Strawberries, stickers and lemon drops: The touchstones for kids to transition out of homelessness

By Corinne McKisson, Program Manager, Compass Housing Alliance

Here’s a fact we can all agree on: Kids tend to tell it like it is.

An extroverted 8-year-old, and one of the new residents at Ronald Commons, Compass Housing Alliance’s new low income housing building in Shoreline, reminded us of this recently when she asked: “How long can we stay here?”

Reading between the lines, her question belied a hard truth: the ongoing uncertainty about the pathway out of homelessness. Having a permanent place to stay was not something she was well acquainted with. From this child’s perspective, her future was still unclear. When I told her she could stay as long as she wanted, she did a double-take, and asked incredulously “forever?”

She could hardly contain her excitement. At a tender age, she has a very clear-eyed appreciation of what a long-term address might mean for her and her family. It represents continuity, safety, stability and the start of a family life that might better resemble that of her friends at school.

For most people, the transition out of homelessness and into stable housing is a process. More so for children. Though we know they are resilient, they are still in need of reassurances. And these can be hard to come by as formerly homeless children vigilantly watch their parents. They aren’t blind to the exhaustion that might come across a mother’s face as she is adjusting to a new place, new neighbors, new routines and new rules. They can sense the guilt that comes with finding a home when friends are still living in tents on the streets and in shelters. There’s a sense of vague longing for a community that is left behind.

With great intent, the team at Ronald Commons has also created a few touchstones for these kids as they start to settle in their new home. We know families and their kids all have lots of questions. They’ve been living in chaos and as things are calming down, they are trying to navigate their way around new relationships and a new community. We are an important part of that discovery. We are a consistent friendly face to socialize with. We are the new adults in their lives and their trust in us grows in tandem with that of other neighbors. We are the ones who plan activities for them to help strengthen their connections to their new neighbors.

It Starts with Small Things

We’ve learned that it’s very small things that can draw kids into a conversation, the building blocks for a relationship. For me, it’s a bowl with lemon drops in my office. A drawer to keep stickers, stamps and gum. These are like precious magnets that start the day-to-day connection points, and keep us tuned into how they are doing and how they are adjusting. It’s working better than we had hoped. How can we tell? My office is right by the play area and when the kids are outside, they frequently  come and talk with me at the open window. Inside or out, my office is a destination, which, by extension, is me.

Ronald Commons opened in a snow storm in February. Now it’s spring. I say that literally and figuratively. Since these children first moved in, they have blossomed. Now that it’s getting warmer, it’s fitting that they have taken an interest in the community garden. It’s almost time to plant and they have joined in the planning meetings. The kids listen to talk of snap peas, herbs and greens. But then they freely contribute their opinions. What is most important to grow in the community garden? Strawberries. Lots of strawberries. The anticipation in their voices is real. It’s also a clear sign that these kids are settling in to more than just a home, but their childhood.