Homelessness is not a new problem for Rockford or the nation. But there is no typical face of someone who doesn't have a place to live. They can be anyone a neighbor, a friend, family member even you.
"We have an image of what of homeless person looks like. They are an individual who walks the street with layers of clothing on and multiple bags or a shopping cart. Well, no! That is one," says Lou Ness, Shelter Care Ministries, executive director.
People struggling with homelessness are not strangers. You are more likely to go to church or send your children to school with someone in that crisis. More than 55,000 people in Winnebago County are living in poverty. The average income for those families is about $12,000 a year.
"Families look different homeless. Often people are trying to find jobs or work or they've been foreclosed on, they lost a job and they are doubled up living with relatives." says Ness.
It's not a relative but a family friend who took in Kirsten Winkler and her three children. Being homeless is a new experience for the full-time college student. Last year, at this time she was a married, stay-at-home mom. Her husband lost his job which put a strain on the finances, but they were still getting by. Then in May the bottom dropped out, her husband died with no life insurance to cover him. Kirsten dipped into their 401k to try to make ends meet until finally nothing was left.
"Since then one thing has lead to another and here we are," says Kirsten.
She and her three children have been going from friend to friend staying on floors and couches trying to get by.
"There's no beds or anything. I basically lost my beds and crib and a lot of my furniture," says Winkler.
Shame and embarrassment are something Kirsten struggles with. She feels she has failed her children that this is what their lives have come to sewn together pillows for beds, dressers and furniture that have been traded in.
"This is where my son's clothes are, in a box and when I leave I'll take them with me," says Kirsten.
Her 12-year-old daughter has gone from having her own room and space to storing almost all her belongings in a small pink cube.
"You know her books and you know," says Kirsten, motioning to the box filled with items.
"That's where she keeps everything she has?" asks Rebecca Klopf, 13News reporter.
Never needing help in the past Kirsten assumed she could just apply for housing or there might be a shelter to take them in. The reality is Winnebago County is overburdened with poverty.
"People are shocked when they come into the system and find out, we're thin," says Ness.
The Rockford Housing Authority which provides public housing has a waiting list with hundreds of names on it It's Section 8 voucher, which gives money toward private housing, has not had it's waiting list open since 2006.
Shelter Care Ministers which provides housing for families does not even have a waiting list...
"We're full, almost all the time," says Ness.
She knows she is turning away people like Kirsten and her children. Her organization selects families based on critical need. If they're living in cars or shelters, victims of domestic violence or disabled, they go to the top of the list. And ultimately it's the children who pay the price when they do not have a home.
"Children who come from families who live in poverty or homelessness suffer learning disabilities at a much higher rate. Children who are homeless suffer mental illness at 3 times the rate of kids that are housed. They have greater health problems. They suffer from more colds and flues and health related issues," say Ness.
Though Kirsten wants nothing more than to give her kids a house to call their own right now she is happy they are not on the streets.
"There is not much else I can do. I have exhausted everything Rockford has to offer and they don't have anything for me," says Kirsten.
Her situation has gotten even worse than when we first met her. Kirsten recently has had to give up her car because she couldn't keep up with the insurance and cost of gas.
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