The issue of homelessness is one that’s often misunderstood by the general public. While thoughts of wayward, weathered figures holding cardboard signs at intersections pervade the thoughts of the common suburbanite, the reality is that the definition of homelessness is much more broad. It encompasses many ways of — and stages of — life.
The most heartbreaking aspect for most is the thought of homeless children.
“When we talk about childhood homelessness, it’s really quite different,” says Alex Kuhns, Executive Director for UpSpring. “It’s pretty rare that children end up living outdoors when they’re homeless. The vast majority of homeless children and families are living in a doubled up situation, also known as couch surfing.”
While these families are not necessarily without a roof over their heads, it is not a roof of their own. For children in particular, this type displacement is a common form of homelessness that comes with its own set of challenges.
Confronted with the figure that there are an estimated 8,000 children in the Greater Cincinnati Area living in these situations, concerned citizens may wonder what programs are in place to help those around them who find themselves in dire need, particularly during a pandemic.
The reassuring fact is that there is a web of agencies focusing on support for different demographics within the homeless population. UpSpring is an organization centered on seeing to the educational needs of our region’s homeless children.
“We have a very niche focus on education. Our focus is really on the kids, their education, and breaking the cycle of poverty,” says Kuhns.
UpSpring is run by four full time staff members, and adds 20 seasonal staff members for its summer camp. The organization functions with the help of 100 different partner agencies. “It’s very much a web,” says Kuhns. “Some call it a safety net.”
Schools and social service agencies refer children in need of UpSpring’s resources. Through UpSpring, kids receive vouchers for school uniforms and clothing, hygiene kits, bus passes, winter coats — whatever they may need to “get to school, stay in school or succeed in school,” says Kuhns. “In order to get to that next step of belonging and education, you have to have those base needs met.”
The next tier of care is focused on academic and emotional support. UpSpring’s site-specific afterschool programs provide teaching resources that focus not only on bolstering knowledge of curriculum, but on levels of self-esteem and confidence as well.
UpSpring’s summer camp reinforces this agenda, providing morning classroom activities that give kids a leg up in being prepared for their next semester of school, followed by afternoons filled with fun and rewarding enrichment excursions.
“We give them experiences that are quintessential to being a Cincinnati child. We make sure every kid in our program tries a 3-way, goes to a Reds game, goes horseback riding,” says Kuhns. “We go on yachts on the Ohio River. We call it Pirate Day. We found a group of folks who own yachts and are willing to let us come on them for a day and cruise down the river and enjoy the weather.”
While last year’s summer camp looked a little different due to the pandemic, UpSpring’s staff worked diligently to provide an experience as similar to previous years as possible.
“Rather than convening at a school, we brought the summer camp to their doorstep. We brought all the same resources, whether it’s learning materials or food. We brought brand new tablets we loaded with the UpSpring email address and all the apps they would need to connect virtually,” says Kuhns.
“This year we’re prepared to do something similar,” he continues. “We’re also prepared to perhaps do a blended model where we’re in person at some kind of a diminished level. We’re waiting to see what public health recommendations are.”
“We’re a small but mighty organization. We respond to the needs of our families right away and adapt our programs often,” says Kuhns.
“It’s a whirlwind, but we enjoy it. It takes a special person to do this work and I really can’t say enough things about our team. We have a unique team with unique skill sets that compliment each other, and I’m so grateful for them.”
The annual UpSpring Benefit Bash will be live-streamed this year on June 5th. A kickoff to the summer camp, this year’s bash will also host a scavenger hunt June 3rd through 5th. Interested parties can register to help raise funds by following clues that inform about UpSpring’s mission, hidden at various locations in Over-The-Rhine.