Homeless Toddler in Tulsa Suffers Emotional and Developmental Effects | Local News

Playtime inside an air-conditioned home or daycare center isn’t an option for 2-year-old Aidan Smiles, who spends his summer days being pushed around in temperatures three degrees below a bridge on North Denver Avenue.

The tires of his stroller—where he spends 75 percent of his day—press through unidentifiable mud. His curious hands and feet are tied to keep him from touching the needles and broken glass that line the walkway.

In a Jan. 28 count of protected and unprotected homeless people in Tulsa, 238 were in families with children, including Aidan and his parents, Cachet Payne and Derrick Conway.

The 2022 pinpoint survey found 1,063 people homeless at that time in Tulsa, but housing experts say many more are unaccounted for.

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Aidan’s parents got into separate run-ins with the law in April, which left the family without a stable income. Since June 4, they have relied on the Salvation Army’s Tulsa Hope Center. During the five most important years for his development, Aidan was homeless while his parents waited for affordable housing and employment.

With 98% of Tulsa’s homes full, families are spending at least three to four months looking for housing compared to the two to three weeks it took last year, said Michelle Pearson, Tulsa’s rapid rehousing coordinator. Day Center.

This includes people with Section 8 vouchers and grants.

“There is less family housing, even fair rents. … I’ve worked with housing and homelessness for 22 years, and I’ve never seen this happen before,” Pearson said.

Stuck in limbo

Just over a year ago, daily routines looked different for Aidan. He spent his first year growing up in a three-bedroom apartment in Wagoner with his mother.

It was by no means perfect. Aidan’s biological father was in rehab and Payne, 38, couldn’t afford daycare, so Aidan accompanied her to work at a private nursing home. He liked to play with empty pill bottles, which had belonged to Payne’s patient, and could open them on his own.

Conway, 33, entered the scene when Aidan was 8 months old. He changed diapers and celebrated his first birthday at the park, Aidan’s favorite place to date.

His first word was “dada” – a word he saved for Conway. But once Aidan’s biological father came out of rehab in December, he took Aidan to live with him at his paternal grandmother’s house in Muskogee.

Because Aidan’s biological father would not return him, Conway and Payne spent their time finding affordable housing in Tulsa.

But they got “stuck” when the Tulsa Housing Authority emailed them asking for about $700 in late fees. They went from house hunting to couch surfing to living in their car.

Conway was arrested in April and faces attempted burglary charges, according to online court records. Rogers County prosecutors charged Payne in March with second-degree burglary and petty larceny.

Greg Shinn, housing director for the Oklahoma Mental Health Association, said homeless people are overrepresented among incarcerated people across the state, which has the third-highest incarceration rate in the United States.

In Tulsa, 55% of homeless people who were counted in the 2022 pinpoint survey cited a history of incarceration.

When Payne got out of jail, she found Aidan in a park at her grandmother’s smoke-filled house in Muskogee. Only.

Her hair was matted and her diaper fell to her knees. He didn’t recognize his own mother at first.

Since then, Aidan hasn’t been so verbal. It wasn’t until two months later that he started to come out of his shell.

Tulsa Youth Services Assistant General Manager Beth Svetlic said disruptions in caregivers and housing can lead to difficulties in children’s ability to bond. Conway and Payne see the effects on Aidan, who often acts aggressively when he doesn’t get what he wants.

“He Can’t Be Free”

Tina Massey, executive director of Family Promise of Tulsa County, said homelessness can affect children physically, emotionally and cognitively.

Through Family Promise’s apartment housing program, Massey strives to provide 90 days of temporary housing to otherwise homeless families. Typically, its clientele is made up of single mothers with children and two-parent families with young children.

Massey said children who go through the program have an opportunity for stability, which is crucial for their development.

“Kids shouldn’t be subject to (a) mom worrying about how she’s going to feed them or where they’re going to sleep tonight,” Massey said. “But a lot of kids see that and take on that responsibility, even if they are 3, 4 and 5 years old.”

Payne and Conway work hard to make sure Aidan ends the night with a roof over his head and a full stomach. They eat breakfast at Iron Gate and lunch and dinner at the Salvation Army, and they often schedule bus rides to infant emergency services so Aidan has plenty of clothes.

But Aidan is still quite calm for his age. A lack of stimulation may be a contributing factor to a child’s booking, Massey said.

Without an income, Payne and Conway can’t afford the average $250 a week it would normally cost to send Aidan to daycare. But Payne has reached out to the Cherokee Nation for help through its Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program and hopes to place Aidan in daycare as soon as possible.

As the couple watch their son come to life during his time at the park each day, they wish he could stay out a little longer to make friends and be a kid.

But, for now, Aidan doesn’t have that luxury.

“He can’t be free like he should be,” Payne said.

“A Stigma Attached”

As Aidan approaches his second birthday on August 11, all he can do is wait alongside his parents.

Conway recently took a job with a fencing company and said he was close to reconnecting with a former employer. Payne, meanwhile, takes all the private home health-related interviews she can get.

Finding a job is difficult because the couple lost their birth certificates and social security cards when their car was stolen. Pearson said it was a common problem for homeless people.

Although Tulsa Transit is free until Sept. 15, unreliable transportation makes it difficult for homeless people to get to interviews and jobs. Conway and Payne can’t walk miles in the heat with Aidan.

The couple recently put themselves on a waiting list for a two-bedroom unit at St. Thomas Square apartments. After about two months of applying for numerous housing options, Payne and Conway are still hopeful that this will be the end of their homelessness.

But the family is tired of having to overcome other obstacles.

“Why are we still waiting? I can understand if we did nothing. If we were just in limbo, then OK, you take your time, because you see I’m not serious,” Payne said. “But we are serious. So why is nothing being done?

Aidan hasn’t had his own room since he was a few months old. Payne dreams of buying her a bed and toys and having her family eat meals at their kitchen table.

“A lot of people, … every time you hear the word homelessness, there’s a stigma attached to it,” Massey said. “You think it’s the average man below deck, begging for money. It’s not. More and more it’s families, and we need to bring that to light.

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