Our Views: Project 16:49 takes big steps forward to help homeless students

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Monday, February 17, 2014

The year is young, but Project 16:49 has already taken two bold, courageous steps forward to help Rock County’s homeless students.

The moves go hand in hand. Project 16:49 first hired Amy Smejkal as case manager. This month, it opened a home designed to house up to seven young women in Beloit. Smejkal is screening prospective students to determine which ones are appropriate for the home and its services.

Tammy DeGarmo is executive director of Project 16:49, named for the hours and minutes between school days. Officials estimate that about 130 students across the county are homeless, lacking the presence of a parent or guardian. The Janesville School District identifies 55. Don’t look for them on park benches or under bridges. Instead, DeGarmo says, they’re “couch surfers,” drifting from the home of one friend to another each week. Others live with extended family or with friends of their parents. A few sleep in cars.

Those accepted for the Beloit home must be at least 18, working toward a high school degree and willing to commit to more than just keeping a roof over their heads. They will be expected to attend sessions to develop life skills, prepare educational and employment goals and refrain from alcohol and drug abuse and abide by other house rules.

As Anna Marie Lux reported in Sunday’s Gazette, the home has accepted its first three students. The first one had been living in her broken-down car and trying to keep warm under blankets. She found her new surroundings “amazing,” hopes to grow as a family with her housemates and aspires to study music education.

The late 19th-century home near downtown Beloit features seven upstairs bedrooms and a resident assistant. Project 16:49 isn’t revealing the location so residents can maintain privacy. The young women will be referred from school staffers and can stay up to 18 months while finishing high school and starting college. None can be young mothers because of the limit on the number living in the home.

Readers here might think, well, that’s fine, but what about helping the many female students in Janesville? Don’t misunderstand, DeGarmo says. The home is open to students throughout the county. Project 16:49 is arranging transportation so they can stay in their home schools.

“We have to take care of these kids regardless of where they go to school,” she reasons.

What about helping boys? That, says DeGarmo, is the next step. Project 16:49 hopes to open a similar home in Janesville for males.

What about helping the many homeless juveniles? DeGarmo points out that Project 16:49 strives to find people willing to open their homes to minors through its Safe Families for Children program.

“I keep saying, ‘It’s not over now; it’s really just the beginning.’ We have a lot of supporters in the Janesville area. There’s so much more we can do. That support is valuable and will continue to be.”

Project 16:49 empowers homeless students who want to achieve goals, control their own destinies and become self-sufficient adults. Supporters earn applause for helping the organization take these latest steps and those yet to come.

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