Greater Cincinnati's homeless children: Nonprofit works to instill hope in kids without homes

'Hope is a little different for homeless kids'

CINCINNATI – Kelley O'Brien was in the midst of a draining divorce and had just financed Christmas for her kids when she lost her job in January.

Her savings kept her family afloat for a while. But by March, she could no longer afford the payments on her car and was evicted from the Northern Kentucky house she was leasing. She and her three children were suddenly homeless.

They ended up at the Family Promise homeless shelter in Newport the first week in April. And as difficult as it was to look for a new job and care for her kids, O'Brien said she never gave up hope.

"Without hope, then you're not going to get up everyday and plug through and do what you need to do," said O'Brien, who started a new job in June and moved out of the shelter to a new rental home July 3. "I don't know what I'd do without hope. I needed that – hope and faith."

The Value Of Hope

It's hard to say exactly how many homeless children live in the TriState. Westwood-based Faces Without Places serves 3,000 homeless kids each year but estimates there are as many as 6,000, said Ramin Mohajer, executive director.

The nonprofit provides a Yellow Bus Summer Camp, tutoring throughout the school year and birthday celebrations at shelters.

Through all those programs, Faces Without Places works to instill hope.

"As much as the focus on academics is so key, we think things like hope and self-esteem are really valuable for all children, but for the homeless population in particular," Mohajer said. "All of these children are going through very, very difficult situations and often don't see much of an optimistic outlook for the future."

Without that optimism – that hope – why bother with homework or sports teams or behaving at school or at home? Without hope that life will ever get any better, what's the point?

Faces Without Places' Yellow Bus Summer Camp has 131 students this year, ranging in age from 5 to 12. It's free for campers, who all ride a school bus to and from the Walnut Hills camp location each weekday for seven weeks.

Kelley O'Brien's daughter, Haley is one of this summer's campers. The soft-spoken 9-year-old has made new friends and become a role model. Her mom said camp has been good for Haley.

"She was always my shy girl and was very quiet in school," O'Brien said. "This has enabled her to come out of her shell even more and give her some confidence."

Photo: Camper James Whitney, 12, is attending the Yellow Bus Summer Camp for the second year. Emily Maxwell | WCPO.

Breakfast, Lunch And New Experiences

The Yellow Bus campers get breakfast followed by academic activities focused on math and literacy in the morning. After lunch, most afternoons are filled with field trips to places like Kings Island, a Cincinnati Reds game, the Contemporary Arts Center or the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport.

One recent morning, the kids had cinnamon toast sticks, sausage and orange juice for breakfast.

After James Whitney finished eating, he took a break from the camp's academic activities to talk about his summer.

This is the second year that 12-year-old James and his 9-year-old brother, Jason Harris, have attended Yellow Bus Summer Camp.

The boys and their mom and dad live in an apartment in Kennedy Heights now, James said, but until recently were staying with their dad's uncle.

Both the boys' parents have jobs and have managed to keep the boys in school in Silverton despite their different moves.

"It's kind of hard because most of our family lives in the Downtown area, in Avondale or Downtown, so we're pretty far from them," James said.

Still, James said he thinks things are getting better for his family. He likes that he's allowed to be more independent as he gets older. And he knows what he wants to be when he grows up.

"I want to be a mortician because I'd get to discover new things about the organs and the body system," he said.

His younger brother, Jason, wants to be a professional basketball player.

Jason likes camp and the break from homework and tests during the school year, he said, but he misses his friends.

Things are getting better for his family, Jason said, and he's glad they're all together.

"We're cooperating more," he said.

Photo: Jason Harris, 9, participates in a classroom activity at Yellow Bus Summer Camp. Emily Maxwell | WCPO.

'Hope Is A Little Different For Homeless Kids'

At the start of camp, each student fills out a survey developed by James P. Canfield, a post-doctoral fellow at Northern Kentucky University who will join the University of Cincinnati's faculty in August.

The survey asks children to rank – on a scale from "strongly agree" to "strongly disagree" – such statements as "I feel like I belong where I am staying" and "I feel like I have hope for the future."

Campers filled out the surveys at the start of camp and will retake them at the end. Then Canfield will measure whether the camp activities have boosted hope and self-esteem.

"Hope is a little different for homeless kids and poor kids," said Canfield, whose research focuses on homeless children. "You have to think of hope as having people in our lives, the support of others, the ability to have your daily needs met and a belief in the future that things are going to get better."

Children at Yellow Bus Summer Camp come from lots of different backgrounds, and some come to camp with more hope than others.

Most are living with single moms, and many live either in a homeless shelter or some kind of temporary housing, Mohajer said. Faces Without Places considers children homeless if they meet the federal definition – the lack of a "fixed, permanent nighttime residence."

The families Faces Without Places serves often are temporarily homeless, Mohajer said.

"In a lot of cases, it's families who were doing fine or right on the edge, but then there's a medical emergency or someone loses a job or the mom is leaving a domestic violence situation," he said. "They find themselves unable to make ends meet for a bit."

'Camp Is Fun'

Bry'Ayre Pruitt lives with her mom near Washington Park. She just finished first grade at Rothenberg Elementary School where she has 11 best friends.

"Camp is fun," she said one morning during a break from a classroom activity about fire safety.

"We eat healthy. We gotta eat healthy because you're going to get big and strong. I've gotten big and strong," 7-year-old Bry'Ayre said as she flexed her left arm muscle.

An Over-the-Rhine nonprofit has been trying to find more permanent housing for Bry'Ayre, her mom and her two sisters, but the family's financial stresses don't seem to worry the smiley little girl.

"We've got a little bit of problems," she said about her family. "(My mom's) been trying to fix our problems."

That's what Haley's mom, Kelley O'Brien, has been doing, too.

Haley said during a break from camp that things were looking up for her family. She was excited about moving from the shelter to a house on a hill in Newport.

"It looks nicer," she said a week before she, her mom and two brothers made the move. "We can have more room inside the house."

Photo: Yellow Bus Summer Camp attendee Haley O'Brien gets ready for a field trip to the pool. Emily Maxwell | WCPO.

'Children Bounce'

Canfield said it hasn't surprised him that so many of the kids at Yellow Bus Summer Camp seem happy.

"Children bounce," he said. "Homeless children are very, very resilient. When you're 8, you don't really completely comprehend the magnitude of what's going on."

He expects the children's surveys at the end of Yellow Bus Summer Camp will show the camp did improve the campers' sense of hope and self-esteem.

Homeless children, after all, are four times more likely to be homeless as adults than other kids, he said.

A summer camp that can help those kids get an edge, with academics, with hope, with self-esteem, Canfield said, "How cool is that?"

For more information about Faces Without Places, go to

For more stories by Lucy May, go to Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.

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