Connie Grandmason, 46, considered herself lucky. As the owner of a beautiful four-bedroom home in Columbia, S.C. and blessed with a stable and fulfilling job (Grandmason worked as a director for the Special Olympics), she was one of the fortunate Americans who remained largely unaffected by the economic crisis.
So Grandmason made the decision to spread her good fortune by opening her doors to people in need of shelter. Though natural disasters, the housing meltdown and widespread unemployment left a heartbreaking number of Americans homeless, it was the multitude of abandoned and homeless children in South Carolina -- an alarming 11,272 in the state alone -- that really caught Grandmason's attention.
"There were just so many wonderful children out there who needed a home," Grandmason told AOL Real Estate. Currently, 1 in 50 children in the United States is homeless, meaning that, on any given day, there are 200,000 children with no place live. "I didn't have to look far. They were here, in my own community, and they needed me."
Grandmason first opened her home to an abandoned infant, Patricia, in desperate need of care. The 1-year-old's mother had died, and her father struggled continuously with alcohol and substance abuse. After a vetting process by the Court Appointed Special Advocate Association, Grandmason was able to provide Patricia not only with shelter, food and clothing, but also a safe, nurturing family environment with strong role models. (Also living with Grandmason is her mother, Marilyn).
Soon afterward, Grandmason discovered that Patricia also had two displaced brothers -- Lamont, 11, and Warren, 8 -- who had been staying at a temporary children's shelter in South Carolina. With the help of CASA, Grandmason was able to reunite the siblings and provide all three children (pictured above) with a home.
It's an experience, Grandmason said, that is the most "fulfilling" thing she's ever done, and she encourages other homeowners who have a little extra room in their homes and hearts to strongly consider doing the same for other needy kids.
"I recommend it. Yes, yes, yes!" said Grandmason. "Not just over the holidays but every other day of the year. To be of service to children and to anyone in need is the highest good. It's the greatest gift we can give."
Offering Your Home to the Needy? Proceed With Caution
Currently, there are 633,782 homeless people in the United States. Of that number, there are also an estimated 238,000 families who are homeless and 50,000 young people who are homeless. Furthermore, 17 percent of homeless people are also classified as "chronically homeless" -- repeatedly unable to secure permanent housing due to unemployment or other factors.
Though one way to help -- particularly during the holiday season -- is to open your doors to needy families and children, social workers warn that such "helpful gestures" should be approached with extreme caution. Though it might seem altruistic, the actual reality of "taking someone in" -- even temporarily -- is complicated and possibly risky, said Denise Richardson of The Salvation Army. For a temporary housing arrangement to take place between a needy individual or family and a willing homeowner, an extensive vetting process (like the one administered to Grandmason by CASA) and examination of both parties' situations is absolutely necessary.
"It's really tricky because there really are so many homeless families out there who need shelter, and like many people, I too just want to make it all better," Richardson told AOL Real Estate. "But you can't just fix things that way, by opening your doors. Even if you see a homeless family all the time, on your street or by your train station, and think, 'Oh, they look nice, I want to help out,' we don't recommend you take their situation into your own hands."
The case of Greg Staffa, for example, demonstrates how challenging and complicated such well-intentioned arrangements can be -- for both sides. Staffa, 31, was left homeless after losing his home due to the housing crisis in 2010. And although he was kindly offered shelter by a well-meaning Minnesota couple, the arrangement, he said, was not easy or simple. Furthermore, Staffa said that he could understand why homeless people might actually decline an offer for shelter.
"I think most people would think a homeless person would be crazy not to jump at that opportunity, but there is a strong element of guilt," Staffa told AOL Real Estate. "You worry if you say or do something wrong, you're going to end up homeless again, so you walk on eggshells. Plus, as a homeless person, you have little to no money -- so here's a family taking you in and you have no way of showing your appreciation. It's really not as easy as you think it might be."
In the end, Staffa left the couple's home and spent two years sleeping in his car.
What Homeowners Can Do
For homeowners who want to "give back" and help the homeless this holiday season, what Richardson suggested as an alternative to opening your home is to apply to be a volunteer at the local homeless support service. New York City, for example, has community outreach programs, such as NYC Rescue and Homes for the Homeless. Richardson said that helping the needy via a trusted local homeless support service is not just safer for the homeowner, but for the homeless themselves.
Other ways to help include donating money or furniture to your local Goodwill or Salvation Army branches. Monetary donations to local shelters (which have specially built facilities to house homeless individuals and families) and nonprofit organizations such as Habitat for Humanity (whose mission is to build housing for homeless and needy families) go a long way in providing long-term housing for those in need.
"We're not advising you to stay away from homeless people," Richardson said. "If you know of a single mother with a child, for example, that's staying at a shelter or temporary housing, you can buy them a food hamper or bring their children toys -- there are plenty of ways to help. You don't need to open your house, just your heart."
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