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....

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.

  


Friday, March 6, 2015

Deep Hole of Homelessness Swallows Homeless Families

[Kansas City, KS] Friday was payday for Crystal, a fast food employee. She cashed her check and then bought a few, too few for her way of thinking, birthday presents for her son whose 8th birthday was Valentine’s Day.

She, her husband and other child, Brittany and her boyfriend and her 2 children, and Tyler and his partner, a motley community that shared this rundown but affordable house in Kansas City, Kansas, celebrated “Danny’s” birthday Saturday. 

On Sunday, they were picking through the ashes of their rental house. Everything was destroyed in an electrical fire caused by, they surmise, shoddy repairs done by a dubious “handyman” hired by their landlord. 

The Red Cross gave them 2 rooms in a motel for 3 nights and a promise of first month’s rent and security deposit if they found housing within the week. 

Crystal’s family hugged their yellow lab as they left him with a friend, then they made their possession-less way to the motel. 

They went from housed and self-sufficient to homeless and desperate in a flash. It wasn’t their fault. One might be tempted to blame the landlord for neglect. According to Crystal, he didn’t have insurance, so he told them not to expect anything from him—like their security deposit or unused rent. Without that money they had nothing.

One of their stops Tuesday morning was the KC School Board building, where I happened to be on my HEAR US Inc. quest to film stories of families experiencing homelessness, doubling (or tripling or worse) up with others, families not considered “homeless enough” by HUD. (READ this EXCELLENT article on doubled up from the Educational Leadership Journal.)

They enthusiastically said I could share their story to let others know how easy it is to slide from independence to scraping through the rubble of our shattered safety net. 

Fortunately for the two moms, their school board stop netted them more help than they could have imagined. Thanks to the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Act, federal legislation removing barriers to school stability, their kids would be transported to/from the motel to their same schools. 

Staff gave the moms uniforms, backpacks, school supplies, toiletries, food and a few books. The families were connected with resources to stay in the motel for another week, only possible because they could stagger back on their feet with a little more time.

 But I must clarify a few crucial points:
  • These families, though tripled up due to economic hardship prior to the fire, and figuring to be doubled up (or more) again after leaving the motel next week, will not be eligible for HUD assistance because they’re not homeless by HUD’s definition. 
  • Besides the fact that they wouldn't have been able to find room in area shelters because every shelter across the land is at capacity thanks to this beastly winter weather, they would not be able to stay together because few shelters take intact families. 
  • And with Crystal’s work schedule, overnights, she would have to choose between work and staying with her family at the shelter, a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you don’t choice.
  • Public (subsidized) housing in KC, and mostly everywhere else, has 3-years or more waiting lists. 
  • The only way they can afford the $700 mo. rent and utilities is with 3-4 adults working, the others chip in by providing childcare. Even then it’s dicey.  
If they’re “lucky,” they’ll find another landlord—likely to be a slumlord because they don’t have sufficient income and lack good credit records—who will rent to them, dog and all. If not, they’ll tumble deeper into the hole of homelessness, finding that it’s hard to be self-sufficient when you have nowhere to go. And their lovable labrador will also be homeless.
The campaign to get HUD’s definition in line with the more realistic US Department of Education’s definition—which includes those doubled up and in motels— continues. It takes but a moment, and your zip code, to nudge your federal lawmakers to cosponsor the Homeless Children and Youth Act. www.helphomelesskidsnow.org TAKE ACTION!

(HEAR US is looking for KS families and youth with nowhere to go who are willing to share their stories for the Worn Out Welcome Mat - KS documentary in the making, Spring 2015. Contact Diane for more info.)

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Having Nowhere To Go = Homelessness, Not Choice


  • Crawling though decrepit attics to find doubled-up families. 
  • Cutting taxes for the highest income bracket to stimulate the Kansas economy.
  • Discovering that a stable, financially comfortable community has close to 50% of their students living in or near poverty.
  • Realizing that the state's budget has gaping holes, so cut education funding across-the-board.

What a state I'm in, Kansas, where I'll be spending the bulk of my time in the next several weeks. My unplanned offer to film Worn Out Welcome Mat--KS, a short documentary on families doubled up because they have nowhere to go was accepted by the state coordinator of the homeless education program. What a tremendous opportunity! And the timing couldn't be better. It's like being dropped into an economic war zone.

Homeless families and youth have been, in many places across this state, hidden. Very few resources exist, especially away from metro areas, and even there it's a brutal struggle.

The KS Department of Education has made tremendous strides training and encouraging educators to identify and assist homeless students. Their census numbers have steadily climbed, not a good thing on one hand, but good that they're identifying and serving more, nearly triple since the recession. 
  • 2007 -- 3,569
  • 2014 -- 10, 378

I've spent worthwhile chunks of time this past week with school officials, migrant assistance staff, community leaders and volunteers here in Manhattan, KS. Riley County, which includes Manhattan (The Little Apple) and surrounding area--rural and military--just completed a needs' assessment. Not surprisingly, they determined,
"Riley County is a community that is divided between a high quality of life, prosperity, and growth on one hand, and dwindling resources for and lack of attention to those who are most in need on the other."
A brief conversation I had with someone who should know better (remaining unnamed for the time being), reinforced the importance of our WOWM film project--which will be comprised of kids and parents talking about the struggles of living doubled up because they have nowhere to go.

This person differentiated between those "literally homeless" and those "choosing" to live doubled up. The "literally homeless" term is HUD (US Dept. of Housing and Urban Development) language reflecting a limited definition of homelessness that excludes millions of homeless families and youth. I'll get back to this person.

I listened to the migrant assistance worker telling about crawling through the dark attic and finding a family living/cowering in the far reaches of this abandoned building's top level. Desperation and fear caused this homeless Kansas family to hide in the attic. At least these outreach workers were bringing help. How many more are living in these dire circumstances?

It's worth the reminder:
  • No community has adequate emergency shelters for families/youth. 
  • Some communities have NO shelters, especially for youth (on their own without parent/guardian) or families. 
  • Some shelters turn families away because they don't accept intact families with older boys, two parent families, or parent/s with work schedules that conflict with curfews, or because a family member has a felony, mental illness, addiction problem, etc.
  • Time limits, capacity issues, immigration status and requiring proof of homelessness can also be barriers for families seeking emergency shelter.
I'd like to be more optimistic about our nation's ability to turn the corner on this soaring poverty and homelessness that I've witnessed over the past 10 years since I took to the highways and byways under my HEAR US Inc. banner. But my travels have exposed me to the skewed priorities of states across the land and the challenges of addressing poverty and homelessness when it's not a concerted effort.

Right now my hope is resting heavily on the families and youth I'll be interviewing in the next several weeks. Their faces and stories will, I know, be powerful tools to open minds and hearts, raising awareness of the struggles of thousands of people--families, youth, and single adults-- in this state with nowhere to go.
Please consider helping HEAR US raise funds for this project. Yes, it's for Kansas, but they need the help--at least the homeless families/youth and those working hard to serve them. If we can make things work in KS, we can turn to the next state where gross neglect of impoverished families and youth is rampant. Plenty of choices. 

Saturday, January 31, 2015

HUD’s Seven Big Homelessness Fails

I’m a nomad-by-choice. For the past 10 years, under the banner of HEAR US Inc., my nonprofit organization, I’ve traveled over 200,000 miles of mostly backroads travel chronicling homeless families and youth across the country. I live full-time in a van converted into a motorhome/workspace. I used to run the largest shelter in Illinois outside Chicago. I’ve been working on the issue of homelessness for 3 decades.

Last night I relented and paid for a campground in Asheville, NC instead of sleeping in my van in the ubiquitous Walmart parking lot because temps were down to 20 and I dont like to freeze. One of my neighbors, I learned today, was a homeless family staying there because they have nowhere to go. Their school-age children were on the bus and off to school before I stuck my nose outside.

Last night in this funky and wonderful western NC city, motels provided some semblance of shelter for dozens of families who use up their meager earnings to keep a roof over their heads. Others cobbled together a spot on the couch or begged for an empty corner in someones basement so they could stay warm and safe.

The meager family shelter options dont begin to meet the needs of hundreds of families and youth in the county in need of assistance. I learned of one mother, a former school social worker whose loss of housing kicked her and her 8-year-old son to the street. The challenging conditions at the local rescue mission are too stressful for the boy, so hes staying at a childrens emergency shelter while his mom bunks at the mission.

Family and youth shelter options in Asheville, as with most communities, are horrifically inadequate, forcing homeless families and youth to desperately turn to makeshift options, typically on a night-by-night, or less, basis.  But theyre not homeless enough to meet HUDs standard of homelessness according to Amy Hobson, program coordinator at Trinity Place, a local emergency shelter for kids on their own.

During this, the last week of January, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, HUD, has mandated that communities across the land send out teams of social workers and volunteers, armed with clipboards, to count homeless persons. The diligent effort of these census-takers does not make up for serious failures on the part of HUD when it comes to addressing homelessness because they dont count the bulk of their communitys homeless populationthe invisible families and youth that desperately need HUDs housing assistance.

 Last year, HUD reported 578,424 homeless persons, an alleged 11% reduction since 2007. Their count chillingly ignores millions of homeless persons, including babies and toddlers.

The US Department of Educations (DOE) 2012-13 report indicates 1,258,182 identified homeless students (not including younger/older siblings or parents), a whopping 85% increase since the 2006-07 school year. Even worse, a recent report, Americas Youngest Outcasts, states that the number of homeless children/youth exceeds 2.5 million (not including parents or single adults). My official HEAR US estimate is 3 million.

HUD maintains their narrow definition of homelessness, the hallmark of their fizzled-out 10 Year Plan To End Homelessness.   The Baltimore Sun editorial opines, The central principle of the city's 10-year plan to end homelessness was that it would prioritize finding housing first and services second for those living on the streets. Events like today's clean-up are a reminder of just how far we remain from realizing that promise.

HUDs point-in-time count skips millions of vulnerable children, youth and adults, a potentially deadly omission. HUDs policy excludes children and youth who face real harm, including negative emotional, educational, and health outcomes; it also increases their risk of physical and sexual abuse and trafficking, according to the coalition pushing for the expanded definition of homelessness, Help Homeless Kids Now.

This confused, grossly under-counted data gets presented to Congress, perpetuating the lack adequate funding to address housing needs of millions of people with nowhere to go.

HUDs dismal failures include:

1.     Homelessto HUD means staying in a shelter or living on the streets. If you lost housing due to crisis and cant get into a shelter, and you turn to family, friends, acquaintances or motels, you're not considered homeless no matter how fragile those arrangements are. 
2.     HUD demands proof of homelessness (yup, youve gotta prove you're deserving of the shelter bed). Such proof might mean an eviction notice, or a letter from a landlord, or your mother-in-laws note that explains that she kicked you and your kids out. Pity the person who cannot document their situation.
3.     HUD makes it confusing and time consuming for both the shelter provider and the shelter seeker when it comes to proving homelessness (see the chart beginning pg. 3 of this PDF doc). Arbitrary and unworkably burdensome eligibility rules” now govern our homeless shelter system. It doesn't matter if youve got the most desperate family sitting in front of you, HUDs rules rule.
4.     If youre a vulnerable (think sex trafficking, sex-for-bed, gang-bait, etc.) homeless youth on your own, but not seen sleeping in an alley, HUD wont count you. One of the main reasons we have such an abysmal system for serving youth on their own who are homeless is because HUDs definition of homelessness doesnt include them, so theyre not counted.
5.     If youre a family thats scotch-taped together a flimsy plan to stay with family, friends or acquaintances after you lost housing (doubled up video, Worn Out Welcome Mat), HUD wont count you. Christine Craft, the Homeless Education Liaison for Buncombe County Schools, told me that 75% of the students she serves dont fall under the HUD definition, doubling or tripling up in many cases.
6.     If youre a family staying in a motel on your own thin dime because you have nowhere to go, HUD wont count you. Most of the families that Ms. Craft works with have someone working, but the motels eat up most of their meager pay, giving them no option to save for a security deposit to move out.
7.     HUD pits single adults against families and youth by forcing communities to prioritize adults in order to get funding. While HUD pays lip service to serving families (not so much youth), their funding decisions tell the story.

The dire realities most people dont know until they experience homelessness: Many communities dont have shelters. Some shelters turn away boys in families, dont accept intact families, same-sex parents, those with criminal records, substance users, or parents with work schedules conflicting with shelter curfews.

First Focus, a childrens advocacy group, estimates  over 1 million homeless children and youth are ineligible for HUD assistance because of not being homeless enough to satisfy HUD guidelines.

And HUD continues to push Housing First, a way to pop people into housing and then offer services to help them., although HUD has shifted away from funding services. Housing First was used mostly for those deemed chronically homeless by HUDs parlance with mixed results. Even this approach is doomed, with funding a major issue, hello Congress! And HUDs one-size-fits-all approach to homelessness doesnt work, as this short video by the Institute of Children, Poverty and Homelessness points out. 

Especially in light of the latest blizzards and Arctic cold spells, people of compassion would like to think that the federal agency charged with housing the housing-challenged, especially families and youth, was under control. Not so. But hope is on the horizon!

Bipartisan legislation aimed at expanding HUD’s definition of homelessness has been introduced, with growing support making it likely that soon HUD will have to face the brutal reality that they need to help millions of kids and adults with nowhere to go. 
To help homeless kids, urge your lawmakers to pass the new(old) legislation simply by going to www.helphomelesskidsnow.org  and sign the petition. Takes just seconds!

If nothing else, HUD is guilty of a big logic FAIL. How do you justify claiming reduced  homelessness in light of a shattered economy, massive foreclosures and evictions, slashed affordable housing stock, pathetic wages for the bulk of the working class, inadequate health care and child care, and more? Oh yeah, just dont count them.

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.