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....

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Shocking! Homeless Children and Youth--100% Increase

If you wait long enough and do nothing, problems usually don’t go away. Such is the case illustrated by the astounding increase of homelessness among children and youth in this country. The latest numbers just released show a jaw-dropping 100% increase of students identified as homeless since I’ve been on the road—10 years ago.
US Department of Education numbers indicate 1,360,747 students identified experienced homelessness in the 2013-14 school year, 8% more than the previous year. 
I’m almost too numb to be shocked. Almost. 

To be clear, the 1.36 million number does not include younger/older siblings or parents. And it only represents those students identified as homeless under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act’s Education for Homeless Children and Youth program, with specific qualifiers. I suspect that the number would actually double if we counted thoroughly.

As part of my work with my nonprofit organization HEAR US Inc., I spent several weeks this year filming in beleaguered Kansas, including a week at Camp IBA (Imagine. Believe. Achieve.), an astounding creation of the Wichita Public School District 259’s McKinney-Vento Homeless Education program. I can’t get these young faces out of my head or heart. 

I sat in on a campfire-style conversation of 10-12-year old girls, gathered in a circle on the floor of their camp/classroom. One girl shared her dismay of not knowing where her family would be sleeping night-to-night. Another talked about how oppressively crowded it was in their motel room. Another revealed her fear of violence if her mother’s ex-boyfriend would return. These matter-of-fact topics spun around as if these girls were adults chatting about a popular soap opera. 

Another girl told me what she liked most about the camp: she could “depend” on people, certainly the teachers and volunteers, but also her campmates. I suspect she knows about those she can’t depend on.  
Real kids. Real feelings. Real homelessness.

We apparently have decided that certain groups of homeless persons must be expendable. Kids have drawn the short straw, that, despite what we know would work for many families.

Congress is still pondering whether to let homeless families and youth qualify for federal assistance to escape homelessness. Of course, if they do, Congress might need to do something about the dire lack of affordable housing in communities from coast to coast. Legislation is dangling in the Capitol that might improve this appalling neglect, the Homeless Children and Youth Act, but though I won’t bet my lunch money that they’ll get around to passing this bipartisan, bicameral legislation any time soon, we still need to be at the table. 

As one of a handful of advocates who have been fighting for the rights of homeless families and youth for decades, I continue to be astounded at how few people, including elected officials, grasp that we even have millions of kids and families without homes, much less realize the dire conditions they face. By our collective neglect, we write off this population until they become adults on the streets. 

Something can be done. Although this seems like a long-shot, stranger things have happened in Congress. You and all those in your network can contact your congressional delegation—quickly and painlessly—by going to www.helphomelesskidsnow.org  and clicking on the TAKE ACTION link. By entering your zip code, your representatives’ info will pop up. You can customize the letter or send it as is. 

The venerable Senator Paul Simon (D, IL, deceased) once told me that until elected officials heard from their constituents that homelessness was an issue, nothing would be done. It seems like a simple formula—contact your legislator, make your wishes known, they respond. (Since big money isn't available for this issue, we'll have to do the Paul Simon method.)

With the number of homeless students increasing each year, it seems like more and more people should be aware of this crisis, maybe even knowing someone who fell into homelessness. The best motivation we have is think of ourselves in the place of those in homeless situations. 

What would we want to have happen if those kids sitting in the circle discussing their homelessness were our kids?

Monday, July 13, 2015

Ignoring Homeless Families and Youth: They Don't Disappear

Lost housing, doubled up, staying with others.

For thousands of students in Kansas, with and without parents, who have nowhere to go, doubled up means instability, tensions, and worse….

High mobility, poverty, trauma, family crises, coupled with the lack of safe and affordable housing options combine to create an onslaught of families and youth with nowhere to go. Over 70% of the more than 10,000 KS students identified as homeless are doubled up, temporarily staying in the housing of others. 

Many go unidentified…but HEAR US Inc. invites them to tell their stories in these short video clips.

Doubled up families and youth often are exposed to violence and abuse with no escape. Reliant on others for housing, often because shelters are overcrowded, nonexistent or not appropriate for many reasons, they desperately turn to anyone willing to take them in.

Often families or young persons on their own don’t connect their hardships with the official status of “homeless” and they don’t share details about their nomadic conditions. “Hard times” and “couch surfing,” euphemisms for homelessness, often mask the shame and turmoil they experience.

Fragile arrangements to stay with others often include the “walking on egg shells” mindset, a reliable predictor of the “worn out welcome mat” syndrome.

Also hidden is the instability and danger they face. Unscrupulous hosts—whether family, friends or acquaintances—may take advantage of the desperate plight of their lodgers. Sex abuse, human trafficking and prostitution can be the price for a place to stay or cause an ill-conceived option to escape the predator-host.

Once trapped in the homelessness vortex, it becomes almost impossible to escape. Not officially deemed “homeless,” a bureaucratic barricade erected by HUD, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, they don’t qualify for assistance. Slashed human service budgets means little help is available.

Through the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Act, tremendous support for students experiencing homelessness may be available in the form of school supplies, coats, backpacks, shoes, food and toiletries to meet immediate needs. Homeless liaisons, required in each district, may also connect students with community resources, tutoring, and extracurricular activities.

Identifying students experiencing hidden homelessness and determining their needs is crucial to ensure academic success.  Alert school personnel may pick up clues of housing instability, perhaps clarifying underlying reasons for a student’s struggles.


Homelessness. Yes, that term bears plenty of negative stigmas, but it comes in many shapes. Identifying doubled up students allows for barriers to academic success to dissolve, giving them the opportunity to focus on the only stability they know—school routines.  
To join the effort to get the bipartisan Homeless Children and Youth Act passed, go to www.helphomelesskidsnow.org and TAKE ACTION. 

Monday, June 1, 2015

Don't Send HEAR US Flowers!


Sometimes I just don't do well asking for money.

We have our 10th anniversary coming up July 1. Donations up to $5000 will be matched, so we can raise $10,000 without having a dinner, dance or auction.

For the past 10 years, I've been honored to be the instrument to give homeless kids and parents voice and visibility. It's been quite a ride. Check our website and blogs for more info, www.hearus.us.

Funds keep me going on projects that don't always have funding attached, but they're important. HEAR US is frugal. We're effective. And we've gained respect and gratitude of people across the country, especially those without homes who are grateful that we provide them with voice and visibility.

HEAR US is a lot like public broadcasting or other worthwhile web sources that rely on public support. Help us hit the 10 year $10k mark!

If you can give--or know someone who can--please take a moment and sign up. On behalf of the 3 million+ homeless kids in our country, thanks!

Online fundraising for 10 Years! 10 Friends!

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Grandma Didn’t Sign Up For This

The cardboard sign poked out from the doorway where the family huddled. As Chicago’s Magnificent Mile shoppers and tourists streamed obliviously by, this (apparently) homeless family (I’m guessing grandma by her appearance) scrunched on the concrete, out of the way of foot traffic, tattered cup propped by grandma’s feet, kids leaning on her like a beanbag chair, all trying not to hope for a miracle to release them from this panhandling hell.

If everyone who walked by in an hour would have given a dollar, their homelessness would have been solved for a month or so, assuming that money was the answer. Maybe lack of housing is just one stumbling block. Who knows?

While waiting to meet my NYC friends Heidi and Markus and their kids for dinner a few doors down from the family, I stood close enough to watch the action around them without being seen. Very few people stopped to drop money in the cup. One guy was so flummoxed he walked a few steps past them, reached for his wallet and dropped it, and almost got trampled by the ensuing traffic as he recovered it and went back to drop in a few bucks. 

I’d venture a guess that most people didn’t even see this bedraggled, forlorn clan. The “Gold Girl” perched on a 5-gal. gold painted bucket in her gold painted dress with a song blaring in a feeble performance designed to attract donors about 30’ away. I mused about having a speaker blaring some music to attract attention to the family’s plight… “Give a Damn” or “Jesus Loves Me.”

This family posed quite a contrast in my mind and in the minds of my friends, too. They were quite concerned. Their question, why doesn’t Chicago have a “right to shelter” law like NYC? Good question. 

Family values. I suppose if we asked the grandmother what was going on in her life, she might share the same story thousand of grandparents do—something happened to their daughter/son’s situation—they were locked up for some petty crime, got hooked on drugs, or just lost their ability to cope with being a parent—and they left, asking grandma/pa to take care of the kids until they returned. About 3 million grandkids are being raised by over 2.7 million grandparents, with median incomes of less than $36,000 a year.

Of all the issues I have heard about in my 3 decades of working in homelessness, and of all the topics people have asked me to make a documentary about, grandparents raising grandkids is at the top of the list. 

My organization, HEAR US Inc., made a short video to help grandparents and guardians get their charges enrolled in the proper school. Often kids lose their housing and bounce around with others when their custodial parent gets locked up or otherwise disappears. Watch REACH, my free 11-min. video , to learn what rights kids have under the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Act. 

A few years ago I heard from a grandmother with custody of her homeless 8-year-old granddaughter. They had just been told that the little girl couldn’t return to her school because she wasn’t a resident. The astute grandmother knew this was wrong and researched this situation, leading her to HEAR US. 

I told her about the film REACH. Her plan was to be in the school’s principal’s office first thing Monday morning. I assured her that her granddaughter would be reenrolled immediately, but told her I’d be waiting for a call if she needed backup.

This grandmother rocked her challenge! And she called to thank me. I know thousands more could use help. Here’s more info on this law.

The heartbroken Maryland grandmother, as she tried to explain why her daughter wouldn’t hurt her three-year-old son found dead after being swung around by the obviously distraught mother at a playground last week, said, “(Romechia) would never harm my grandson in any type of way. You know, I just believe she had some type of mental illness, some type of mental break that came upon her where she wasn't able to get herself out of that situation,” (WTSP-TV news story). Evidently the family was homeless.

My mind keeps tumbling back to the family in the doorway. The grandmother didn’t sign up for the task of printing their pleading message on a piece of cardboard with hopes that someone would rescue them from homelessness. At what level of desperation do you reach for the marker and cardboard and sit your grandkids around you? At what level of humanity do we decide that families count enough to provide access to shelter, mental and physical health care, and other essentials?

When we’re willing to let grandmothers and grandkids beg on the streets, we’ve hit a new low.




Monday, May 18, 2015

Crushing Reality for Homeless Families

The turtle looked up at me. I gasped in horror. Crunch. I ran over this timid, stalwart creature before I knew it was happening. I don't like creating any road kill, but a turtle? Tillie the Turtle, my motorhome's nickname, might give you a correct clue that I like turtles.

I had no idea these slow moving reptiles were so common crossing roads at this time of year. After the first mishap I paid attention. And saw lots. Most ducked their heads into their shells when my van approached. I can't imagine how terrifying that must seem. Plenty didn't make it, run over by other vehicles. I'd like to think I didn't hit any more, but who knows?

Inadvertently snuffing out a life is one thing. It wasn't practical to stop and carry them across the highway, though the thought occurred to me, and I'm sure some do-gooders do. As horrible as it seems, I'm sure other drivers take to crushing them for sport. Which led me to my train of thought about homeless families...

Having just left Kansas after a productive and surprisingly pleasant 3 months working on Worn Out Welcome Mat --KS, a documentary about homeless families and youth who doubled up with others because they have nowhere to go, I met some amazing parents and young people. Despite all that has happened to them, and they've all been through many different forms of hell, they keep trying to survive and thrive.
Melissa's story is probably the most grueling, though Maggie's is pretty awful, too. Candace, a young Marine with a darling 4-yo daughter, will rip at your heart. (All short YouTube vids on my Worn Out Welcome Mat KS playlist)
With ample road time to think and the unpredictable appearance of turtles in various stages of going from one side of the highway to the other, I couldn't help but make the comparison between turtles and homeless families.

I watched one resolute turtle just climb onto the pavement and plunge ahead, not looking for traffic. Kind of a damned if I do, damned if I don't way of thinking. Kind of like when a parent makes the desperate decision to move in with a risky host because she and her kids have nowhere to go.

Kansas has identified over 10,000 school kids in various forms of homeless situations. That doesn't KS policies and practices seem aimed at, well, crushing vulnerable families.
Melissa and her 7-yo daughter are homeless,
doubled up and desperate.
include their younger and older siblings or parents. And that doesn't include those not identified by the schools, which would likely double the number. Lots more are homeless, and not only are resources scarce,

And yet, HUD, the federal agency charged with housing the housing-vulnerable and un-housed, continues to fight the need to expand their definition of homeless.
To urge your congresspersons to support the bipartisan legislation to change HUD's definition of homelessness, go to http://helphomelesskidsnow.org and TAKE ACTION.
In my mind, HUD's like the cruel-hearted driver intentionally running over the helpless turtle.


Saturday, April 25, 2015

Simple Walk Not So Simple


























This sign didn't stand near the obviously dangerous
oil pump area. No, it was perched on an empty field in the park, inexplicable even to me.

My layover day—besides getting things done, a chance for "me" time. My time in Kansas filming the Worn Out Welcome Mat --KS project has taught me a valuable lesson: don't wait for outdoor activities, when the weather is right, do it! So I went for a walk around my surprise find—a $10 campground with water and electricity, peace and quiet.

Western KS is not for wimps. Two consecutive nights of tornado warnings made that clear. This mostly flat land has its own charm, unlike the picturesque Flint Hills and rocky bluffs of the eastern part of the state. Today the winds qualified as a gentle breeze, as opposed to the land-clearing blasts more common out here.




I'm staying in Beymer Water Recreation Park, directly south of Lakin, KS. The price is right and I get a wifi signal on my hotspot, enabling me to get work done.



My fresh air and exercise walk was intended to free my brain from cobwebs. Instead I'm stewing. This park, established in 1979, could be an ideal, affordable getaway for area residents in addition to a simple place to hook-up to water and electric for nomads like myself. Instead, it's an environmental nightmare.

Remnants of 4 ponds demonstrate not only the devastation of the drought, but also the ruthless power of aquifer-sucking irrigation systems watering cattle feeding crops.

Oil pumps, boasting of toxic properties, loom like scary monsters among the green alfalfa and hay fields behind the park, unfettered by fences or even "keep out" signs.

True, these are ubiquitous sites, not just in Kansas, but many states. What bothered me most, perhaps, was the destruction of this little park. Obvious from the placement of picnic tables and playground equipment, this was once a vibrant recreation spot.

Not so much now. At. All.







Based on the signage, and mind-numbing bureaucratic legalese regulations, this was once a popular fishing spot, too. The chemicals smell and the crusted fishing hole bottom confirmed the abject neglect of not only the park's well being but that of the surrounding area.

As I entered the last leg of my doom and gloom walk, I paused to get "beach" pictures, if you will humor this beach-loving gal.

The irony of the "No Dogs on Beach" sign hurt as I stared at the dried-up pond, now a puddle, likely chemical-laden with no wading, no swimming warnings. No kidding.
A car pulled up near me. Kids piled out of the car and ran over to the railing on the handicapped accesible concrete pad overlooking the lake. They seemed excited, not morose like me. The adult stood nearby.

How do adults explain this all-too-common reality to kids? "Well, when I was a kid we used to come out here all the time. We swam, fished, and played for hours."

"But now, we've killed this park with our lack of personal and governmental responsibility. Sorry kids. Let's go home so you can play on your computers."


You might wonder what a post of this nature has to do with my HEAR US Inc. mission. A lot, really. Our collective apathy and our nation's systemic failures have contributed mightily to the economic and environmental demise of our country. I feel a sense of desperation to call attention to what I see--whether it is the desperate conditions facing millions of kids and families or the demise of our environment as I travel the backroads of America.
Wait, you say. Is not your use of fossil fuels contributing to this demise? True, but with my deliberate, purposeful, frugal use of the resources available to me, I try my hardest to balance the use with the mission--to leave the world a little better than I found it, for all kids. Thanks for asking, and for reading. Now, let's do something to make the world better.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Sex—Not the Reason Most Homeless Moms Double Up With Men


Going from bad to worse. Frying pan to the fire. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. None of those adages express the level of dire anguish Melissa and her daughter face. 

A 3-year string of horrible events culminated in this pert mother and her adorable 7-year-old daughter landing in the Kansas version of prison: a town of less than 400, with nary a grocery store, much less any sign of life, no transportation and no support network.

Melissa, who's worked in the home healthcare field for a number of years, tossed out a desperate Craig’s List plea a few weeks ago to escape from the apartment she platonically shared with “Max,” who had “compassionately" offered to share the 2-bedroom apartment he was about to rent with Melissa who had just escaped another untenable living situation.

“Sex,” she told me in the interview she agreed to do for my HEAR US doubled up project, Worn Out Welcome Mat--KS. “What is it with men who think of nothing else, even after I clearly spelled out that I was not interested in it…at all?” 

A divorce tossed her over the edge 3 years ago. The job she had fell apart. When she faced eviction she remorsefully turned to the father of her older daughter to take her, knowing he could provide a decent living situation for the few months Melissa anticipated it would take to get back on her feet.

She attentively and creatively strove to patch her life together, protectively tending to her youngest daughter’s needs. The school McKinney-Vento homeless liaison accommodated their high mobility. They bounced from being doubled up in friend’s apartments to motels to the highly-restrictive, religious shelter back to friends. 

Melissa’s housing choices in this military town were nil, subsidized housing not available, so she generated options intended to give them a place until she could save money to get their own place. Jobs paying a living wage, even for this hard-working woman who put herself through college? Forget it. So she turned to the underground employment and housing network to compensate for the basic needs’ drought in Kansas (and other states). 

Even this didn’t work. Seemingly “safe” arrangements turned hellish. Moving from one bad situation led to even worse. A constant state of panic and heightened parent-protective alertness were matched by the absolute lack of alternatives in the Sunflower State.

Social services and the hypothetical safety net have been all but eliminated by the tax-slashing Governor Sam Brownback and his Republican conspirators. So few shelters exist in Kansas—and they have months’ long waiting lists—that families like Melissa’s desperately do what they have to do.

When the last straw came in the form of sexual and physical confrontation that needed police intervention (again), Melissa turned to a town I’ll call “Hell.” The man who agreed to take in these two vulnerable nomads assured her this was to help him with home health care, not sex. 

Three days later, Melissa told me he made explicitly clear that he had needs and expectations. 

I suggested she contact the nearest shelter (and even offered to give them a ride). I explained the “trick” of qualifying for admission—to make sure the intake counselor knew she and her daughter are in danger (they are), that their circumstances are dire and housing is dependent on her providing for her “host’s” sexual needs. HUD has a high bar when it comes to determining eligibility for their vaunted homeless shelter beds. 

Melissa and her daughter might not be “homeless enough” to qualify for help. If that’s the case, she is absolutely out of options. 

The public library in this hellish town is only open a couple hours a day, three days a week, with one computer. That is, if she will be able to leave the house of this invalid-predator. So searching on Craig’s List won’t even be an option.