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....

Friday, September 25, 2015

Does Compassion Still Have a Place in the U.S.? Homeless Kids Want To Know

 I was one of millions enthralled to watch and listen to Pope Francis address Congress. Sure, my evil self wanted him to flog the recalcitrant, heartless members. But the Pope's compassion prevailed, not before he gave them, and us, a papal prodding.

Throughout his visit, he's constantly calling attention to the poor, homeless, downtrodden and forgotten. I couldn’t be happier that this growing segment of our nation’s adults and kids finally get attention. Now, to turn attention to compassion.

Realizing that immeasurable good is done behind the scenes every day, I still hope that more will be done. I’ve seen firsthand, nationwide, the suffering of families and youth who lack a place to call home. 

For the past 30 years that I’ve been working in, for and among those clumped together as “the poor” and “the homeless,” I’ve seen a frightening growth in their numbers, and an atrocious reduction of resources needed to survive, much less thrive. Recent reports of our nation’s (lack of) progress on reducing poverty, and alarming documentation of soaring homelessness among students (and their families) confirms what I’ve seen in my HEAR US travels: more families, youth and adults are struggling to escape the shackles of poverty and homelessness. 

Recently I spoke with one of the women I met in Kansas this year during my filming of Worn Out Welcome Mat - KS (click to watch).  Her plight, and that of her young daughter, was and is dire. Her path out? Well, let me say she’d have better luck winning the lottery than escaping her doubled up situation. 

The other day I heard from a friend about what she’s doing in her community to help—a vital service—giving a homeless college student a place to stay over holidays when the dorms are closed. Sweet!

What makes a difference in the lives of the families and youth without housing? Plenty, large and small (check our HEAR US compassion epidemic list, a 1-pg. menu): 
  • Housing, a given, with advocacy to make more housing available being one place to get involved. 
  • Education, another biggie, should be happening all over the country, thanks to the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education program
  • Basic needs—supplies, clothing, shoes; food; medical supplies, etc.
  • One-to-one help—tutoring, mentoring, etc. 
  • Support your favorite homelessness organization. Sure, we’d love you to join the HEAR US supporters, but local efforts are good, too. 

I’m about to embark on what will be a 10,000 mile marathon journey across much of the U.S. to conduct presentations, meet with potential partners, screen my new film, and speak with current and formerly homeless families and youth. I’d like to tell them that everyone possible is doing everything possible to make life better for the millions of our sisters and brothers without housing. 

I’d love to hear from you. Just click POST A COMMENT and let me know what you’ve done. It’s not bragging—it’s further inspiring a compassion epidemic! 

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Pope Francis, Savior for America's Homeless Families and Youth?

One, faced with insurmountable odds, can only hope for a savior. As Pope Francis packs his bags (I can't imagine he has a butler doing that task), I'm packing up my hopes in one basket for his pending U.S. trip on behalf of the 3 million or so homeless kids and their families.

Despite our ongoing best effort to get Congress to address the growing issue of homeless kids, nothing seems to work. Recently, the U.S. Department of Education released the latest number of school kids identified as homeless, 1,360,747. This number represents DOUBLE the amount of students since before the recession.

As the kind folks at the National Alliance to End Homelessness were good enough to point out, most of these students are doubled up, staying with friends, relatives, or acquaintances because they have nowhere to go. (If you want to hear from the families and youth as to what it's like being doubled up, here's my latest HEAR US documentary, Worn Out Welcome Mat - KS.)

Pope Francis will visit NYC where record number of homeless families and youth are overwhelming the underwhelming system.

He will travel to Philadelphia where families living in tents have befuddled authorities in their feeble attempts to make sure no one, especially babies and toddlers, are sleeping on the streets.

He will stop in DC to afflict the comfortable members of Congress as he addresses a joint session. (Oh, to be a fly on the wall watching the squirming...).

So, the "eggs (hopes)" in my basket are:
  • Get Congress to issue a joint apology to the millions of homeless families and youth, coupled by their commitment to revamp our nation's paltry approach to this population, and the serious funding necessary. Oh yeah, pass (fully funded) the Homeless Children and Youth Act for a show of good faith.
  • Get Congress to agree that poverty in America is immoral and that they will immediately and wholeheartedly take drastic steps to restore a decent quality of life to the disenfranchised.
  • Get Congress to institute a moratorium on any cruel initiatives to punish those at the bottom of the economic ladder--in areas not limited to health care, criminal justice, welfare, childcare, education and nutrition. 
  • Hear the confession of the NAEH folks who up till now denied the plight of families and youth who lost housing and doubled up with others.
I'm sure these things will happen. Wanna know why? The Nuns On The Bus will be in DC to make sure things go well. Amen!

Friday, August 21, 2015

Shock! Homeless Families Get Attention In Florida Media

(I read a column in the Naples Herald and have submitted this response to them. DDN)

Kudos to Gary Levine and the Naples Herald for a thoughtful examination of the oft-ignored issue of homelessness (8/17/15). Mr. Levine points out the crux of this nation’s inability to address the issue of millions of people without an address: the “disconcerting…confusing” data that obscures, even distorts, the scope of homelessness in the richest country in the history of the world.

Mr. Levine includes references to homeless families. That’s far more than data collectors from the U.S. Department of Housing and Human Development (HUD) do. Their numbers exclude up to 80% of the homeless population, including millions of children and youth, in families and on their own. HUD’s arcane methods to count homeless people for their report to Congress, and the media’s lack of scrutiny of this complex issue, lies at the heart of our nation’s failed efforts to end homelessness. 

Congress, media and the general public don’t seem to comprehend that homelessness goes far beyond the grizzled guy on the streets. Families, youth and adults lose housing and desperately seek places to stay—including doubling up with friends, relatives or acquaintances; renting rooms in seedy motels; camping in the backwoods or the cheapest campgrounds they can find; sneaking into abandoned buildings; and sleeping in the ubiquitous Walmart parking lots. 

They don’t appear homeless—and often don’t think they’re homeless. “Having hard times…,” the reality of an appalling and growing number of impoverished Americans, includes losing your place to live and having nowhere to go. The emergency shelter “safety net” doesn’t exist, barely accommodating a minuscule percentage of the homeless population, particularly families and youth. Subsidized housing is more of a myth than reality.

In the past 10 years since I’ve been traveling backroads to give voice and visibility to homeless children and youth, the sole focus of HEAR US Inc., my nonprofit, I’ve been utterly dismayed at the pervasive nature of family and youth homelessness. 

My 15 years of running homeless shelters in Illinois didn’t prepare me for what I would see. My travels to my former homeland of Florida and all 48 contiguous states, speaking with those working with families and youth as well as those experiencing homelessness (3-min YouTube) shocked me with the vastly undercounted scope of homelessness. 

My anecdotal observations might not mean much, but statistics do tell a story far worse than what HUD reports. The U.S. Department of Education, because of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Act, requires each district to report the actual number of homeless students showing up at school doors. Ten years ago, over 600,000 students were identified as experiencing homelessness. For the 2014-15 school year, the number has more than doubled, to 1,360,747

That number doesn’t include younger/older siblings, parents or other house-less household members. Part of the difference is the narrow definition HUD uses contrasting the more realistic Dept. of Ed definition. Fixing this discrepancy is currently being considered by Congress, bipartisan legislation called the Homeless Children and Youth Act. (For more info, and to contact your member of Congress to get HUD to expand their definition,

To be sure, gallant efforts and sizable resources are being directed at homelessness. Collier County has several agencies doing their utmost to assist families, youth and adults without homes. My time in your community convinced me of 2 things: many compassionate people are doing their best to help their brothers and sisters without homes, and the problem is far greater than resources available. 

I’m not a data gal, but I recoil at HUD’s maneuvering stats to essentially dismiss millions of kids and adults experiencing homelessness. I urge people to contact your congressional delegation and ask them to support the Homeless Children and Youth Act. And I encourage participation and support of local efforts to help homeless families, youth and adults. If you’re curious about this issue, my HEAR US website ( suggests ways to inspire a compassion epidemic, the first step to really ending homelessness. 

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Shocking! Homeless Children and Youth--100% Increase

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 13, 2015

Ignoring Homeless Families and Youth: They Don't Disappear

Lost housing, doubled up, staying with others.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 1, 2015

Don't Send HEAR US Flowers!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Online fundraising for 10 Years! 10 Friends!

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Grandma Didn’t Sign Up For This

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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