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, 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  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.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Perverted Reality: Shelter ‘System’ Is No System

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 29, 2014

American Christmas Celebrations, Not (Homeless) Family Friendly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 15, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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