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....

Monday, May 23, 2016

Diane's Gettysburg NO Address

(Title credit, Mary Ann Parks)
“FOUR score and seven years ago, our forefathers could not have imagined the nation they founded (conceived in liberty) would turn their collective backs on their brothers and sisters who are without shelter and comfort.” (Thanks to Deborah Cooper Harding for the adaptation)
I’m scheduled to give a keynote to a group in Gettysburg on June 9. The topic is affordable housing and homeless families. My FB friends have great faith in my ability to deliver a stem-winder. Sure hope so. Sure don't know what to say.
Having tracked and posted news on FB about homelessness of families and youth for the past 11 years as part of my HEAR US endeavors, I’ve noticed that we’re not seeming to make progress on this essential issue. In fact, the numbers of homeless students identified by public schools has continued to skyrocket, over 1.3 million, more than double since I started driving around the country chronicling this epidemic. And attitudes of a seemingly growing number of people appear, well, snarly when it comes to kids. Like it’s their fault.
A few recent stories demonstrated worthwhile journalism. The Eugene, OR Register-Guard shared a poignant and thorough look at what I’m sure I’ll see when I’m out there later this summer. Not pretty, despite best efforts of my friends out there working in the schools.
I get what Abe was saying here. Three decades of working
on homelessness issues makes me feel like
an Old Woman!
Perusing family/youth homelessness stories with today’s news cycle is damn depressing. Mainstream media seems intent to portray the worst of the nation and world--ignoring the plight of vulnerable children in the process. And as Debbie paraphrased, it seems like we’ve turned our collective backs on our brothers and sisters without shelter and comfort.
I don’t know what kind of human could read the OR story and not feel agony for these families. I’m baffled that this national plight has yet to stir any significant movement.
Another op-ed piece, quite well written, described the apathy and cruelty toward single adults, bureaucratically labeled ABAWDs (able-bodied adults without dependents) who now will be “lucky” if they get 3 months of food stamps/SNAP. Knowing ABAWDs as I do, this is going to cause a real hardship. For some it will be life/death. And remember, some of these folks live doubled up with families who will share their their own peril.
Theses stories have garnered little attention. Bathroom crisis has swallowed up what’s left of the news stream after the big “stories” of politics.
With no political will, or so it seems, what am I supposed to say about affordable housing to this Gettysburg crowd? Let’s be nice and do the right thing and magically create enough affordable housing for for millions of our sisters and brothers across the land. What would Abe say?
Abraham Lincoln's carefully crafted address, secondary to other presentations that day, was one of the greatest and most influential statements of national purpose. In just over two minutes, Lincoln reiterated the principles of human equality espoused by the Declaration of Independence[5] and proclaimed the Civil War as a struggle for the preservation of the Union sundered by the secession crisis,[6] with "a new birth of freedom"[7] that would bring true equality to all of its citizens.[8] Lincoln also redefined the Civil War as a struggle not just for the Union, but also for the principle of human equality.[5] Wikipedia
Oh, so human equality isn’t a new concept??! Way to go, Abe, you radical Republican! Wondering how today’s bootstraps’ and every man for themselves compares to those listening to Abe? My historically-astute friends Pat LaMarche and Pat Vandoren could probably say something about this.
I know what I’ve seen in 250,000+ miles of travel through 48 states over the past 11 years. Despite herculean dedication of McKinney-Vento homeless liaisons, shelter staff, human service workers and a handful of astute political leaders, plus courageous and stalwart efforts of parents and loved ones to get their kids through these tough times, it’s harder and harder.
When the new president steps into office in January 2017, she/he will replace Cabinet officers, including that of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). So whatever progress we’ve made, including the dubiously titled “functional zero” way of describing (faux) ending veterans’ homelessness, the quickly forgotten and equally ineffective “10 Year Plans” and the 2020 deadline for ending family homelessness, all will be scrapped. I want to be clear--many people have worked hard, in good faith--on these efforts. It’s just that their hands have been tied behind their backs by lack of funding and zippo political will. HEAR US will continue to encourage action, large and small, via our “Compassion Epidemic” section of our website. 
So back to my Gettysburg NO Address. Maybe I’ll just let the experts explain.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Walk In Her Shoes? No Way! Classic Example of Homeless Youth and Her Challenges

Not all homeless youth (ages 12 to 25-ish, not in custody of parent/guardian) are alike. But plenty of the 2+ million homeless youth in America today share many of the circumstances of “Abby,” a 22-year-old woman I’ve interviewed for my latest HEAR US project. Here’s the starter list:
  • Dysfunctional parent, in this case her mother, suffering from mental illness, drugs and alcohol abuse. Father not in the picture.
  • Abuse, physical and mental, at the hands of her mother.
  • Sexually abused by the mother’s boyfriend, became pregnant in her mid teens.
  • Responded to her situation by turning to drugs, alcohol and harmful behavior, making choices now haunting her.
  • Kicked out, with nowhere to go. Bounced around with friends until she wore out her welcome mat.
  • Temporarily taken in by a fringe relative, a functional family that truly cares for Abby.  
When I met Abby and her host family, things were frayed. Despite extraordinary hospitality and extremely positive environment, Abby, with her 2 infants (16 months and 3 months), disrupted the household, just because of natural occurrences, like babies crying. “Maxine” is is home-schooling their 2 teens, thus babies crying makes it hard to concentrate. One gave up his bedroom for Abby and her babies. 

Abby, despite her self-described and observable intelligence, did not finish high school. A GED is on her list so she can go to college and pursue a medical career. She was inspired by the extraordinary care given to her oldest baby when he almost died. 

The baby’s near-death episode resulted in 2 months in a children’s hospital, causing Abby to lose her apartment. That didn’t matter at the time because she was staying in the hospital with her son. Her youngest was with the baby’s father’s family.

When the baby finally recovered and was ready to be released, the family had nowhere to go. A shelter was not an option because no vacancies and a medically frail infant would be too risky in a germ-filled, uncontrolled environment. She has no vehicle, so living in Walmart parking lot like so many do wasn’t an option. Couch surfing with friends not an option for obvious reasons. So, despite hardly knowing Abby, Maxine, husband and 2 teens, stepped up.

This doesn’t always work—the goodhearted housed family accepting a stranger (and babies) into their house—but in this case it did. Maxine is a compassionate, astute woman who realized that Abby had no clue about parenting and lacked life skills. No surprise, given her dysfunctional upbringing?

So Maxine offered Abby a crash course in caring for babies, doing it in a way that it harbored acceptance, not resentment. Abby relished this opportunity. The babies flourished. But, Abby’s time at the house was limited. Abby and Maxine got a painful lesson—how hard it is to find a place to live when you don’t have much money.

When Abby and her son were in the hospital, Maxine ran a GoFundMe campaign for them, raising about $7000 to be used to get them a place to live. Figuring first month rent, security deposit and all the other non-negotiable start-up expenses, this seemingly huge amount was not going to last, but it was a start.

Abby’s income is child support from sperm donors and a pittance of welfare. She gets food stamps and WIC. Her family’s food intake was augmented by Maxine and her family. Maxine also has taught Abby a little about food management and preparation. 

Abby showed me pages of phone numbers of landlords and property managers in the Tampa area she called. Hard to ignore the scratches through the names. Babies caused some phone denials. Her tenuous income—planning to work but no job—the other pitfall. Bad credit would have also been a stumbling block but most conversations ended before that. Private rents were $800+. Subsidized, a 10-year waiting list. Location made some places untenable, since Abby doesn’t drive and has no vehicle. Bus line essential. 

When I left Abby after our first interview, she had hopes of finding a house trailer and a park that not too seedy or expensive, on a bus line, near places she could possibly work. She asked if I’d come through the area again and wanted me to see her new place. Optimism.

So today, as I was heading to northwest Florida, I texted Abby and asked if I should swing by for a followup interview. She sent me the address.The park, in a mixed area—churches, industrial, commercial. All tired. Units in her park matched the neighborhood. Some decorated with care, others ramshackle. Yellow speed bumps slowed traffic. Kids were evident. 

Her bedraggled single-wide 3 bedroom unit had minimal furniture and household items. Her babies had just been at the hospital, with a spate of infections and relatively minor issues. Her doctor wants her to have a CT scan because her recurring migraines are not responding to the meds. Oh yeah, and she has heart issues. Stress, she says. No kidding. 

OK, back to the daunting list of issues facing her:
  • To get a job, she needs qualified childcare (medical issues huge for both babies). Department of Children and Families seems to be not responsive (Google the department and "dysfunction.") 
  • She's lined up a job, starting tomorrow, at a chain grocery a mile down the road. She can walk, she assured me. Yeah, and how’s that going to work in bad weather, or at night, or when she needs to get the kids from child care because of illness? And she’ll lose it if she doesn’t get child care.
  • She needs to come up with $1500 to pay off the trailer by the end of the month. We didn’t get to discuss why/how because of crying babies. The $4500 down payment will be forfeited without the final payment. And they’ll be evicted. And the owner will be happy. (A worthwhile read on this issue.)
  • Her food stamps (SNAP) were inexplicably cut.
  • She has psychological issues stemming from her young life’s hellish experiences, but cannot find a counselor that will accept her medicaid payments. And unless she gets help coping, she’ll stress out…you see where this goes. 
This is only a short summary. I left her with as much encouragement as I could muster. I tried to cover my horror at the impossibility of her avoiding homelessness again. To say she needs a miracle is an understatement. 

And this is just one young woman, an unaccompanied homeless youth with 2 babies. You don’t want to know how many more are out there…. 

Monday, March 7, 2016

Open Letter to Sheila Crowley, Respected Housing Advocate

Dear Sheila,

I think we’ve met. We certainly have walked the same paths, dinosaurs that we both are in the world of housing advocacy. And I think we both want the same thing. But I’m troubled by remarks attributed to you:
‘While representatives of organizations and governments say the definition of homeless should be expanded to increase federal aid for the types of homeless in rural areas, Crowley stressed that without more funding, it would just take money away from helping other homeless living on the streets.’
What will it take for us to get beyond this log-jam of an argument, one that gives elected officials cover for ignoring the skyrocketing homeless population?

I get the math you’re suggesting. But, what I can’t figure is how do we get to Point B, the funding, if we don’t make a case for it? Knowing how slow our federal policy and funding mechanism is, I suggest Point A: get the feds to own the scope of homelessness as it really is--people have lost housing and have nowhere to go--is the vital first step.

Having spent time with doubled up and otherwise homeless/not-HUD-homeless parents and kids over the past 10 years as I’ve traveled backroads of America chronicling homeless families/youth for my nonprofit organization HEAR US,  I can tell you that the suffering they experience is often every bit as bad, or worse, as the people I worked with in my shelter-running days. My Worn Out Welcome Mat series of documentaries lets these families and youth speak for themselves. 

The last thing we need is to pit one group against the other. That’s what seems to be happening on this effort to get HUD to expand the definition of homelessness to include those they’ve managed to exclude--families, youth, and others not counted as homeless. 

My respect for the National Low Income Housing Coalition is profound. My concern is that your position on this issue might be mistaken for agreeing with HUD on their ever-narrowing definition of homelessness that paves the way to their bowing out of their role in ending homelessness. 

We can’t expect Congress to loosen their pursestrings to alleviate homelessness unless we make the case that it’s a need. Millions of homeless families and youth in addition to the uncounted single adults, a number I’d estimate to be at least 7 million, far exceeds the 500,000 HUD reports to Congress.

Having recently spoken to a number of Hill staffers and Congresspersons, I’m appalled at their lack of knowledge of HUD, homelessness, and housing needs of people in poverty and crisis. The NLIHC Out of Reach report provides vital statistics on the extent of the housing  affordability crisis. What we are lacking is a credible account of the scope of homelessness in our country. 

Until we establish a comprehensive definition of homelessness that includes the spectrum of people who have lost housing and have nowhere to go, we will be complicit in the ongoing strategy of ignoring the plight of houseless babies, toddlers, children, youth and adults. That, I suspect, is a point of agreement for both of us.

President/founder HEAR US Inc.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

How To Help Homeless Families and Youth?

I’ve looked into the eyes of too many homeless children. That partially explains my task-master teacher-like attitude for following up on “assignments” I’ve given, like the edict I issued at the end of January at the CARES Community Discussion about homelessness held at Dickinson College.

The assignment was simple, requiring less than 30 seconds on under “Take Action.” I urged the audience—CARES volunteers and guests, Dickinson students and professors, and the public to send Congressman Barlettta a message requesting that he co-sponsor the Homeless Children and Youth Act (HR 576).

This bipartisan legislation will expand the narrow definition of “homelessness” used by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to reflect the more realistic definition used by the U.S. Department of Education and other federal agencies. It sounds benign. It’s far from that. It’s a matter of life and death.

HUD’s definition excludes literally millions of children, parents, youth on their own, and adults from services, including emergency shelter, and from being counted in HUD’s annual Point-In-Time census which recently happened in Cumberland County.

This exclusion means that HUD reported to Congress that about 500,000 people were counted as homeless, including 128,000 children/youth, while the Education census identified over 1.3 million students as homeless, not including younger/older siblings or parents, a number that has appallingly doubled in the 10 years I’ve been on the road chronicling the plight and promise of homeless families and youth.

What this issue boils down to is dreadfully underfunded shelters and services for those who need it most—babies, toddlers, younger and older kids and parents. If you want a face on this issue, watch this 4-minute video of kids talking about homelessness. 

If you want more, go to (my organization, HEAR US Inc.’s website) and scroll down a bit to watch Worn Out Welcome Mat - Kansas

In short, the bill would help vulnerable families and youth by changing HUD’s policy which “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.” And much more. 

I stopped in Congressman Barletta’s Carlisle office and spoke with Leah, his field representative. She was quite understanding and willing to help Pat LaMarche and me set up an appointment to ask the Congressman to cosponsor this bill. Since she was so nice, I asked if she could look up how many emails were generated after my plea last Tuesday night. She did.

I wish I could say it was a lot. I can’t.

Sadly, people are busy. Survival is hard, even for those with homes. And we'd like to think we made it easy, but maybe it's not.
If you want to weigh in, simply go to and click on TAKE ACTION. 
The bottom line is, without community support (i.e. emails or calls) to get laws like this passed, we will continue to have skyrocketing numbers of homeless families and youth. People of Cumberland County (and beyond) will have to increase even beyond your impressive efforts to provide emergency services to families and youth who will have little hope to escape the ravages of homelessness. And I will continue to have to look in their eyes, knowing much more needs to be done, wondering what it will take to get people to care. 

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Sounds of Thuds and Silence.

I get a unique vantage point on occasion when I park at a homeless shelter or day center. Such is the case here in Carlisle, PA where I’m plugged into Carlisle CARES’ drop-in center while I’m doing a few projects here.

My early morning quiet doesn’t last long. Folks leave their night shelter site, in a nearby place of worship, and hightail (walking, no matter the weather) it back to this “home” base to wash up, grab breakfast, and head out to work or school. The murmur of conversation drifts my way as they near the building, ending as the thud of the door slams behind them. 

This community does a pretty impressive job of at least providing shelter, with as many services as they possibly can, for hundreds of people a night, including a rising number of families. From what I’ve seen over the past 5 years when I’ve occasionally hung here, Carlisle doesn’t have more resources than the average community, they just have an attitude that people shouldn’t suffer if they can help it. 

Housing costs here are, like everywhere, out of sight. Jobs either pay well or not enough. No need to say which ones the homeless folks get. Mental health and other services are scarce. It’s no paradise, for sure. Waiting lists for housing are miles long. (Don’t rush over here to further tax their shelter system.)

People of all ages end up in homeless situations. They stay for varying amounts of time. Some cycle in and out. Most are from the Carlisle area. Volunteers and impressive community support make this program and others work. Scant government help is available.
Winter here, from what I get to see, varies from tolerable (if you are properly dressed and don’t have to stay outside too long) and unbearable. For those who are the most vulnerable, the infirm, elderly, children and babies, they’ve got it extra tough. 

Maybe we can’t end their suffering right away, though we are trying. But much can be done by us mere mortals. Suggestions include:
  • Volunteer.
  • Provide food.
  • Donate warm winter clothing, hygiene products, socks and undies.
  • Tell your Congressperson you’re appalled at how much homelessness is in her/his community. Some don’t know. They need to. (Here’s their contact info. HOUSE  SENATE)
  • Support financially if you’re able.
  • Enlighten your peers. Don’t believe the media myths. 
  • Advocate for better policies. And we’ve got a good bill, the Homeless Children and Youth Act, which needs your help nudging your legislators. Go to and TAKE ACTION.
I’d love to hear that the need for these programs and shelters have greatly reduced because people are finding places to live and help that they need. But until then, I’ll let the sound of silence be disturbed by the thudding of doors, at least finding peace that some have a haven…albeit for just a few hours a day.

Monday, December 14, 2015

What Homeless Kids Want For Christmas…And Beyond

Peer into the face of any of America’s 2.5 million+ homeless children. What could you do to ease their suffering? A toy for Christmas does not assuage their basic human need of housing, but that seems to be all they’re likely to get, and even less from our perpetually politically-hamstrung, priority-challenged Congress. 

Let’s stop pretending that homeless kids count. They don’t. 

HUD (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) continues to deny their existence, saying that families and youth who’ve lost housing and rely on a patchwork quilt of nightly accommodations—insecurely doubling up with a succession of friends, families and acquaintances; bouncing in and out of cut-rate motels—are not “really homeless." The only “benefit” of this declaration is to keep the homeless numbers down and avoid addressing the surging increase in families, youth and adults without a place to call home.

An effort to expand the definition of homelessness to bring HUD’s definition in line with the Department of Education’s definition, one that reflects reality, is still being pondered by Congress. HUD’s annual Annual Homelessness Assessment Report (AHAR), indicates a slight decrease in homelessness, based on their “Point In Time” (PIT) count, a process criticized by homeless children/youth advocates. “The obvious discrepancy between the AHAR numbers and what any provider, public school employee, or American who regularly walks down a city street can see with their own eyes, calls into question the need for the AHAR and indeed, the purpose of the PIT counts,” stated Ruth White, executive director of National Center for Housing and Child Welfare, in a recent press release criticizing HUD’s PIT and AHAR.

Surprisingly, the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 recently made it through Congress and was just signed by President Obama. The new law includes a sliver of language addressing the issue of education for homeless students, finally reauthorizing the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Act, last addressed in 2001. Unfortunately, this legislation includes a recommendation for a paltry amount of funding, $71.5 million, resulting in what my educator-friend points out boils down to an “unfunded mandate.” I can hardly argue.

In the 10 years I’ve been traveling backroads of America to chronicle the plight and promise of homeless children and youth under my nonprofit banner “HEAR US,” the number of homeless students identified by schools has more than doubled, from 600,000 to the current 1,360,747. During that time, funding to help schools cope with this growing population has languished, to say the least. Current funding is a mere $65 million, “up” from $62 million in 2006, reaching about 10% of districts. Money is used to provide supplies, tutors, and transportation as well as pay for staff on the state and local level to coordinate services for homeless students. So much for “homeless kids count.”

Education alone will not alleviate homelessness among families and youth, though without it they’ll have no chance to get ahead. Mostly ignored by mainstream media, accounts of homeless students breaking the chains of poverty merit sporadic coverage, highlighting their hard work and luck, but sadly diverting attention from the millions experiencing daunting struggles with poverty, gut-rumbling hunger, immobilizing trauma, debilitating physical and mental health issues (kids and their parents), and numbing insecurity, the result of not knowing where to sleep at night.

One family I’ve met in my travels, a mother of 2 girls forced to ask her ex-husband to care for their daughter until she finds a secure place to live, illustrates the devastation of homelessness. The mom has continued to try to work, providing in-home health care in return for lodging for her and her youngest daughter. In the process she’s endured grueling abuse from her hosts. Imagine the worst. 

The mother is traumatized, immobilized. She struggles to make productive decisions for her and her daughter, but she’s not able to because the help they need doesn’t exist. Her college degree and rusty work ethic will hardly provide the escape from this “non-homeless” homelessness. No jobs, much less those paying a living wage. No shelters. No affordable housing. No transportation. No counseling. No health care. 

So looking her 8-year-old daughter in the eyes, all I can do is offer an inadequate “Merry Christmas” and a stuffed animal. I painfully know it is not enough. 

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Disturbing Shelter Sights and Sounds--Something You Can Do To Help

Watch this 4-min HEAR US video I filmed at
Carlisle Cares.
From my vantage point, tethered to the electrical outlet a few feet from the front door of the daytime
resource center at Carlisle Cares, I heard the morning murmurs of the early arrivals, those who walked in the brisk Pennsylvania morning from the Quaker Meeting House converted last night into a haven for dozens of homeless adults and kids.

Thuds as the center’s door closed. Rumble of wheels from those wondrously easy rolling suitcases that carry the humble possessions. Grumbles and giggles from big people and little ones. 

I spent a few days in Carlisle before continuing my 10th Anniversary, 10,000 mile HEAR US cross-country jaunt, giving talks, screening my documentaries, and doing whatever I can to raise awareness of homeless families and youth.

This tiny borough, population 19,000, has an remarkable 3 shelters that accept families. Even more astounding to the unknowing—the shelters are over capacity. And it was “only” mid October. This program is way over their capacity of 64—a census hovering in the mid 80s and 20+ children.

Babies and toddlers, toted and tugged by stressed out moms and dads. Discarded youth, over 18 (the legal age for shelter admittance, leaving the younger ones to predators and chance). Blended in with mostly single men and a handful of women.

I focused on kids and families. PA has way more than 23,000.

Contrary to the demented rantings of a blowhard media “news” figure who blissfully and erroneously maintains that this burgeoning hungry and homeless kids’ crisis is a hoax, more and more families and youth find themselves with nowhere to go.

And contrary to unenlightened popular belief, most communities have nowhere to go for these vulnerable young people, including hoards of babies and toddlers with desperate and despairing parents, even for the night. Ask around your community—any shelters that accept families, intact or single parents, dads with kids? Are they full?

Even established nonprofit (and I really mean NON profit) programs like Carlisle Cares struggle to patch together a nightly shelter program, utilizing area faith communities willing to turn their halls and classrooms into havens for homeless kids and adults in their community, providing a handful of devoted volunteers to keep watch over their homeless guests. (Donate to their holiday challenge)

Beyond the incalculable numbers (millions, Mr. O’Reilly), are the little things you might not think about that bedevil programs like Cares. They’re not really set up to handle record numbers of kids. They struggle to keep a supply of vitals—diapers, formula, baby food--and have an embarrassing dearth of kids’ stuff—coloring books and games, DVDs, books, and the kind of things that can keep kids busy for a few moments. Kids’ basics—underwear, socks, shoes, coats, clothing—forget it. 

One of my HEAR US board members, Rita Sullivan, decided to act on these needs. She’s in Illinois—but she’s met Pat LaMarche, the shelter manager and Babe of Wrath. Rita decided to help the families there.  She solicited the items listed below and sent them to Carlisle Cares.

Here's an ongoing wish list for items needed at Cares. New items are best, but gently-used accepted. If you're not near the sweet town of Carlisle, you can order online and have items delivered.
  • diapers and pull-ups, all sizes
  • formula and baby food
  • baby wipes
  • coloring books, crayons
  • puzzles (all ages)
  • kids' books
  • kids' socks and undies (new)
Now, make the next sound heard here the rumble of delivery trucks as they drop off packages that show you care for the families of Carlisle Cares. The kids’ giggles and happy sounds from parents, staff and Cares’ guests will make it all worth it. (And remember--they need items and support year-round!)

(And if you'd rather do this for your local shelter, great! Call and see what they need.)