Local couple challenges others to help homeless families for the holidays

COLUMBUS (WCMH) — Spending the holidays in a homeless shelter was not something Kkanita Swann wanted for her family.

“My electricity got shut off and then I had got an eviction, and so I didn’t have anywhere else to go,” Swann said.

The mother of eight said she was “scared” about coming to a homeless shelter for the first time. Six of her children, ranging in age from ten months to sixteen years old, are with her at the Van Buren Center, which houses homeless men, women and families. The shelter is on the West Side, not far from where Swann was previously living.

“I didn’t know like how long we were going to be here, if the people were going to be nice, if it was going to be crowded,” Swann said.

Still, she’s concerned about spending the holidays at the shelter.

“I don’t know if they give toys here or if there’s a program for that,” Swann said. “I’m not sure how it’s going to be. Right now, for me, it’s looking a little rough.”

The Van Buren Center, funded by the Community Shelter Board, opened in the summer of 2014. It’s currently housing about 70 families, including about 220 children. Sue Darby of the YMCA, which operates the center and provides services, said the shelter does not turn anyone away.

Homelessness is a problem faced by many in Central Ohio. While homelessness in the state is down 17 percent, according to the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio (COHHIO), it’s up 24 percent in Columbus.

A spokesperson for Columbus City Schools said the district services about 4,000 children who experience homelessness each year.

It’s a problem that weighs on Keith Speers, who used to be a board member at the downtown YMCA and whose husband is currently on the board.

“What would it be like to be in the shelter and be a child and to wake up on Christmas morning?” Speers said.

Speers will celebrate his 50th birthday this coming weekend, and he decided to make his birthday about others instead of himself.

For his 50th birthday, he decided to challenge his friends and family to donate to the YMCA shelter to help out families like the Swanns.

“The Y’s trying to restore dignity for the members, the guests who are in the shelter,” Speers said. “And one way to do that is, rather than give gifts, give them a gift card that allows them to go and shop for their own child.”

Speers said the response has been overwhelming, with donations from as far away as Australia, Dallas and Chicago, including stocking stuffers, gift cards and checks.

“It’s an incredible time of year where we all take advantage of the fact that we have great friends who we go to holiday parties with and we have the opportunity to spend it with our friends and our family, a lot of us,” Speers said. “But for 220-plus children right now, they’re going to be waking up on Christmas morning in a homeless shelter.”

He knows his challenge to friends and family won’t fix the problem of homelessness.

“But for this one moment, can we help it to be a little better, to give a memory to a child that otherwise wouldn’t have it?” Speers said. “I think that’s a pretty impactful thing, and it says something about the heart of people in Columbus.”

Swann isn’t sure what Christmas will be like this year, but she said for her, it’s important that her family is together.

“I hope that it’s not a big change for [the kids],” Swann said. “I hope that they can adjust and you know, my kids are really, really grateful so whether we get stuff or not they’ll be grateful, period, regardless.”

To help families at the Van Buren Center, people can purchase and donate $25 gift cards from Walmart, Kroger, Target, Meijer and Giant Eagle or donate cash for gift cards. People can also donate a new gift ($10 to $15) for a child.

Unwrapped gifts can be dropped off at the Van Buren Center’s loading dock (595 Van Buren Dr., Columbus, 43223from 11am to 1pm or 4pm to 6:30pm Tuesday, Dec. 13 through Sat., Dec. 17.

Before you give to any organization, be sure to research to whom or what you’re giving. The Ohio Attorney General provides a resource here: http://www.ohioattorneygeneral.gov/Business/Services-for-Charities/Good-Giving

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