For most kids, summer is a time of year to look forward to.
But that's not typically the case for the 23,000 children who live in New York City’s homeless shelter system. With children out of school, shelters and temporary housing alike often become more crowded and stressful and the kids themselves are left with little to do during the day.
But Homes for the Homeless, a New York-based nonprofit, offers an alternative for over 500 homeless children each summer. Since 1989, the organization has brought hundreds of children each summer for three 16-day sleepaway camp sessions on the grounds of Harriman State Park in upstate New York. For many participants, the experience marks their first time traveling outside of the city.
At HFH’s Camps Lanowa and Wakonda, the children -- who range in age from 6 to 13 -- are assigned a bunk in a cabin and take part in a range of activities, including swimming, volleyball, beadwork, dancing, drama, fishing, singing and hiking. In addition, activities like journal writing and bug hunting have an educational component disguised as summer fun.
The impact of the campers taking part in these activities in a bucolic setting can be huge for both the participants themselves as well as their families, Sarah Herold, then-program coordinator, explained to the Queens Chronicle in a 2013 interview.
“It provides kids with a break from shelter life and helps combat summer learning loss,” Herold told the Chronicle. “We give the kid a break by sending them into the natural world and it gives the parents a reprieve because living in a shelter can be a stressful situation. For them to know that their child is in a safe space really allows them to relax.”
A break is much needed for these youth. According to the National Center on Family Homelessness, children experiencing homelessness go hungry at twice the rate of other kids and have three times the rate of emotional and behavioral problems when compared to their non-homeless peers. By age 12, an estimated 83 percent of homeless children have witnessed at least one serious violent event.
An additional component of the camps is the “Teen Leader” program, which allows past campers to return to the camp to help counselors keep a watchful eye on campers and act as a mentor to them.
The camp is free of charge to children whose families are receiving public assistance and priority is given to children currently living in a shelter or those who have done so within the past year. Children in foster care can also take part.
In addition to the camp, Homes for the Homeless operates three family shelters -- two in the Bronx and one in Queens -- and offers educational and job-training programs.
Homes for the Homeless isn't the only organization offering such a program to the city's homeless youth. New York's Coalition for the Homeless has run Camp Homeward Bound in Harriman State Park since 1984.
According to the latest report issued by the NCFH, the number of homeless children nationwide in the U.S. has surged to an all-time high in recent years. Earlier this year, New York City’s homeless population also reached a record high.