invisible homeless kids

Hard to imagine that in this country way over 3 MILLION kids are without homes. H-O-M-E-L-E-S-S Kids. I don't get it. Are we willing to discard these kids? Not me. So this blog will relentlessly focus on this issue, hoping to light a spark to fuel a compassion epidemic. Chime in, argue, but do something....

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Toothless, Homeless—That Bites!

She smiled as I cooed over her adorable 2-year-old daughter. I cringed.

I didnt count, but Id guess this girls mother had all of 5 teeth in her mouth, none appearing to be healthy.

This homeless mother and daughter rely on the goodness of a community-based shelter, a stopgap effort to ensure homeless adults and children dont freeze to death for want of a place to sleep. These shelters dont have dentists or docs on staff. And every single person staying there has grossly neglected dental and medical needs.

But this moms smile. How many smilestoothless all or mostwould you see in the average shelter? Based on what Ive seen and heardshockingly too many. My shelter director-friend Pat LaMarche told me, Half the people there (at the shelter) have no teeth. I have a guy with no teeth and a broken jaw so he can't get dentures. They set his jaw wrong when he broke it and no oral surgeon will do Medicaid work that extensive. Hes had no real solid food in 5 years.

And that doesnt include the millions of kids and adults who arent lucky enough to be in shelters, those doubled up with friends and family, or staying in the no-tell-motels, shacking up illegally and uncomfortably in storage units, or desperately eking out a place to safely catch just a little sleep.

A healthy mouth is important. The American Dental Association describes the dental dearth, But tens of millions still do not, owing to such factors as poverty, geography, lack of oral health education, language or cultural barriers, fear of dental care and the belief that people who are not in pain do not need dental care. Not to mention homelessness.

The North Bay Business Journal reported on a recent study by the Pacific Health Consulting Group, A growing body of research indicates that poor oral health is directly linked to a number of major health conditions including cancer and diabetes as well as heart disease and stroke. Untreated dental problems during pregnancy can contribute to poor birth outcomes and neonatal mortality.

Millions of children on Medi-Cal (Medicaid in CA) lacked access to dental care, prompting an audit with appalling findings.  State Auditor Elaine Howle described the ghastly gap to Governor Jerry Brown, blaming poor provider participation on low reimbursement rates, some of which have not increased since fiscal 2000-01.

And Florida was recently chastised for neglecting over 80% of children on Medicaid.

Rural communities have their own set of challenges to reach their dental-deprived adults and kids. The Rural Assistance Center offers solutions to the gaping problem. And Dr. Jay Grossman has led the way for urban dental action for those most desperate for oral health care.

But the growing inadequacies in access to dental care seem to be low priority for elected officials and others controlling access to the drill. The Affordable Care Act specifies that kids can get dental check ups. But a shortage of dentists willing to accept ACA/Medicaid rates makes the dream a nightmare. And adults are out of luck. As are all members of families not deemed citizens.

And yet parents of a dental-care deprived 7-year-old girl in Pennsylvania face jail time for allegedly neglecting their daughter’s teeth. “The girl's oral health was so poor a dentist needed to remove seven teeth, remove a nerve from eight others and cap another,”  although the Lehigh Valley Live story points out the extenuating circumstances that may keep the parents from the slammer.

In my perfect world, those who mangled the economic system—not those who fail to use the dental health system—would be held responsible for the incalculable suffering of millions and millions of adults and kids without access to oral health care.

Expecting people with disintegrated teeth to rush out and get jobs requiring smiling faces is, well, insulting. Witnessing the human degradation that occurs with dental decay is heartbreaking. Explaining to this little girl that brushing her teeth is an exercise in futility is a task for the 3 dentists, all ADA members, in Congress.
Sign this petition created by HEAR US Inc. to the American Dental Association and the ADA members of Congress to increase access to dental care for those unable to afford it.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Perverted Reality: Shelter ‘System’ Is No System

Homeless people have shelters to go to, a common belief comforting those who don’t know better. 

Having just come from Carlisle Cares, the community-based shelter where my friend and colleague Pat LaMarche works, having run shelters for 15 years myself, having seen shelters across the country for the past 9 years of my HEAR US traveling, I find myself seething at the perverted reality of what our shelter “system” is in this affluent country.

Pat’s shelter is probably average (no offense!). It’s in a middle-income borough in sort of central PA. Hundreds of similar communities dot the Keystone State. This community is quite unusual, with 3 shelters—one in a fixed site, this one which rotates to different places of worship—and a Salvation Army shelter for families. Shari Bellish, the shelter founder, fights hard to keep this meager operation going, knowing that 55 people a night will have a safe place to sleep. 

I listened as Pat answered one of many phone calls she and other staff get during the day. “I’m sorry, we’re full,” was the gist of it. The caller, a woman staying in her car. It’s below freezing tonight. Pat referred her to a neighboring community’s rotating site “shelter” program. At least she has a car, and gas is cheaper. Maybe she’ll get a spot to sleep.

Many shelters operate on paltry budgets, forcing them to creatively get around the lack of space and staff by setting hours that minimize the operations’ expenses. Pat’s shelter busses people to the night site which opens at 9:30 p.m. Everyone has to be out by 7 a.m., bussed back to this modest base so everyone can go on their way.

Imagine life for school kids—to bed by 10 if they’re lucky, up at 6:30, on a bus at 7 to go back to shelter headquarters to wash up and grab breakfast before heading out to school. Not a lot of quality time for homework, much less sleep and normalcy. The pads on the floor squeezed together don’t allow for privacy, or sleep. 

Volunteers and a skeleton staff make this emergency arrangement possible. And it’s much better than everyone cuddling up on the street. In Phoenix, the county is contemplating shutting down their overflow shelter—a bleak warehouse that offers nothing but a place on the floor for hundreds of desperate men.

Reading Bill Moyer’s post on homelessness, I found myself torn. His valid perspective is tainted by the use of wildly-delusional statistics provided by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. HUD’s official report to Congress, which determines funding for homelessness programs, was that 578,424 people were homeless last year.  

This extremely narrow enumeration hardly counts homelessness at all. It’s a one-night point-in-time count that, despite sincerely stalwart efforts by professionals and volunteers, documents a mere drop in the vast sea of people—adults and kids, oldsters and babies and those in between—with no place to go.

Case in point, the U.S. Department of Education reported that almost 1.3 million students without homes were identified in the 2013 school year, a staggering 72% increase since 2006. T America’s Youngest Outcasts reports over 2.5 million CHILDREN are homeless, not including parents or single adults. So, HUD’s report…just a tad under-representing the crisis.

I left as Pat headed down the garbage bag-lined hallway, holiday clothing donations. Folks were quietly waiting at tables. If you’d could ask, you’d hear about boredom, frustration finding housing or jobs, regrets about burned bridges and family alienation, and gratitude that at least they have some place to turn to on this cold Pennsylvania night where they’ll be safe. 

It’s perverted that they should feel grateful. It’s perverted that many communities have no shelters. It’s perverted that HUD is pushing “Housing First” with inadequate resources to help those who need it, and we’ll see the perverted action of the 114th Congress, which doesn’t begin to have a clue as to the staggering scope homeless Americans, as they likely slash spending for human needs.

Monday, December 29, 2014

American Christmas Celebrations, Not (Homeless) Family Friendly

Christmas spoiler alert: I am not a fan of what Christmas seems to have become here in America.

Beyond that, I'm not a fan of what this country continues to do to millions of families who are homeless or at-risk of homelessness.

Like Tina. Here's my latest AlterNet post on her holiday-hell. If you're not going to read it--the bottom line is this gallant mother of 7 children is right now scrambling around to move her family into a small house trailer before Jan. 1.

The kicker--she's got to wait for the local housing authority to inspect the 3-BR trailer she's located to move into to make sure it's up to the HUD (US Dept. of Housing and Urban Development) standards. Factor in double holidays at the end of this month and she'll be lucky to make this all happen. If she doesn't, her family will be on the streets in a city without a family shelter.

She didn't procrastinate. Her landlord gave her exactly 30 days notice as required. She jumped right into the search, list of potential housing units in hand. When they weren't panning out, she pleaded for an extension but no go. Speculation is that he's losing the house where her family's lived for this past year. They've gotta go.

I don't know, but I'm thinking Tina and her kids probably aren't enjoying this commercially-motivated Christmas season. And I know they're not the only families suffering from house-lessness, hunger and other maladies during this time of year when most of us are involved in parties, time off from work with pay, shopping and ripping into presents. Scant media attention is given to these unfortunate millions, with a smattering of feel-good stories about Christmas cookies and Barbie dolls being shared with shelter kids.

Here's stuff most people don't know about how millions of our nation's most vulnerable families are housed:

  • Subsidized housing, which pays the balance of rent after 30%, using our tax dollars, is only available for about 25% of those who really need it.
  • Tenants must pay utilities and deposits, often hundreds of dollars.
  • Strict rules govern tenants' behavior--and being kicked out of housing or falling behind on rent can blemish their record to the point of banning them from this program.
  • Family/friends who need a place to stay can't bunk with their subsidized housing friend/family member. Guests are limited to 10 days...and pushing that can get everyone tossed to the streets.
  • Family/friends with felony records are typically banned from subsidized housing properties.
  • With 30 days notice, at the end of the lease period, the owner can tell the tenant to move. No recourse. 
Housing authorities oversee subsidized housing. They get federal funds. HUD's budget, now about $45 billion, despite the increased population and soaring poverty and homelessness, has been drastically slashed by the housed Members of Congress over the past 3 decades. That doesn't take into account The Sequester, when HUD's budget took an additional and devastating 10% hit.

Imagine--please--what Tina's family is going through now. No tree or Christmas celebration for the kids. Her truck's axle broke the other day, adding to her fiscal duress. She's scrambling around gathering boxes, shoving stuff in it, and getting her older kids (14 YO) to help. Stress, stress and more stress. 

Before you label Tina's family as freeloaders, dependent on government assistance, swallow this bitter pill:

According to WRAP, the recent big corporate bailout cost taxpayers over $800 BILLION, far exceeding the entire homelessness/housing assistance budget for 3 decades.
In the spirit of anti-commercial-Christmas, I'd call on a boycott of this carnage called "Christmas" until the most vulnerable families in this country have what they need to (at least) humanly survive. I'm guessing that even Jesus would approve.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Perfect Gift for Teachers! Inside Story of Homeless Children and Youth

Pardon the self-serving nature of this post, but as a former teacher and a former shelter director, I feel
qualified to offer this suggestion. And I'm willing to put my money where my mouth is...*

Instead of giving your kid's favorite teacher a coffee mug or McDonald's gift certificate, how about a gift that will not only be useful, but might just help homeless kids in your community? (This suggestion works for others on your gift list, too!)

My Own Four Walls is a collection of heart-touching short documentaries that focus on children and youth experiencing homelessness. (Watch the 4-min trailer.)
Based on hundreds of film screenings I've conducted over the years, MOFW touches hearts and opens minds better than anyone can imagine. It's a myth-buster. It lets audiences hear from kids who know what homelessness is like because they live it.
With all the attention given to the surging increase of homelessness among children and youth lately, it might be good for schools to have a versatile, effective video tool to help staff and students better understand what "being homeless" means to kids.

* In the spirit of Christmas, HEAR US is offering the DVD at half-price, $20 plus $6 shipping/handling. It means that much to get these award-winning DVDs seen by as many eyes as possible.

There. Short. Sweet. To the point. Now order the DVD so I can get it to you in time for the holidays.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

It’s Time to Help Homeless Kids, Yes! You! Now!

I often have the question put to me, “What can I do to help homeless families and/or teens?” Well, just in time for the holiday spirit, here are suggestions that range from free/fast to more complicated/commitment. I'm always pushing the concept of Compassion Epidemic. These are ways you can make that happen.

Your local shelter (if you have any) will be happy to receive:
  • packs of socks, undies for kids of all sizes/ages
  • new/gently-used shoes, practical styles for school/play
  • hygiene items (toothpaste, brushes, shampoo, soap, combs, etc.)
  • coats, hats and gloves, especially for kids (assuming they serve kids)
  • baby stuff—formula, diapers, wipes, etc.
If you don’t have a shelter, contact the homeless liaison in your school district (each district is required to have one). Ask that person what’s needed. They might suggest:
  • band instruments, sports equipment, school/scout uniforms (gently-used)
  • school supplies
  • backpacks
  • snack foods to discretely distribute to hungry kids
  • bus passes
  • Offer to read, tutor, or otherwise mentor kids. This requires a regular commitment of your time and the proper attitude. School or shelters.
  • Volunteer at your local shelter. 
  • Volunteer to tutor or read to kids at your local public school.

HEAR US has a selection of modestly-priced, acclaimed videos and books that greatly increase awareness and compassion for homeless students. Many schools aren’t aware of them, or lack the funds, or…whatever. You can be the conduit for these items, and here’s the order form. (Plus, this supports HEAR US!)

  • Sign the petition that goes right to your Members of Congress, urging them to cosponsor the Homeless Children and Youth Act. Takes just seconds, only need to share your zip code. 
  • Share the above petition with your networks of friends, neighbors, co-workers, etc. 
  • Invite me to speak to your community, university, group, etc. Yup. Ask. Let’s see what happens! 
  • Share my Facebook posts with your FB friends. Comment. Friend me. 

Notice I didn't put any suggestions about holiday gifts or activities. That's because of my years running shelters and going crazy at holiday time with overabundance, while suffering through the drought of scarcities during the rest of the year. I won't inflict that similar pain on others. Do as you want for holidays. You will anyhow. And I didn't make a big deal about donating to HEAR US, but you can do that and we'll be very appreciative.

This is just the beginning of a list that you can add to by commenting on this blog. Yeah, share this blog, too. ’Tis (always) the season to be kind…!

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Don’t Like Family and Youth Homelessness? Deny It!

Twenty-five years after the massive “Housing NOW!” march for housing equality in October 1989, the beginning of a (paltry) venture to address homelessness in America, millions of families and youth with nowhere to go are still being mostly ignored.

How can the federal agency responsible for addressing the housing needs of adults and children with nowhere to go continue to deny their vulnerability and needs?

Members of Congress, criticized by Left, Right and in-between, hold the solution to this growing crisis in their hands. The Homeless Children and Youth Act, a bipartisan bill that requires no funding, would seismically change the way our nation views homelessness by inserting a dose of reality into HUD’s (US Dept. of Housing and Urban Development) inadequate definition of homelessness. 

This issue sounds so obscure that it baffles most people. But changing how HUD defines homelessness threatens status quo so much that a major national nonprofit is fighting it tooth and nail. And, because this cause lacks slick lobbyists, this major paradigm shift could fade into oblivion, an unacceptable result. But a strong grass roots effort continues to push for the change.

Homelessness, to most people, is manifested by raggedly dressed, addicted grizzled men on the street corner. Dubbed “chronically homeless” by HUD, meager federal resources have aimed at removing those considered eyesores from urban landscapes. Whether or not this endeavor has succeeded is a topic for another time. 

Those who call the streets home deserve a home. No doubt. But their numbers pale to the skyrocketing numbers of families and youth with nowhere to go. HUD reports a census of about 600,000 homeless people to Congress. Most elected officials likely picture the above-mentioned adults, causing a bare flicker of attention and even less resources. 

In reality, schools have identified almost 1.3 million students experiencing homelessness, appalling enough, but that count doesn’t including younger/older siblings or parents. Included in this count, over 100,000 student-athletes, as recently--and poignantly--portrayed by Sports Illustrated.

Census methodologies vary, true. But the untold story of the shoving homeless families and youth under the federal rug deserves scrutiny. 

The key difference between HUD’s drastic undercount and the US Dept. of Education census is how homelessness is defined

HUD doesn’t consider “doubled up” as homeless despite the reality that 70% or more families/youth escape sleeping literally on the streets by staying temporarily with family, friends or acquaintances. HUD also doesn’t consider those staying in motels to be homeless. Not homeless, no matter how tenuous or precarious these arrangements may be. This denies the bleak reality of millions of vulnerable kids and adults. It clearly endangers them. And it keeps our country from making any progress addressing the massive and ever-growing issue of homelessness and housing-poverty. 

The Homeless Children and Youth Act cracks open the process of how we define homelessness, injecting a huge dose of reality that needs to be addressed—the unmet needs of families and youth. Unlike now, local communities would have the option of directing HUD resources to families/youth. It opens the doors to counting families/youth in motels and doubled up for HUD’s Point-in-Time count. 
URGENT ACTION! Keep this bill from swirling down the drain of Congressional inaction. Your congressional delegation needs to hear from you, urging them to co-sponsor this bill, a quick process on our website,
We cannot continue to ignore the babies, toddlers, kids, teens, youth with nowhere to go. Too many of these vulnerable kids will tumble onto street corners in communities across the country where those “chronically homeless” adults once stood, a self-fulfilling prophecy of what happens when we ignore a problem that we could fix. 

How to make this a compelling, viral message remains the challenge. Miley Cyrus and Miss Arizona have thrown their public reputations into the arena. Not sure that is enough, but it’s an appreciated gesture. But constituent action now is required.

Obviously our approach to this social crisis hasn’t worked well. It’s far past time to give up a losing strategy.

This bill won’t change this inequity overnight. But it is the first step in addressing the problem of so many people without addresses. Inequality in the U.S. has many shapes. Perhaps the most disturbing can be found in the eyes of a child with nowhere to go.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Homeless: What About ‘Nowhere To Go’ Does HUD Not Understand?

For the agency charged with “utilizing housing as a platform for improving quality of life,” assuming that includes those with nowhere to go, the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development, HUD, has yet to step up to the task for millions of families and youth with nowhere to go. 
Peruse the stories of parents and kids with nowhere to go on
For the past 3 decades, our country has abdicated its responsibility to those most vulnerable—children and youth, some with parents, some without, who have nowhere to go. "The most dramatic cut in domestic spending during the Reagan years was for low-income housing subsidies. In his first year in office, Reagan cut the budget for public housing and Section 8 rent subsidies in half," points out Peter Dreier in his Nation post.

When I say “nowhere to go” I mean nowhere. Most don't realize how little help is available for families and youth with nowhere to go.

Few communities have programs (not decimated by funding cuts) to help families/youth with nowhere to go. A frightening number of people seeking a place to stay are routinely turned away. 

During my 9 years of HEAR US travel, I’ve been to many communities with little or no assistance for families/youth. I’ve sat in sleazy motel rooms listening to desperate parents. I’ve stood on street corners talking to youth who didn’t know where they were going to sleep that night, much less do their homework. I've listened to kids describe their sucky lives (watch 4-min trailer). 

Having run a shelter for 15 years, only open 9 months of the year because we lacked volunteers and resources for a year round program, I dreaded answering phones in the summer when we weren’t open. Invariably I’d end up talking to a distraught mother with small children looking to escape abject poverty, violence and abuse. And I’d have to say, “Sorry, we can’t help and no other program in the area exists to help.”

No matter how kindly I delivered the bad news, it was bad. The family with nowhere to go ends up in a desperate situation beyond the imagination of many people. The youth with nowhere to go does what she/he can do to survive, at high risk of getting caught up in perilous circumstances. 

Knowing that millions of babies, toddlers, children, youth, young adults and parents of children have nowhere to go compels us to fight to change the way HUD defines homelessness. And a fight it has been.

But those of us fighting for homeless kids don’t just give up. We’ve heard and seen too much—kids and parents with nowhere to go, torn up by stress, hunger, sickness, despair, desolation. We’ve seen lives lost, promise turn into disaster.

HUD’s involvement with homeless families has always reminded me of the rigid bachelor uncle who is not used to being around kids. Paltry assistance. Insensitive involvement. Resentful when asked for more help. Clueless about what it means to have nowhere to go.

The bipartisan legislation recently introduced in Congress, the Homeless Children and Youth Act of 2014, will begin to turn things around for the way HUD deals with homelessness. 
  • It frees up local communities to decide to create solutions and services for families/youth with nowhere to go, unlike the current approach. 
  • It removes bizarre bureaucratic barriers that force families/youth to give up whatever precarious arrangements they have cobbled together—a shabby, budget-busting motel room, a cruel relative with unreasonable expectations, an abuser who knows the abused partner has no options—to become ‘more homeless’ to maybe qualify for admittance into a shelter. 
  • It gives families/youth a shot at getting help from whatever agencies might offer shelter and services.
Knowing the desperate need of families/youth with nowhere to go, I can’t help but be
dismazed at those who continue to oppose this bill. No explanation they throw out makes any sense when pitted against the devastating circumstances of having nowhere to go.

It’s up to us to break through this impasse. We need more legislative sponsors. We need to raise hell until sufficient pressure pushes Congress to insist on HUD creating a more effective way of helping families/youth with nowhere to go
ACTION! You can do something about this in mere moments. No money, just 30 or so seconds of your time. Picture what it would mean to have nowhere to go, then ACT (CLICK HERE)! If you’re really convinced that change needs to happen, share the action page with your friends.
HUD won’t change until we force the issue. Some Members of Congress are ready to act. But they need a push. That’s where we come in.