It's a crisis of misperception. New Yorkers tend to see the homeless as a bunch of older men, Kim Berrios says, scruffy guys walking around with shopping carts and burping up booze from cardboard boxes. “People don't realize–the majority of homeless are kids,” says Berrios, a homeless mother of three.
She should know. During the past few months, Kim and her husband, Julius Cabbrera, and their children, Jonathan, 7, Sunsarei, 5, and Jeremiah, 16 months, have been shuttling in and out of the Emergency Assistance Unit in the Bronx, the city's entry point for families looking to enter the shelter system.
The number of homeless children is now the highest in city history–more than 15,800 strong–and most are under age 10, according to Ann Duggan, a policy analyst for the Coalition for the Homeless.
While Berrios' family settles into a temporary shelter, where they can stay for several months, she and Cabbrera have teamed up with other homeless families and the Coalition for the Homeless to organize and jumpstart New York Kids Need Housing, a multi-tentacled public education campaign. “For the first time, the city will be able to hear the voices of the kids,” says Duggan.
To start, in mid-September, they began going shelter to shelter, passing out postcards for homeless children to send to City Hall. “Dear Mayor Bloomberg,” one reads, “I need your help…”
Later this fall, the mayor will get a delivery of model houses crafted by campers at Homeward Bound, the Coalition's sleepaway camp for homeless and formerly homeless kids. A documentary film–featuring children speaking out on their experiences in the city shelter system–is also in the works.
The goal, Duggan says, is to give homeless children the opportunity to educate the public, and–fingers crossed–win over the sympathy of elected officials and sway them to invest more public money in affordable housing. It's also designed to teach young teenagers leadership skills.
Yet many families have been reluctant to participate, says Berrios. The prospect of spending money on stamps is daunting to some, she says, even though the Coalition has offered to mail the postcards. And to others, the cards seem gimmicky. “The people in the shelters have been through so much,” she says, “they don't want to be educated.”
As for her children, they all agree: they hate being homeless, and they hate the EAU. “There was roaches and stuff,” Jonathan says. “Once we ate the food and we was vomiting. It was nasty.” Says little sister Sunsarei: “The rats were big and they were biting everyone, so we had to stay in a tree house in the park.”
New York Kids Need Housing officially kicks off at an October 20 public forum at the Jan Hus Presbyterian Church, 351 East 74th Street, from 2 to 5 p.m.