With curtains drawn against the daylight, the 10- by 12-foot room at the Olathe homeless shelter is mostly dark except for the dim glow from the laptop Susan Zornes has powered on.
Crammed inside the room she shares with her husband, Ernie, and their two daughters are two sets of bunk beds and nearly all of their worldly possessions: their clothes, a portable television, a DVD player and an assortment of toys.
In the courtyard outside, Katie, 6, and 2-year-old Dakota swing, climb and slide down the jungle gym. The girls laugh and play, seemingly without a care in the world.
Nearby Ernie keeps a watchful eye as he smokes a cigarette. Traffic rumbles a short distance away from the Salvation Army Family Lodge at Santa Fe and Woodland streets.
Since July 12, this is where the Zorneses have called home.
The Zorneses, formerly of Gardner, are among the growing number of homeless families struggling to survive amid the surrounding affluence in Johnson County. They are the homeless who do not always stand out, who don’t follow the stereotype of the street person begging along an interstate ramp.
Officials estimate that about 2,255 Johnson County residents are homeless and that many of those are families with children, says Valorie Carson, community planning director for United Community Services of Johnson County.
They are among the 36,000 residents in Johnson County who live in poverty. For a family of four, that means living on an annual income of less than $22,000.
United Community Services leads an effort to physically count the homeless on one day each year to paint a picture of the often hidden problem in Johnson County. Although the official one-day snapshot drastically undercounts homelessness, the group uses the count to understand who is homeless and to better serve them.
Last year on Jan. 26, agencies and volunteers spent 24 hours looking for Johnson County’s homeless. They found 315 “literally homeless” people, meaning they were living on the streets, in cars, in a shelter or transitional housing.
More than half, or 168, were children.
The figures appear especially low given that the county’s six school districts identified 902 homeless students in the 2010-2011 school year.
What officials know for sure is that the problem is growing. The 2011 one-day snapshot showed a 50 percent jump in just two years.
And the number of children had doubled. In fact, educators say the number of homeless students has almost quadrupled in four years.
The economy is to blame, of course, and the problem has outlasted any fledgling recovery, experts say.
“When the downturn happened, (homeless advocates) knew that the problem with homelessness would last a whole lot longer than this recession,” Carson says. “For many, they may have been able to hold on for a long time but they don’t have anything, they have gone through their savings, their retirement and they have burned all of their bridges.”
Ernie Zornes is quick to point out that his family’s small room at the Family Lodge is certainly better than where they had been living.
Months ago, the Zorneses lived briefly in Bates County, Mo., in a sweltering trailer that they shared with two other families. Ernie rigged a bed sheet to serve as a room divider so his family could have some privacy.
Before that, they couch-surfed with relatives.
“Being homeless took all of my self-esteem,” Ernie laments. “I went from feeling pretty high about myself to feeling like dirt.”
The typical homeless family in Johnson County is headed by a single parent, usually a mother. But the Salvation Army has seen a 30 percent increase in single fathers staying at its shelter and a 45 percent increase in two-parent families, like the Zorneses.
“People who experience homelessness are not by any account different than people who don’t experience it,” Carson says. “They love their families, they want opportunities to work and be able to provide for their families.”
Families fall into homelessness when the primary breadwinner is unemployed or has their working hours cut. They are forced to take lower paying jobs that prevent them from maintaining their housing.
Most of those who seek help are working parents. About 70 percent of the homeless families in Johnson County are working at least 30 hours a week.
The economic downturn has saturated the job market with workers who have broader experience and education taking lower-wage jobs, leaving those who are homeless with fewer job opportunities, says Laura Flynn, housing services administrator at the Salvation Army Family Lodge.
They struggle to stay above water and are often forced to make tough choices. They choose to pay the rent one month and not pay their utilities. Then the next month, the scenario flips and they will opt to pay the utilities and not the rent.
“At some point, it starts to snowball and they end up losing their housing,” Carson says. “You can only tread water for so long.”
The Zornes family landed at the Family Lodge this summer — their second time in three years. Last year Ernie found a good job taking apart cable boxes and Susan found work as a clerk at a convenience store that was close to their home. But the transmission on Ernie’s truck went out. Without reliable transportation, Ernie was soon out of a job.
Around the same time, Susan lost her job because she was having childcare problems.
The bills began piling up and the family was evicted.
“Before you know it, we were out of a home and it started going downhill, and it went downhill fast,” Ernie says.
Some families who are left homeless and who have overstayed their welcome with family and friends have no other place to turn and end up living in their cars.
They are forced to develop daily routines that are less than idyllic, Carson says.
Each morning homeless families living on the street must find a place to clean up, usually at an all-night restaurant or 24-hour retail store. The children attend school and maybe go to the library afterward, where they do their homework.
If they are lucky, they find something to eat and a safe place to park their vehicle at night.
The cycle starts all over the next morning.
“There are not many places for homeless families in Johnson County to go,” says Flynn, the Salvation Army administrator. “Typically, they are either sleeping in their car or outside in the park.”
The Johnson County Interfaith Hospitality Network Inc. is a nonprofit that provides emergency shelter to the homeless in churches throughout the county as well as other support services.
Johnson County also has a shelter for victims of domestic violence.
The county’s only free-standing homeless shelter is the Salvation Army Family Lodge in Olathe.
The “lodge,” as it’s known, is a converted motor coach motel that was built in 1947. The Salvation Army bought it in 1993 and opened its doors for families in 1995 to address the county’s growing homeless population.
Now, the Salvation Army is building a new shelter, a $2.3 million building in the 400 block of Santa Fe in Olathe that it hopes to open in April. The one-story building will increase its capacity from 10 to 15 rooms — a 60 percent increase in the number of beds.
The shelter currently has nine families or about 32 persons and a waiting list of 52 families.
And instead of putting families in one room, the new building will have spaces more akin to small suites that will include a kitchenette, living room and bedroom.
Until then, families at the lodge have their own room, a private bathroom and shower. There also is a laundry facility and commons area where children play on the jungle gym. An assortment of riding and push toys, dolls, basketball equipment and other toys are scattered in the common area.
A community room is located inside the lodge’s office, a converted gas station next door. Inside is a lounge area where families can watch television and prepare and eat meals.
The kitchen features a dining table and three refrigerators, where food items are labeled with each family’s room number.
Krysti Helton is in the kitchen finishing her breakfast of a bowl of cereal and is excited to get the day rolling. A list of errands includes driving to the Olathe Public Library, where she can use the computer to check her email, look for a place for her family to live and see if the financial aid for classes she plans to take at Johnson County Community College has arrived.
Her husband, Jason Johnson, has landed a temporary job with a roofing company. Johnson leaves for work each morning about 5 a.m. on his bicycle. His driver’s license has been suspended.
Helton is one of a few residents at the shelter who has a car, albeit one without air conditioning and an almost-shot water pump.
She bought the Oldsmobile Cutlass from a relative for about $1,500. It was a steal compared to the other car she and Jason were trying to buy from an area car dealership.
The couple were paying $180 twice a month for a sedan that had over 120,000 miles. The car’s ignition was connected to an interlock key system that required the driver to punch in a code. If the payments were late, the dealership would not give the driver the code, Helton says.
“That made it tough if you were late with payments,” she says.
While at the library, Helton checks her email to see if her student aid has arrived. She also looks on Craigslist to find affordable housing.
She calls to see if a duplex is available to rent but learns the place is too small for her husband and two school-age sons. Helton is looking for a place in Olathe so her husband won’t have to travel far to work each day.
Time for Helton to drive 11 miles to the college to pick up her student identification, speak with a counselor and find out where her classes are located on campus. At stoplights along the route to the college, Helton taps on the car’s accelerator to make sure the engine doesn’t die.
Helton wants to become a paralegal and use the skills from her former clerical job at a law firm where she helped process garnishments and settlements.
“I am really excited to get into school,” she says, making her way up to the financial aid office. “This has long been a dream for me.”
But as she emerges from the counselor’s office, her excitement has crashed.
“They said I would not be able to get my financial aid because I did not have a high school diploma,” Helton says. “I know I have a high school diploma.”
Helton says she attended an alternative high school in Michigan and received training as a medical office assistant. Her diploma was destroyed when their house caught on fire.
Now, she will have to take GED classes while also taking her JCCC classes, with financial help from the Salvation Army.
“As soon as you think you are almost done, there is another wall you have to climb over,” Helton says. “It’s frustrating but I just have to get over it and get it done.”
For Helton and Johnson, the lodge offers more than a temporary place to live. The Salvation Army is helping them rebuild their lives.
During their stay, residents meet with a case manager each week and discuss the array of issues that led to their homelessness — and the fallout from it.
Most homeless adults suffer from a form of post-traumatic stress disorder, says Mina Foster, a case manager at the Family Lodge.
“They are easily triggered, are very defensive and are very protective of themselves, their families and especially their children,” Foster says.
Many of the homeless Foster works with have lived in their cars and are constantly on alert, the result of needing to be prepared to move at a moment’s notice.
“They are constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop, always,” she says.
Once those families reach the lodge, it is their job to help transform their shattered lives, Foster says.
They are encouraged, but not required, to take part in spiritual counseling to help the families break the cycle of homelessness.
As a case manager, Foster’s biggest job is to encourage; often, her clients get support from no one else.
She assesses a client’s strengths and finds ways to restore his or her dignity.
Residents must attend classes on budgeting, parenting, counseling, job hunting and resume-building.
The Salvation Army provides financial assistance for families to start paying off debts. The nonprofit will help them get into a GED program, technical training or college.
Success comes when the clients find work, are able to sort through their problems and need their case manager less and less.
“I will never work harder for a client than they are for themselves and most of the time, the clients are working harder than me,” Foster says.
Typically, families can stay at the lodge for up to 90 days. But in some cases they are able to stay 80 more, due to the increased difficulty these days in finding work. Many families send in 30 to 50 job applications a week and still find that it takes more than 90 days to find stable work.
“Without an increase in income or stable work income, it would be impossible for our families to maintain safe, stable and affordable housing,” Flynn says.
“It is our philosophy to do everything possible to assist them in stabilizing their situation and unfortunately, that means an increase length to stay but fortunately, a decrease in repeat clients.”
Success comes when clients manage to regain self-sufficiency and move into their own home. Salvation Army leaders say about 70 percent of their clients don’t need them again after their stay.
Miranda Brooks is one of them.
Brooks and her two children, now 7 and 6, moved into the Family Lodge in June 2011, after “hitting rock bottom,” she says. She had been living in her mother’s Olathe home but the two often butted heads. She moved out. For a few nights, she slept in her car.
“I never thought I would be in this situation. When you live in Johnson County, nobody thinks anyone from Johnson County struggles or has hard times,” she says.
Then she and her children moved into the lodge.
“This was my last stop. This was it for me,” she says. “I had run out of family; I had burned bridges. It was either start here and succeed or continue to spiral downhill.”
For six months, Brooks and her two children shared a small room at the shelter.
Her stay wasn’t easy. She bucked authority and fought with other residents.
“I was very hostile; I was angry at the world,” Brooks says.
She was on the verge of being kicked out of the lodge until she had a “come to Jesus meeting” with Flynn. Get your act together, take responsibility for yourself or move on, Flynn told her.
The meeting and ongoing counseling sessions with Foster, her case manager, taught her the value of being accountable and self-sufficient.
She now lives in an apartment in Kansas City, North, along with her fiancé and works as a school bus driver for the Olathe school district.
“I learned to accept that my choices got me in the place where I was,” Brooks says. “I used to let people tear me down but I am stronger than I have ever been in my life.”
For Ernie and Susan Zornes, life hasn’t worked out so well.
They had been living at the lodge for a few months when some past legal problems caught up with them. Flynn and her staff are used to helping their clients through such problems, but Ernie and Susan were not doing their part to take care of them.
They chose to move out.
Krysti Helton and Jason Johnson are faring better. Helton is taking her JCCC classes. Johnson’s temp job became permanent. In the next month or so, they will move into an apartment and will continue to get help from the Salvation Army to stabilize their lives.
“It is exciting. We have accomplished a lot and now we are moving forward,” Helton says. “We are able to get back on our feet and will be able to do things on our own again.”