invisible homeless kids

Hard to imagine that in this country way over 1,500,000 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, March 19, 2014

No Glow Till We Take Care of the Children

A week ago tonight I was sitting on stage in Joliet, IL with the University of St. Francis president, the president of the Sisters of St. Francis of Mary Immaculate, the USF VP of social ministry, and a few other folks who rotated on/off the stage. 
They had already hosted a delightful dinner, with most of the HEAR US board in attendance as well as plenty of key folks from the university. The audience for the Sister Clare Award ceremony included my high school teacher and 2 college professors as well as a slew of Joliet Franciscans I knew from days gone by. I was touched by the showing from my St. Joe's students from ancient times...and by all, friends and strangers, who took the time to attend.

To carry on the celebration, we had a reception where pictures were taken and lots of hugs shared. And the stack of my books, Crossing the Line: Taking Steps to End Homelessness, were sold and autographed. Oh so very much fun!

Silly me, I volunteered to help fix breakfast at Daybreak, the offspring of the Will County PADS shelter I started back in the 1980s...still run by Catholic Charities. I was scheduled to be at the shelter at 8:30 for a meet-and-greet with staff and volunteers, but since Tillie was buried by the previous night's snowstorm, I begged a ride. It was the USF turn to do breakfast. One of the social ministry team was going and offered to pick me up.

Ouch. 4:00 am came quite fast. Coffee didn't work as well as it needed to. Neither did his defroster, but we made it. Our small team had to scramble to get breakfast ready for about 100 people. I scrambled eggs with the Dean. Real eggs. We made real biscuits. And real gravy with sausage. With real love.

The award ceremony was special. But almost as special, in a different way, was the deep-seated dedication to this ministry of caring for our homeless brothers and sisters as exhibited by my USF friends. Their involvement goes beyond an occasional turn at the shelter. Way beyond.

The glow from the award and the volunteer stint was shattered by the cry of a little baby, stuffed in a carseat carrying basket, plopped on one of the well-worn banquet tables in the shelter dining room. We still have much work to do. 

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Connecting the Dots: Homelessness of Families and Youth Needs Attention

Lynne Weise, Anne Arundel School District (MD) homeless
 liaison, welcomes the audience at Abundant Life
My audience last night in Glen Burnie, MD (on the outskirts of Baltimore) was a mixture of seasoned veterans who've worked with families and youth experiencing homelessness for years and newbies, the kind-hearted folks disturbed by knowing that thousands of kids and their parents in their community "have no fixed, adequate place of abode," i.e. are homeless.

I'd suspect, having done sessions like this all over the country for decades, that the group suffered from a massive guilt, how could we let this happen in our relatively affluent community?

My first task was to assuage their guilt. In virtually every community across this country, you'd find families and youth without homes. The latest stats from the US Department of Education points to a record-breaking dire reality: over 1.1 million students have been identified as homeless. That, by no means, is a complete number, with many districts failing to identify their homeless students, and families/youth in homeless situations failing to self-identify. Almost 1,000 students are identified as  homeless in this district, a steady increase from previous years.

My second task is to introduce the courageous kids who share their stories of homelessness in my award-winning, highly-acclaimed documentary, My Own Four Walls. Any audience watching this 20-minute film can't hold onto ignorance or callousness. And they didn't.

Our discussion, I believe, was fruitful. People wanted to help. And a ton of help is needed. Practical things, diapers, clothing, food, etc.; the vital extras, band instruments, prom dresses, and baseball cleats, etc.; and the underlying essential, raising awareness so that a compassion epidemic can spread.

What I think astounded/vexed them the most is that so many families and youth are still unsheltered in their communities, causing all sorts of logistical nightmares for the unhoused and for those responding to the inevitable emergencies related to being unhoused.

Yeah, it's pretty dismaying to know that for decades our nation, and communities within, have pretty well ignored the basic human needs of vulnerable families and youth. And our federal government, despite what they say, continues to under-fund and under-serve this growing population, at a great cost to taxpayers as well as the beleaguered families/youths.

It would be nice if local communities could muster the compassion needed to solve the problem in their borders, but that's not how it works. They can do great things, but if we don't ramp up the basics: affordable housing, support services, educational opportunities, health care, child care, etc., those teetering on the edge of homelessness will fall hard. That requires pulling in (reluctant) elected officials on all levels.

I'll continue doing gigs like this as long as I get the support (check our our time-limited -3/31/14 matching grant), but I've got to say it's daunting. This crisis isn't easing. And the do-gooders might start feeling like their Uncle Sam has deserted them. At this point, I'd have a hard time arguing.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Brutal Cold + Brutal Reality For Homeless Families/Youth

Keynote speeches can be good or bad, stimulating or numbing. At the Beyond Housing conference put on by the venerable Institute of Children, Poverty and Homelessness in NYC last week, I could have danced on the table during Ralph da Costa Nunez’s opening salvo.
Ever the contrarian, this respected guru of all things to help homeless families took a major shot at the homelessness “cure” de jour, Housing First aka Rapid Rehousing. Nunez spared no words. It doesn’t work as a one-size-fits-all (underfunded) approach to ending homelessness. My dear friend and sister-blogger Pat LaMarche captured the sense of his proclamation.
Now, let me add my 2¢ worth: whatever well-intentioned approaches communities have to assist families and youth moving from the streets to sheets (and all the other essentials of home), far more communities have nothing. Read that again.
Maybe it’s the ivory tower syndrome:
  • I’m doing good in my job helping homeless families and youth, so everyone else is probably doing the same. (Hello, organizations in big cities that have resources.) 
  • I don’t see any homeless families/youth, so they’re all OK or we don’t have any here. 
  • I’ve heard this isn’t a problem, so it’s not.
Or worse:
  • I get HUD funding so I can’t say anything bad about this absurd policy that excludes million of homeless families/youth.
  • I will agree with this policy of Housing First because I want it to work (and I get HUD funding so I can’t bite the hand that feeds me). 
  • It would be too much work to change things to better serve homeless families/youth. 
  • They should try harder to solve the problem on their own. I’ve got too much to do as it is.
Having spent many grueling years running shelters for individuals, families and youth over 18, I feel I’ve got skin in the game. (My bio) Having spent the past 9 years traversing the country listening to and chronicling families and youth in homeless situations (3-min YouTube vid), I feel obligated to bring their story to the table. Having spent 30+ years advocating ending homelessness (How’s that working? Not!), I can’t stay quiet when these rare discussions hit the media wave.
I wrote a book, Crossing the Line: Taking Steps to End Homelessness, because I was dismayed about the lack of understanding of homelessness among policymakers and the public. Here’s a 1-page excerpt from my missive that list some causes of family/youth homelessness. (You can order the e-book or real book at my HEAR US website.)
20+ years ago I astoundingly found myself fighting against so-called advocates in Illinois who said we didn’t need a state law to remove barriers commonly experienced by homeless students trying to get into school. Yes we did. We got it, and now it’s federal law. And millions of kids have had access to 6-hours a day of educational stability, meals (albeit not the greatest), and a shot at escaping poverty through education.
So I’m not backing down when it comes to demanding that our affordable-housing-destroying government steps up mightily to right the wrongs of the past 30 years of what doesn’t pass for viable housing policies. Here’s a 3-minute video critiquing  “Rapid Rehousing,” produced by Nunez’s organization, ICPH.
Housing First, the touted “solution” to homelessness, has been primarily directed at those derogatorily dubbed “chronic” homeless persons, and grossly inadequate funding has caused organizations to fight brutally. You should be a little suspicious when HUD and HUD-funded agencies fight to keep a narrow definition of homelessness that excludes most families, youth and non-chronic adults.
Ralph suggests Housing Second and Third. And funding these approaches. That would take us beyond our one-size-fits-all mentality to addressing this growing national scandal. Why we have to fight about this baffles me.
I’d suggest those who think we’re doing enough to help homeless families and youth to leave the comfort of their cozy work/home environments and spend a day or 2 (preferably with kids in tow) looking for a place to stay. Yeah, Housing First is a good slogan but a lousy blanket. 
 (Originally posted by me on my AlterNet blog)

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Holiday Homelessness Reports: Poppycock!

Sure as Santa replaces Halloween costumes on store shelves, pseudo-heart-wrenching reports about homelessness pummel us between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Tis' the season of befuddling accounts “documenting” our nation’s "progress" fighting homelessness.

With decades of paltry federal homelessness-abating efforts failing to stem the tide of individuals and families finding themselves roofless, HUD’s recent claim that homelessness is decreasing might cause a raised eyebrow or two. But no, mainstream media dashes off a drivel-filled dab pronouncing: Mission accomplished. Tomorrow, the US Conference of Mayors releases their annual hunger and homelessness report. With decades of perusing these documents, I could save them the money and write it myself:
Hunger and homelessness is decreasing for some, increasing for others. Federal investments in programs to address these crises are decreasing. Economic conditions continue to worsen. More people are suffering.
One might be inclined to ask, with the dramatic loss of affordable housing, record un- and under-employment, brutal sequester-related cuts to social safety net programs, decades of ravaging federal support for anything to do with keeping people from the worst of poverty…how do the numbers of homeless people decline? This, after all, is the era of epitome Scrooge-like behavior on the part of government, ebbing corporate generosity, and, oh yeah, those pesky paychecks can't keep pace with the cost of living either.
How do HUD officials pass off their Annual Homelessness Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress with straight faces? Why doesn’t the headline “Homelessness Down, but Poverty Up” get attention for the absurdity factor?
Little consideration gets paid to how the majority of the 99% struggle to pay for essentials, like housing, health care and food. The recent NYT article describing struggles of working stiffs unable to pay the rent points out some indisputable facts: “Today, millions of poor Americans are caught in a similar trap, with the collapse of the housing boom helping stoke a severe shortage of affordable apartments. Demand for rental units has surged, with credit standards tight and many families unable to scrape together enough for a down payment for buying a home. At the same time, supply has declined, with homebuilders and landlords often targeting the upper end of the market.”
What about those dire circumstances would allow homelessness to recede?
A recent report by Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies confirms the impact of the shortage of affordable housing on the legions of income-challenged households. As Bryce Covert on Moyers & Co. points out, “There is very little affordable housing available. These low-income renters who make $15,000 or less would have to find housing that costs less than $375 a month, yet the median monthly cost for housing that was built in the last four years is more than $1,000. Less than a third of those units rents for under $800, and a mere 5 percent go for less than $400. There were just 6.9 million housing units that these renters could afford in 2011, but there are 11.8 of these renters, and to top it off, 2.6 million of the affordable units are occupied by higher-income people.”
She adds, “The availability of low-cost housing has been declining for decades — in 1970, there was an actual surplus of 300,000 low-cost rental units, but by 2011, there was a shortfall of 5.3 million units.”
So, ‘splain it to me like I’m a 6-year-old. How do decades of declining availability of low-cost housing units, rising long-term unemployment, inadequate wages, slashed government investments in human essentials, long-lasting global economic demise, increasing numbers of renters, sequester government spending slashing, and a growing population combine to REDUCE homelessness?
Seems like the same folks foisting Santa on unsuspecting lil’ kids are at it again, making believe that a housing fairy is flitting about as the bamboozlers steal cookies from the plate on the kitchen table. And the US Mayors Conference drank the kook-aid. Fa-la-la-la-la….
Also posted on Diane's AlterNet, Speakeasy page.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Weirdness of Facebook

Posted to my Facebook page October 12, 2013 at 5:28pm
A simultaneous conversation between 2 people I know and love...and me is way too weird.

On one thread, a former employee who worked with me helping homeless families.

The other thread, a formerly homeless mom that I've gotten to know quite well.

My former employee, hard-working, mother and a decent person.

My mom-friend, a hard-working stay-at-home single mother and a decent person.

The difference? Poverty, opportunity (or lack thereof) and perspective, for starters.

My former employee is evidently listening to the gospel of prosperity in one of its many forms, perhaps designed to encourage people to reach their full potential, thus eschewing dependence on government system, relying on God.

My mom-friend is being ravaged by the reality of poverty and bureaucratic dysfunction keeping her from life-saving surgery for cancer. Insurance-less, she's being denied the surgery she needs because she doesn't have the $13,000 to cover the procedure she desperately needs.

The argument against dependence on a system is valid--as far as it goes. People need to be encouraged to be independent, some need the nudge more than others. However, I don't believe that everyone all the time can avoid the system. And God is, was, and ever shall be distorted by human condition.

In some cases, lacking a personal support network, when the rug gets pulled out from under you by any number of disastrous experiences that can befall any of us at any time, you may need help. Or when you have no where to go but up, and no way to scale the slippery walls surrounding you, lacking a miracle, you'll perish. From what I've seen, miracles are in short supply for too many deserving, unfortunate souls.

In this case, my mom-friend is being told her life is worth nothing by virtue of inaccessible health care. She's been told she makes too much (child support) to qualify for Obamacare coverage.

In my opinion, the hoopla over Obamacare has fueled the disdain of the poor, not to mention a government shutdown, among other things. The haves are looking down on the have-nots, and in this case, the systemic looking down is depriving millions of babies, children, teens and adults of what they need most to live, much less thrive.

Implying that government is bad and people become dependent on hand-outs is a popular position. For religious leaders to preach it is, in my mind, holy malpractice. If this is what their congregations are hearing, then the preachers need a reality check.

I'm not sticking up for government across the board. Plenty is wrong with the way it's been going for a long time. But to toss government out...well...I'm just not sure that Jesus, or any other spiritual force, will be coming down in time to save the my mom-friend who needs surgery NOW.

Have we gotten to a point where we're even more isolated, using church walls to block out society's dysfunction and to separate believers from the undeserving? Inspiring others to reach for the gold and disdain the broken will accomplish just what the puppet-masters seek--total anarchy among the masses.

Whether or not anyone has thought through what this means is a valid concern. The blatant disregard of humanity --and our responsibility for ourselves and others--will bring about a whole new world...far weirder than I can even imagine. For my mom-friend, it very much means her children will lose their mother.

But thinking seems to be in short supply during this crisis of confidence in our elected officials. And we'll all pay the price.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Lost and Forgotten: Income-Challenged Families In America

Lost and Forgotten: an appropriate reference for this neglected blog. Sorry I've been MIA for a while, but I haven't been sitting under a rock. In fact, 2 major events have grasped my time and taught me invaluable lessons in the process.
  1. Death of my Mom, Ellie Nilan. On May 9 I received the call that she had quickly and unexpectedly passed away. Ellie was a treat! And she lived life to the full. Her 93rd birthday, on the first day of Summer, approached, but she didn't make it. Ellie was an ardent supporter of HEAR US, and she was an essential part of my life. Our daily 8:45 a.m. calls were our touchstone. I find myself looking at the clock, reaching for my phone...and recalling she's "in the next room" as the What Is Death? meditation reminds us. To continue her generous legacy, the Ellie Nilan Memorial Fund was established by HEAR US. Among other things, her death and dealing with the aftermath, gives me new appreciation for those who struggle with loss.
  2. My trip to Tanzania, Africa. A planned trip, my "vacation" so to speak, for 3 weeks in June. I'm part of a nonprofit organization Friends of Imiliwaha NFP. We develop support for a specific educational effort and medical project. Three of us went to see what things looked like on the ground. I've never crossed the Atlantic, so this was an eye-opening trip! And contrary to my little imagination, Tanzania is beautiful! Here's a 5-min video I made showing the school we're supporting. And I penned/typed a blog for AlterNet on our visit vs. President Obama's trip a couple weeks after.
That being said, Lost and Forgotten means much more. It reflects how abysmally this country's leaders are treating the families and individuals on the bottom of the economic ladder. Case in point: the recent slash and burn of food assistance, aka SNAP or food stamps, in Congress. Poor families don't need food. Rich farmers need federal support, billions. Uh huh.

Lost and Forgotten formerly middle-class families got a great visibility boost in the recent PBS film Two American Families. In an unprecedented (at least to my knowledge) look at a 22-year span at the same 2 families, we witnessed the unraveling of their lives as their union jobs fall by the wayside and they struggle to survive. 

Bill Moyers and Company did a fantastic job on this film. But it was ugly. I expressed my feelings about the film in my AlterNet blog, asking the question: How Far Is Your Family From Homelessness? 

Sometimes I feel the frustration of "just" blogging when so much more needs to be done. But if enough people see my blog, watch the film, and contact their elected officials or at least clue-in their neighbors and coworkers, some good will occur. 

Don't know if I was in the Lost and Forgotten category that I'd be satisfied with "some good," which takes me back to my frustration. 

HEAR US has begun our astounding 9th year July 1, 2013. In my wildest dreams I never imagined I'd be sitting here typing those words. HEAR US began out of my frustration--knowing that homeless families and youth populations were skyrocketing at an unprecedented level, but most people didn't even know it was a problem. 

We all can make the world a better place. HEAR US, and my related activities, is my attempt to ease the suffering of the Lost and Forgotten. I'm asking you to at least watch the (free, available online) Two American Families documentary. You'll recognize families you know and love in these stories. If more would watch and learn of others' sufferings...well, I'd like to believe we'd have less Lost and Forgotten. Then I could go MIA and no one would miss me.

P.S. If you read this far and found this worthwhile, please fling it around--Facebook, wherever. Thanks!

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

A Worthwhile Journey

The ICPH map showing the dearth of family
shelters across the country hung proudly
from Tillie at our Arkansas launching spot--
the Clinton Presidential Library in
Little Rock, AR.
Another cross-country trip--I don't take them lightly. But this one was special. Dubbed Babes of Wrath, my esteemed friend Pat LaMarche and I, supported by our techie Mary Parks, threw everything we had at our EPIC (Everyday People In Crisis) Journey 2013. 6,500 miles (trip map) later, phew, we know it was quite worth it.

The awareness factor of homeless families and kids is dismayingly low--on all levels: elected officials, school personnel, and community members. As Babes of Wrath, we set out to change that in a swath of states from AR to CA, from Pacific to Atlantic coasts.

Tillie, my tin can on wheels, served as our traveling home-office, albeit a tad crowded. We contacted our network--Pat's Green Party and my HEAR US McKinney-Vento and shelter friends--and set up events. The tremendous cooperation we received made our trip extremely worthwhile and satisfying! We cannot thank our friends enough for their efforts, support and hospitality!

In addition to events, Pat and I blogged. She writes for HuffPo and New Clear Vision. I write for AlterNet, as well as my (neglected) invisible homeless kids and Wanderers

We received some incredible media interest, including the prestigious cable news show, The Young Turks.

Social media proved to be our super-tool, with our EPIC Journey FB page becoming quite the hotspot of cyberspace.

The crux of our journey--and the reason we did this crazy marathon trip--consists of 2 groups:

  • university students and audience members who attended our events; and,
  • the people experiencing homelessness who shared their stories with us.
We're excited that the stories and support have lead to a bodacious plot. More on that soon!

We took this journey for each of you--those experiencing homelessness and those working to ease the crisis of homelessness. We're not done yet, so we urge you to join our EPIC Journey family because we've got some exciting news round the corner! 

Knowing your time is limited, unlike our blogs and stories, I'm listing my favorites below. 

News stories:
Far from feeling all news is bad news, this trip restored my faith in good people doing good things. After 8 years, 166,000 miles, that's the kind of tune-up this gal needed! Happy to share a burst of good news, knowing we all need to hunker down to overpower the naysayers. Count on this "daft knight" to continue my humble efforts. Stick around!