It’s easy to have the thought that there’s something shameful about being homeless. It’s presented in movies, in TV shows, in news programs, and social talk; that homelessness is a problem for big cities, that “homeless people” are dangerous addicts with filthy habits, that “homeless people” choose their life on the streets, that “homeless people” avoid work by living off donations from others.
The media does such a disservice in portraying what those parents are like. The parents I work with are pretty darn amazing. – Dani Claesges, coordinator, Eau Claire Area School District’s Homeless Program
Dani Claesges knows thousands of people who have experienced homelessness and her story is very different. Claesges, the coordinator for the Eau Claire Area School District’s Homeless Program, has been assisting homeless students for more than a decade. The words she uses to describe the families she works with are words like inspiring, thankful, kind, generous, and strong.
“The media does such a disservice in portraying what those parents are like,” Claesges says. “The parents I work with are pretty darn amazing. These parents are up against such stress. They have the weight of the world on their shoulders, they’re homeless so they’re stressed out about that, trying to find a place, not enough money, maybe switching jobs, maybe they can’t pay for day care. And yet these parents come in here, composed and still advocating for their child. They inspire me about how much they are fighting to get things back on track, fighting to be able to provide these things for their kids again, but you can’t do everything so that’s why we do what we do here.”
Child homelessness in Eau Claire is very real, but it is not often visible. In the 2016-17 school year, 369 students found themselves without a permanent home. Homeless students may live at another family’s home because of hardship, in a shelter, in a motel, a tent, a camper, a car, an abandoned building, a park, or other unstable or inadequate housing. The Homeless Program operates out of the school district’s dedication to respect and support the integrity of every student’s education, no matter what their life circumstances. The program offers assistance with school supplies, clothing, hygiene products, transportation, and and other tangible needs. It also provides information and connections to the other support services in the area.
Families experiencing the crisis of homelessness are supported by the wider community through shelters, kitchens, the free clinic, closets, and other services. “It definitely is a partnership within the community,” Claesges says. “What helps my job – getting the family out of homelessness as quickly as possible – is for those agencies to be strong and have the support and the funding that they need.” Families getting out of homelessness quickly means that the students can return to focusing on their education instead of the anxiety of their situation. And most of them do get out of homelessness: Claesges says that kids are almost never served for more than one calendar year and 95 percent of the families she works with are only served once.
“We can choose to be a community that supports our individuals and families who are struggling or we can be a community that chooses to ignore them and not support them, but they are still in our community,” Claesges says. “Either they are going to be an unhealthy part and not able to contribute or we are going to support them and they are going to be strong, healthy, intelligent; tomorrow’s leaders.”
The work of the school district’s Homeless Program and of the other support agencies and organizations in our community depend heavily on donations and volunteer hours. The Homeless Program specifically accepts donations of new or gently used clothing and school supplies, or new hygiene items at the ECASD Board Office building at 500 Main St. in Eau Claire. Monetary donations toward purchasing these items are also welcome, and volunteers are needed to sort supplies and clothing. For more information about how you can help to support families working to get out of homelessness, contact Dani Claesges of the ECASD Homeless Program at (715) 852-3044 or follow them on Facebook to get alerts about specific needs.