KIC-IT helps break cycle of poverty
By Rebecca Berfanger
If teenagers don’t have stable housing, they might be stressed about whether they can finish high school, if they haven’t already dropped out. They might be struggling to raise a child as a young parent without a strong support system. They might fall victim to many of the dangers of living on the streets, including violence, mental health and substance abuse issues, trauma or sex trafficking.
Although some Johnson County residents don’t realize the extent of the problem when it comes to youths living without stable housing, it’s mostly because the problem isn’t always visible, says Kimberly Spurling, executive director of Kids In Crisis-Intervention Team (KIC-IT) in Franklin.
Outreach, and then some
KIC-IT serves individuals age 16 to 25 in Johnson County who don’t have stable housing. To reach its target demographic, it has a drop-in center, open Monday through Friday, an outreach program to meet with the youths where they are, plus partnerships with school systems in Johnson County and other nonprofits and faith-based organizations throughout the county. Spurling is also the community outreach coordinator and McKinney-Vento liaison for Franklin Community Schools.
“Marion County has a more visible homeless crisis, including people living under bridges or on the street. We also have it here in Johnson County, without a doubt. Our local sheriff sees it, there are officers who report it, our numbers prove it,” Spurling says.
As part of her job with Franklin Community Schools, she has noticed an increase in the number of homeless students. For the 2016-17 school year, she says, 321 students experienced homelessness.
“That scares people. They think, ‘Where are they?’ About 85 to 90 percent of individuals and families are doubled up or couch surfing. Just because they have a roof over their heads, it still counts as being homeless. If anyone who owns the home suddenly says, ‘You gotta go,’ that family is in a homeless situation,” she says.
Spurling has also noticed families will travel outside Johnson County to stay in shelters or find other places to live, including hotels, “but those aren’t the best option,” she adds.
As an organization, KIC-IT has been participating in the Eyes Wide Open Project (kic-it.org/projects), a resource to learn more about individuals without stable housing.
Once a prospective client hears about KIC-IT, which helped at least 193 youths in 2017, and has more than 80 clients for 2018 as of mid-April, case manager Chelsea Fountain will set up an appointment for an intake interview. She’ll ask a series of questions to find out what led to the current situation.
Whether it was a fight with an estranged family member, a loss of income, the lack of a GED or high school education, mental health or substance abuse issues, a divorce, an escape from a violent partner or roommate, or a combination of things, Fountain will listen to the participant. She adds that sometimes they will need to take a break partway through if the conversation becomes overwhelming for the youth.
“Chelsea is a natural-born case manager,” says Spurling. “She’s extremely patient and kind, extremely empathetic. You’re going to have individuals who come through our doors and may not look a certain way or behave a certain way or talk a certain way we expect. Chelsea treats everyone with dignity and respect, which is not something you can teach.”
As part of that meeting, they will also begin to set goals. “We encourage them to identify their short-term and long-term goals to make a plan,” says Fountain. “It might be education or it could be employment. If you are housed, how do we keep you housed? If you’re looking for housing, what steps do we need to take to do that?”
Spurling adds that all the goals are self-determined.
“When youth come in, they are nervous, scared, not sure what they need,” she says. “We utilize a common checklist that helps provide guidance and lets them set their own goals. You have to have buy-in from the client. If we’re just sitting back telling them what to do, in general people don’t like to be told what to do, but imagine telling a teenager what to do. They might say, ‘I want to be a chef,’ or do this or that. We help identify that path to get there,” including connecting them with community resources in Johnson County.
The resources available at the drop-in center can also be a lifesaver. KIC-IT offers a free laundry service, hygiene products, a food pantry, plus gas cards and financial assistance for transportation for the youths to be able to get to job interviews or doctor appointments. They just need to fill out a form and have someone sign for them to provide some accountability.
There are also weekly dinners on Tuesday and Thursday nights.
“For a youth that comes in and is not used to eating a home-cooked meal, the community meal is pretty important to them,” says Spurling. “They’re not just getting food, but friendship and comfort. Plus, we never keep leftovers here. We’re food pushers. If there are any leftovers, we’re making sure they’re leaving with that extra food.” For those meals, the organizations receive leftover food from Franklin Community Schools, Spurling says.
For KIC-IT to consider a participant a success story, they will have completed at least 65 percent of their goals and self-report that they are living in stable housing. However, says Fountain, many participants will meet their original goals and continue to set new goals. There isn’t a limit to how long they can participate; some clients meet their goals in a month, while others might take a year or longer.
Resources for resources
Because KIC-IT is a small organization, Fountain and Spurling have been looking for volunteers to help staff the desk for the drop-in center, someone who could be available during the weekday.
KIC-IT is supported by United Way of Johnson County, but as a relatively new and small organization, it is always looking for support in terms of community groups willing to do projects for KIC-IT, as well as in-kind and monetary donations.
To raise additional funds, KIC-IT has participated in a number of events, including the Rock the Block run in April, where KIC-IT came in first and took home $3,250. It will also have a community sale on June 23 at Franklin Community Middle School and has hosted other fundraising events, such as Dancing with the Johnson County Stars last fall at the Historic Artcraft Theatre and a craft show around the holidays.
For anyone looking to learn more, former KIC-IT board President Dave Sever says he encourages others to learn and become educated to the issues around poverty. “So many times, people I talk with who are successful people, intelligent people, will say, ‘They just need a job,’ or ‘They just need to work harder,’ or ‘If they didn’t smoke cigarettes they’d have some money,’” he says. “But it’s much more complex than that.”
Sever adds that one of KIC-IT’s partners, the Bridges Alliance of Johnson County, is working to educate Johnson County residents about these issues; recent past efforts include a poverty simulation in early June. He is also on the steering committee for No Place to Call Home, a United Way of Johnson County program to connect all Johnson County residents with case management for housing needs, which is housed at KIC-IT.
“When dealing with homelessness and poverty, we need to break the cycle,” says Spurling. “We’re often dealing with generational poverty. We would love it, even if only once in a blue moon, to be the game changer that helps them break that cycle so that they and future children never deal with homelessness and poverty.”
Photo: Chelsea Fountain and Kimberly Spurling