For the Homeless, a Childhood Finally in Reach

Twins Dana and Daijha Spencer Play with Walkie-Talkies
Twins Dana and Daijha Spencer, 9, play with walkie-talkies while participating in the Homeless Children's Playtime Project. (James M. Thresher -- The Washington Post)
By Theola S. Labbe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 5, 2006

Homeless children bounce from place to place, get sick frequently and have more mental health problems -- including anxiety and depression -- than children living in a home.

One thing they often lack is something money can't buy: the opportunity to play. Something so simple can be difficult for homeless children to achieve.

That's why each Sunday since June, a group known as the Homeless Children's Playtime Project has brought fun and games to about 125 children staying at D.C. Village, a cluster of low-slung brick buildings on a sprawling campus near Bolling Air Force Base at the city's southwestern tip.

There are programs in the District that serve homeless children through tutoring and day-care services, or with one-time special outings or donations. But the playtime project, which survives on contributions and has no paid staff, marks the first sustained effort to serve the need of District homeless children to be carefree by creating a time and space for them to play.

Research from the National Center on Family Homelessness shows that life is more difficult for homeless children. They are ill twice as often as other children, have to move more often and have more emotional issues. The goal of the playtime project, said co-founder Jamila Larson, 32, a District school social worker, is to preserve children's opportunity to play, even if they are in a stressful or traumatic environment of a homeless shelter.

"I feel like if the city agrees to take children, it needs to serve them. You can't just feed them and find a bed for them," Larson said. "I want to give them a weekly outlet to have one-on-one attention from caring adults and give them access and a variety of materials to play with."

More children are in need of that attention as more families become homeless. Since 2000, the number of families applying for emergency shelter in the District has more than doubled, echoing a nationwide trend of increasing demand for shelter. Families with children are a fast-growing segment of the homeless population, according to the Center on Family Homelessness.

Across the country, other groups have addressed the issue of homeless children and recreation. Horizons for Homeless Children, a program in Boston, installed play spaces for families in homeless shelters that included books, art supplies and toys.

The Toy Industry Foundation, which is the philanthropic arm of the Toy Industry Association, has been bringing play to homeless children through a program called the Power of Play. The New York-based foundation has given about $400,000 annually since 2002 to nonprofit groups in 11 cities for play programs for children, said spokeswoman Terri Bartlett.

For example, in Oklahoma City, families living in homeless shelters are given toys to play with together, Bartlett said. The adults learn about the importance of play through a hands-on curriculum that develops stronger motor skills and better hand-eye coordination. The curriculum also recognizes the importance of art and music in the lives of children.

"There are many organizations paying attention to the survival needs of children -- food, clothing, education -- but we felt that no one has really taken on the mission of bringing them play," Bartlett said. The foundation delivered more than 130,000 toys to children affected by Hurricane Katrina.

The Tennessee-based Bright Horizons Foundation for Children has created a national program called Bright Spaces that has installed 100 play spaces for homeless families and children across the country. In January 2005, the foundation opened a playroom at D.C. Village and the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center, the office on M Street SW where families apply for emergency shelter.

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