About Utah: Helping a homeless child avoid the Huck Finn label

Published: Sunday, July 31 2011 11:36 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — It's the first of August so technically it's legal to again use the S word:

School.

Like it or not, it's right around the corner.

That means shopping for school clothes, like it or not, started yesterday, if not sooner, and since there's no delicate way to put this I'm just going to say it straight:

There are about 100 kids who could sure use our help.

Otherwise they're going to be branded with the H word:

Homeless.

These kids are currently housed with their parents at the Road Home shelter in west Salt Lake. They are there through no fault of their own, and often through no fault of their parents, either, other than crummy luck, bad timing and a recession bordering on a depression.

The down economy is funneling families into homeless shelters faster than ever. The Road Home has seen a 48 percent increase in homeless families over the last two years.

"Typically, we'll have about 50 school-age kids and this year we're pushing closer to 100," says Celeste Eggert, director of development and community relations at the facility. "We have more homeless families than anytime in our history, going back to 1988 when we first opened our doors.

"We're seeing a lot of families that have never been homeless before and never expected to be," Celeste continues. "But they lose their job, their hours get cut back, somebody gets sick, or something else happens. In years past they could turn to family and friends for support, but now their family and friends are tapped out too."

The 31 rooms the Road Home reserves for families have been full all summer. There are currently another 16 families living in the hallways or lobbies or in auxiliary crisis shelter housing that is normally used only in winter.

"The good news is we're not turning any families away," says Celeste.

But anyway, back to the school clothes.

When the kids from the shelter report to school in the next three or four weeks, either they show up in new gear with the proper supplies in the requisite backpack or they'll stick out like Huckleberry Finn.

And as much as their parents want to help, they can't.

But others can.

For the seventh year, the Road Home Apple Tree campaign is up and running. The names and needs of every one of those 100 kids have been printed on a paper apple stuck to "trees" that are located at a variety of Wasatch Front businesses.

You can pick an apple at the various locations of DownEast Home & Clothing, Payless Shoe Source, any Salt Lake area Staples store, the three locations of Sanctuary Day Spa and the advertising/public relations firm Intrepid, located at 375 West, 200 South in Salt Lake City. (To see a complete list of the locations, go to facebook.com/Intrepidagency.)

When you've completed the shopping list, the back-to-school gear can be returned by Aug. 15 to wherever you picked the apple in the first place.

"You cannot overestimate the impact this has," says Celeste, who has been involved with the Apple Tree program since its inception – and is especially anxious this year because of so many more homeless kids in need.

"We have a party for the families when we distribute everything," she says. "We have pizza and we bring the kids in one at a time and give them their backpack and their school clothes. I'll never forget an 8-year-old girl when she came into the room two years ago, and they gave her her backpack and she was just in awe and then they gave her her shoes — and she started crying. She could not believe she was getting a new pair of shoes to go back to school, just like the other kids. It's so easy to forget just how difficult it is for these kids. Honestly, you have no idea what a little semblance of normalcy, a new pair of shoes, a new outfit for the first day of school, can mean in their lives."

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Monday and Friday.

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