Homelessness, a new book, includes a chapter on Project CATCH by Mary Haskett, a psychology professor at N.C. State, and co-authored by Tisdale and Amy Leonard Clay, a doctoral candidate at N.C. State.
Haskett suggests in the chapter that Project CATCH could serve as a national model to increase access to mental health services for homeless children.
First, however, the program aims to raise awareness and funding to sustain itself and add at least one more case manager, Tisdale says.
Project CATCH is partnering, for example, with the Contemporary Art Museum, which has visited the Salvation Army shelter to work on art projects with homeless children and is considering a display and exhibit of their work.
Project CATCH also is developing plans with the North Carolina Museum of Art for an art show featuring work by local artists the program has worked with to raise awareness about homeless children.
“When nobody know about you, it’s really hard to raise funds, and if we don’t, our doors will close by the end of the year,” Tisdale says. “Our goal is to create more awareness about the problem and issue so more people will become engaged.”