invisible homeless kids

Hard to imagine that in this country way over 1,700,000 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, July 9, 2014

Open Letter to Sarasota: Homeless Families Need More Help

To the good people of Sarasota, I’ve waited long enough. From what I’ve read in the Herald Tribune’s article (July 8, 2014), you are stumbling in a very important responsibility—how to help homeless families in your county. 

I used to live in Sarasota, and I’ve returned many times, rekindling fond memories of this delightful area. I’ve cringed as I’ve followed your struggles to cope with a significant homelessness population. I could tell it wasn’t going well, but I waited to see what would happen. This latest account alarms me. 

I've worked with homeless families for 3 decades, including 15 years running volunteer-based shelters; spent time in other shelters nationwide; chronicled lives of homeless families/youth in documentary films; wrote a reader-friendly book about homelessness; advocated for improved state and federal policies; addressed countless audiences nationwide on the topic; and, most importantly, spent a lot of time listening and observing homeless families. I am qualified to offer opinions.

I’ll focus on families, a vulnerable population that will benefit by the right steps. Here’s a starting list of concerns to be addressed:

HIGH MOBILITY—a devastating state of mind for those in stress. Many families without homes have been shuffling around for years, with much uncertainty as to what’s going to happen. That’s hard on kids and adults.

CAPACITY—how many families can be served at the emergency shelter(s)? I suspect you’re underestimating, based on the number of families identified by the county schools’ count. While you can’t help every family, just getting the tip of the iceberg might not be most effective. Over 1,200 homeless students have been identified, a ghastly number not including babies and toddlers or parents.

STABILITY—the time needed to get back on one’s feet varies, but certainly is more than 2-6 weeks, as proposed by the plan to move families from their (up to) week at the emergency shelter into one of five homes. Again, families are devastated by high mobility. What they need is stability, not a plan to shuffle them from place to place.

FAMILY PROMISE—a tremendous family shelter program, but they have limits. They’re highly mobile, shifting week by week, open only at night. Put yourself in place of the family. Think of the logistics. And this program is dependent on significant support from the community, especially people of faith. They’ll need sites willing/able to host a handful of families a week at a time. Families won’t automatically become economically solvent, and FP has a time limit, 90-days, a very short time to regain stability.

HARVEST HOUSE—a commendable, faith-based program that focuses on addictions. For all the good they can do, it’s not a program for every family. Their religious focus might be hard for some families to adapt to, for a variety of legitimate reasons. And their capacity is quite limited. 

TRAUMA—many homeless families have experienced a tremendous amount of trauma that shapes their lives and impedes their ability to comply with standard shelter approaches to ending homelessness. A recent report points to this overlooked fact. Addressing the multitude of challenges families experience requires the work of patient, knowledgable professionals and the availability of significant resources.  

HOUSING OPTIONS—because of significant cutbacks in federal housing assistance programs, foreclosures, bankruptcies, rising rents, and more, it’s hard for families with limited income to find decent housing. This sobering housing affordability calculator will confirm what thousands of Sarasota County residents know.

REALITY—no one can deny the devastation of the past 8+ years of economic turmoil. Jobs paying living wages are scarce, belts are tightened squeezing out the vulnerable, those with even minor credit or legal issues are passed over in job or housing searches, and those finding themselves on the edge of—or in—homelessness are often treated as lepers. 


You’ve paid a consultant plenty of money to advise your community. The above issues don’t seem to have been addressed adequately. Let’s see what happens next. But put yourselves in the place of families needing help. How much longer can they hang on?

Thursday, June 19, 2014

New Report Quantifies Challenges Facing Homeless Moms: Give 'Em A Break...or Help

As a former shelter director, I confess that big and little infractions by families staying at our shelter sometimes annoyed the snot out of me. If I knew then what I know now….
Homelessness has gained more awareness, but unfortunately the stereotypical guy begging on the street corner image prevails despite the reality that families and youth without homes far exceed HUD’s “chronically” homeless individuals,last reported as 610,043 (Jan. 2013).  And despite documentation that homelessness among children/youth has increased more than 70% since 2006, homeless kids don’t seem to count. Schools have identified 1,168,354 students, a record number that doesn’t include babies, toddlers and youth outside school systems. Congress hasn't learned that helping kids and families is cost effective, not to mention the right thing to do.
The families in our shelters taught me their circumstances were never simple. Sadly, family-unfriendly policies and practices prevail. In my book, Crossing the Line: Taking Steps to End Homelessness, I share stories of families and offer a multi-choice menu of causes of homelessness. Even that doesn’t cover the gamut.
Unenlightened shelter staff and bureaucrats can be quick to condemn the parent, typically a single mom, pointing out flaws in her behavior, choices and lifestyle. Too many shelters turn away hard-to-serve families.
A new report, Service and Housing Interventions for Families (SHIFT), produced by theWilson Foundation in collaboration with the National Center on Family Homelessness, documents needs of women with children experiencing homeless and explores effective approaches. In the process, it points to the common shortcomings of our family shelter “system.”
The report focuses on women and their children in emergency, transitional shelters and permanent supportive housing in the Rochester and western New York region, not in metro areas. From what I’ve seen in my 9 years of HEAR US Inc. travels, the NY findings appear to reflect homelessness among families similarly sized communities.
The report’s key findings:
  • 93% mothers had a history of trauma.
  • 81% experienced multiple traumatic events.
  • 79% had experienced trauma in childhood.
  • 56% had multiple childhood traumas.
  • 82% experienced trauma in adulthood.
  • 64% experienced multiple traumas in adulthood.
Other significant findings:
  • Obviously “the most powerful predictor of residential stability for homeless and low-income families is vouchers or housing subsidies,” but Congress is poised to drastically cut the already inadequate vouchers.
  • Doubled up was the 2nd most common option when families moved out of shelters.
  • The average childhood traumas experienced, 3.2.
  • Sexual assaults, often in childhood, were common. (Watch our film on the edge: Family Homelessness in America to hear from women with firsthand experiences.)
  • Despite the high rate of women experiencing PTSD-inducing trauma, only 5% reported receiving treatment.
  • A significant number, 20%, reported being homeless as a child, with even more, 24%, spending time in foster care.
The report gets even more valuable, pointing out often-ignored realities:
  • Depression is common, yet tragically untreated.
  • Women in permanent supportive housing reported higher rates of sexual abuse, bipolar and other mental illnesses, and psychiatric hospitalizations. The connection between PTSD, substance abuse, and depression is significant, and under-treated.
  • The mother’s mental health was tied to the frequency of separation or the proximity of her children, commonly either removed by authorities or farmed out to survive unstable housing circumstances.
We need a better way of helping vulnerable women with kids. Kicking out or denying service to hard-to-serve women (likely depressed or experiencing other mental health issues), penalizing and incarcerating, or berating doesn’t work. Worst case example, the death of a mother who had been locked up for failure to pay school fees.
But since our federal government has yet to prioritize, much less fund, efforts to end family homelessness, we’ll be hashing this issue around for years to come, wondering why kids fail to thrive, parents fail to parent, jails are filled, schools stumble, and poverty soars. That annoys the snot out of me the most.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Forget-Me-Not: Help Homeless Kids Blossom, the Peter Yarrow Inspired Campaign, Round Two

How to make Congress pay attention to homeless kids? With my frustration mounting, I remember driving home, listening to Garden Song, a clever little ditty sung by Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary. It was 1999, a beautiful spring day. And my pending call from my friend-colleague Barbara Duffield would be our chance to devise a theme for our upcoming unprecedented lobbying of Congress by homeless kids.

The Garden Song haunted me. I could visualize row-by-row, dark soil, rakes, seeds and sprouts of new plants, the hopeful signs of new life (here's a little garden video I did using the song). Barbara and I started talking. I blurted out my garden theme which somehow morphed into Forget Me Not: Help Homeless Kids Blossom. Soon we were begging for thousands of packs of Forget Me Not seeds, generously given and specially labeled by Burpee Seeds.

Over 11,000 packets of Forget Me Not seeds spilled from constituents’ letters onto congressional desks, many bearing heart-felt messages about homeless kids needing education. While in DC, hordes of FMN kids and their chaperones streamed into offices of their congresspersons and asked them why homeless kids couldn’t have rights to go to school. And a massive and poignant assembly featured searing testimony by homeless kids in front of Members of Congress. The combination caused this nation’s million or so homeless students to finally get what every child deserved—the right to a public education.

In 2001, the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education AssistanceAct became law. It resembled almost line-by-line the Illinois Education for Homeless Children Act, better known as Charlie’s Bill, named after Charles, an endearing 4-year-old whose photo (©Pat Van Doren) adorned every piece of literature given to Illinois legislators. My (now-retired) congresswoman, Judy Biggert (IL-13,R), took the lead to get this essential piece of legislation passed, a bill she also supported as a state legislator.

When Peter Yarrow shares his wisdom of word and song on May 8, we’ll be coming full circle except for one thing. It was my (na├»ve) hope that by now Congress would have at least put 2 + 2 together and figured that kids need not only school but also a place to live. Not the case. We’re sliding backwards.  HEAR US is dusting off the Forget Me Not concept, and we’ll ask the audience to contact their Illinois legislators to ask them to reinstate the $3 million taken from homeless kids back in 2008-09, the last time Illinois budgeted for such “frivolous” purposes.

Standing on the stage, Peter Yarrow, social justice champion and folk music icon, will summon the spirit of all civil rights trailblazers of our lifetimes. He’ll light the fire that needs to burn steadily in the hearts of each member of the audience. He’ll plant the seed of justice that will grow beyond the sprouting dreams we had back in 1994 when just getting the kids into school seemed progress.

I’m totally delighted to have my friend, mentor, and champion Peter Yarrow coming to Aurora, IL, the 2nd largest city in Illinois, dubbed by Michael Stoops of the National Coalition for the Homeless  “the Selma of the 90s,” to kick off our next campaign to demand that homeless children and youth a place to call home.

The blight of greed and injustice threatens to destroy the fruits of our nation—our young people choked by poverty and homelessness. Our collective compassion-fueled nurturing of families and youth will require that we get our hands dirty and break a sweat.


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
Church.
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.