“If you ever buy a box of granola bars and you don’t like the flavor, bring them by,” says Jennifer Martin, social worker and director of the Education Project for Homeless Youth. On shelves around the perimeter of her small office at the Washtenaw Intermediate School District, school supplies share space with underwear, soap, shampoo, deodorant, toothbrushes, cans of soup, and boxes of granola bars.
A U-M intern is putting together a care package, Martin explains, for “a woman waiting out front with her mental health worker. They’ll probably put her and her kids in a local motel. The shelters are full.” As the intern packs some toiletries–“these aren’t the kind of motels that supply those little bottles of shampoo”–Martin tells her to add a few cans of soup, too–“and don’t forget a can opener.”
The program originally focused on school supplies, but “it’s pointless to hand a notebook to a kid who doesn’t have a backpack to put it in,” Martin says–or to give a backpack to a kid who doesn’t have any socks. The granola bars are for older “unaccompanied youth … often they have a couch to crash on, but they often don’t get regular meals.”
It’s hard to say what’s more staggering–the fact that Washtenaw County has more than 1,300 homeless kids, or that Martin’s budget, which comes from state and federal sources, was cut in half this year while the number of homeless kids has more than doubled since 2009. In 2009, her budget was about $111 per child; this year, it’s down to $35,145, or about $27 per kid.
“If anything good has come out of it, it’s that we’ve been forced to turn to the community for help,” Martin adds. She has put together an “angel network,” and this month, she’s trying to raise enough money to give each homeless kid a $25-35 holiday gift; anyone who’d like to help can reach her at email@example.com