Nearly 10,000 school-aged children in Mississippi were homeless or were experiencing housing instability during the 2016-2017 school year according to the U.S. Department of Education. Just under 100 children in this population lived in unsheltered conditions while more than 80 percent were staying with friends or relatives. Another 380 children found refuge in a crisis shelter, including Canopy Children’s Solutions’ Warren County Children’s Shelter (WCCS) in Vicksburg.

“We serve abused, neglected, homeless, runaway and trafficked children and youth ages birth through seventeen. Our goal is to show them unconditional love and let that begin their healing process bringing hope back to their life,” said Cindy McCarley who is the director for WCCS. “One of the most reliable ways that we are able to connect with these children and youth in crisis is through the National Safe Place program.”

Safe Place is a national youth outreach and prevention program for young people under the age of 18 (up to 21 years of age in some communities) in need of immediate help and safety. As a collaborative community prevention initiative, Safe Place designates businesses and organizations as Safe Place locations, making help readily available to youth in communities across the country. Safe Place locations include: libraries, YMCAs, fire stations, public buses, various businesses, restaurants, and social service facilities. All of these locations are designated by the display of the official yellow and black Safe Place symbol. Safe Place also utilizes mobile crisis services through its TXT 4 Help line where teens can text “SAFE” to 4HELP (44357) and their current location to be connected to their nearest Safe Place agency. Youth can also access a trained crisis counselor by texting “2chat” to the same number.

Connecting with Safe Place

The Safe Place “process” begins when a child in need of help enters one of the designated Safe Place locations where they can confidentially tell employees they need help. Employees of Safe Place sites help the child to feel safe and are trained to connect that child with someone trained in crisis situations. A call is then made to the local Safe Place shelter and a representative of that shelter comes to pick up the child. Upon arrival at the shelter, the child receives an evaluation to assess their physical and emotional needs. Staff provide the child with everything they need from a warm, dry bed, to adequate clothing, food, emotional support, medical care, and begin the process of establishing a transition plan to get that child into the care of a loving home. Depending on the situation, the staff work with a child’s parents, family or representatives of social service organizations to determine the best next steps for the child. If a child is not near a posted Safe Place location, the TXT 4 Help line is a way youth can still access help quickly.

WCCS is one of only two Safe Place shelters in the state. WCCS has partnered with Safe Place locations throughout Vicksburg, Warren County and in surrounding counties so children in crisis can gain easier access to help.

MS Safe Place Map

“Warren County Children’s Shelter and the Sally Kate Winters shelter in West Point are the only operating certified Safe Place shelters in the state,” said McCarley. “Regardless of a child’s situation, we provide them with clothes, a safe place to sleep, hot meals and medical care.”

One of the primary functions of the shelter is its diagnostic and evaluation services which helps assess the child’s environment and overall safety. Proper evaluation helps make a child’s next move be their last move. By ensuring the child is entering an environment that is appropriate and facilitates their ability to thrive in a caring safe home, it lessens their likelihood for future disruptions and the impact of insecurity and trauma on their lives from instability.

“We try to assess what is going on in their lives and how we can help them develop and obtain a permanent/long-term living situation that is safe and appropriate,” said McCarley. “Sometimes it is working with the families on communication, sometimes there are deeper concerns where Child Protection Services needs to be involved, but our main priority is that when a child leaves us, they are going to a better situation than where they came.”

National Safe Place Week

This year marks the 35th anniversary of the National Safe Place program which is celebrated during National Safe Place Week March 17-23. This is a week to honor the organizations who serve youth in crisis and help put them into better, safer situations. Canopy Children’s Solutions and WCCS will be spotlighting Safe Place businesses in the area and coordinating with the city of Vicksburg to proclaim March 17-23 as a city-wide Safe Place week.

To learn more about National Safe Place, visit https://www.nationalsafeplace.org/. To find out ways you can support WCCS and the children it serves, contact the shelter at 601-831-2536 or by visiting https://mycanopy.wpengine.com.