The Family Place, a day shelter in St. Paul, offers homeless children stimulating, structured activities.
Four-year-old Bria Gaines touched a brown and white guinea pig and squealed in delight while her mother Tatiana, 29, stood far away in fear.
Bria was one of five kids from the Family Place, a day shelter in St. Paul, who took turns petting the animals on a tour Friday of the Animal Humane Society. The kids recognized that, like them, the animals also were without a permanent home.
Kimmeth Jackson, the shelter's director of parent and children's programs, was recently hired to revamp its summer program as it enters its 10th year. She said that with school out for the summer, it was important to develop a program that was both structured and educational for the kids. Each day of the program has a different theme: "Magic Mondays," "Art Tuesdays," "Health & Well-Being Wednesdays" and "Culture & Community Thursdays."
At the Humane Society Friday, staff member Holly Wetzel gave a short lesson on how animals become homeless and then led the group of kids and parents on a tour of the facility. During the tour she explained the adoption process, what veterinary doctors do at the shelter, how the animals are cleaned and cared for and how microchips are implanted to keep track of them.
"It was really exciting and I think the kids liked" the visit, said Margaret Lovejoy, executive director of The Family Place. "The magician who came on Monday helped increase their vocabulary, the artists helped them prepare for their visit to the zoo and we try to tie all activities into some kind of learning objective."
The summer program also aims to connect the shelter's daytime residents with people from the community, to foster positive relationships and provide learning opportunities. Jackson said one activity she enjoys is a visit from police officers, which she said gives the kids and parents a chance to interact with law enforcement in a context different from what they might be accustomed to, such as being evicted.
According to data from a report released Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development pegged Minnesota's homeless population in 2010 at about 7,900, an increase of approximately 2 percent over the previous year.
On an average day, the Family Place receives calls from 50 to 100 families asking if there is space at the day center. The maximum capacity is 40 individuals and it is almost always full.
When a family earns a spot, they are allowed to stay for 30 days and are expected to use that time to find employment and permanent housing with the assistance of Ramsey County staffers who work at the shelter.
The day center residents arrive at 6:30 a.m., receive hot meals and use the center. They must pack up and leave at 5:15 p.m., perhaps to sleep at a local church or synagogue for the night.
This year's summer program is funded by an individual donor. But Lovejoy said they are always looking for funds and hope to expand the center so they can accept more families.
Before the group went to the Animal Humane Society Friday, Family Place staffers talked about two parakeets that had been dropped off at their doorstep two years ago with a sign attached to the cage labeled "Homeless."
The kids there at the time wanted to keep them and named them "Change" and "Challenge" -- to reflect their own struggles.
Tasnim Shamma • 612-673-7603 Twitter: @TasnimS