DURING THE school year, Manuel Walker and his 8-year-old son start their day at 4:40 a.m. when they leave the shelter where they live in West Philly for school in Mount Airy.
Two trains, a bus, and an hour and a half later, Walker leaves his son at the before-school child care and continues to travel for another hour to work.
For homeless parents like Walker, relief in the summer months comes not from a reprieve from the school commute, but from knowing their kids still have somewhere to go. Walker will gratefully shuttle his son to and from camp this summer - thanks to funding from Child Care Information Services of Philadelphia with the help of their shelter, Families Forward Philadelphia.
"These guys did it for me," Walker said of Families Forward, adding that without their help, "I'd have paid out of pocket."
Shelter CEO Diana McWilliams said she strives to place all of her young residents in summer camp. She's led a push to raise about $40,000 to allow the shelter to look for summer activities for about 120 kids this year.The hope is that "even though they are in a shelter, that's not hurting their quality of summer activities," McWilliams said.
Michelle Rivera, another parent who lives at Families Forward, said access to summer care reassures her that her kids are safe. As a new resident of Philadelphia, Rivera said without the shelter's guidance "I'd be worrying" about where to find summer programs.
Others said they hoped they would find steady work or get government support to get their kids into camp. Angela Lott and Krystal Arnold, two young mothers living at the Eliza Shirley House - an emergency women and children's shelter - seemed confident in their ability to keep their daughters busy in the next few months.
"I know my welfare case worker will help me get [my daughter] into camp," Arnold said.
Both agreed that having their kids enrolled in a summer program would give them more time to search for jobs.
Without Families Forward, Walker says he wouldn't have known how to find the programs and subsidies he now uses.
Yet some of the help that exists for parents in the summer goes underused, perhaps because of lack of awareness. This month, the Food & Research Action Center released a report finding that in July 2015, a daily average of over 113,000 kids in Pennsylvania participated in summer nutrition programs, compared to over 602,000 who took advantage of free and reduced-price school lunches during the preceding school year. This was up 1.5 percent from the previous summer's nutrition enrollment.
"It's a large program, but the biggest hurdle we're finding is people just aren't familiar with [the summer programs]," said Tom Mahon, communications manager at Coalition Against Hunger. The organization helps connect families to summer meal sites through a hotline and interactive map online.
Walker said he knew about the summer meal programs but hadn't used them because his son gets food through camp or the shelter. Three other parents in shelters said they hadn't known of the programs, but would be interested in using them.
The city and several nonprofits have made a concerted effort this year to make the meal programs visible, meeting throughout the year to coordinate their efforts.
McWilliams, of Families Forward, emphasized the importance of engaging kids from homeless backgrounds in the summer. She said it's important to help "break the cycle" of homelessness by showing kids "that there are opportunities, and show them that there are resources to find."