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....

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…!

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Don’t Like Family and Youth Homelessness? Deny It!

Twenty-five years after the massive “Housing NOW!” march for housing equality in October 1989, the beginning of a (paltry) venture to address homelessness in America, millions of families and youth with nowhere to go are still being mostly ignored.

How can the federal agency responsible for addressing the housing needs of adults and children with nowhere to go continue to deny their vulnerability and needs?

Members of Congress, criticized by Left, Right and in-between, hold the solution to this growing crisis in their hands. The Homeless Children and Youth Act, a bipartisan bill that requires no funding, would seismically change the way our nation views homelessness by inserting a dose of reality into HUD’s (US Dept. of Housing and Urban Development) inadequate definition of homelessness. 

This issue sounds so obscure that it baffles most people. But changing how HUD defines homelessness threatens status quo so much that a major national nonprofit is fighting it tooth and nail. And, because this cause lacks slick lobbyists, this major paradigm shift could fade into oblivion, an unacceptable result. But a strong grass roots effort continues to push for the change.

Homelessness, to most people, is manifested by raggedly dressed, addicted grizzled men on the street corner. Dubbed “chronically homeless” by HUD, meager federal resources have aimed at removing those considered eyesores from urban landscapes. Whether or not this endeavor has succeeded is a topic for another time. 

Those who call the streets home deserve a home. No doubt. But their numbers pale to the skyrocketing numbers of families and youth with nowhere to go. HUD reports a census of about 600,000 homeless people to Congress. Most elected officials likely picture the above-mentioned adults, causing a bare flicker of attention and even less resources. 

In reality, schools have identified almost 1.3 million students experiencing homelessness, appalling enough, but that count doesn’t including younger/older siblings or parents. Included in this count, over 100,000 student-athletes, as recently--and poignantly--portrayed by Sports Illustrated.

Census methodologies vary, true. But the untold story of the shoving homeless families and youth under the federal rug deserves scrutiny. 

The key difference between HUD’s drastic undercount and the US Dept. of Education census is how homelessness is defined

HUD doesn’t consider “doubled up” as homeless despite the reality that 70% or more families/youth escape sleeping literally on the streets by staying temporarily with family, friends or acquaintances. HUD also doesn’t consider those staying in motels to be homeless. Not homeless, no matter how tenuous or precarious these arrangements may be. This denies the bleak reality of millions of vulnerable kids and adults. It clearly endangers them. And it keeps our country from making any progress addressing the massive and ever-growing issue of homelessness and housing-poverty. 

The Homeless Children and Youth Act cracks open the process of how we define homelessness, injecting a huge dose of reality that needs to be addressed—the unmet needs of families and youth. Unlike now, local communities would have the option of directing HUD resources to families/youth. It opens the doors to counting families/youth in motels and doubled up for HUD’s Point-in-Time count. 
URGENT ACTION! Keep this bill from swirling down the drain of Congressional inaction. Your congressional delegation needs to hear from you, urging them to co-sponsor this bill, a quick process on our website,
We cannot continue to ignore the babies, toddlers, kids, teens, youth with nowhere to go. Too many of these vulnerable kids will tumble onto street corners in communities across the country where those “chronically homeless” adults once stood, a self-fulfilling prophecy of what happens when we ignore a problem that we could fix. 

How to make this a compelling, viral message remains the challenge. Miley Cyrus and Miss Arizona have thrown their public reputations into the arena. Not sure that is enough, but it’s an appreciated gesture. But constituent action now is required.

Obviously our approach to this social crisis hasn’t worked well. It’s far past time to give up a losing strategy.

This bill won’t change this inequity overnight. But it is the first step in addressing the problem of so many people without addresses. Inequality in the U.S. has many shapes. Perhaps the most disturbing can be found in the eyes of a child with nowhere to go.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Homeless: What About ‘Nowhere To Go’ Does HUD Not Understand?

For the agency charged with “utilizing housing as a platform for improving quality of life,” assuming that includes those with nowhere to go, the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development, HUD, has yet to step up to the task for millions of families and youth with nowhere to go. 
Peruse the stories of parents and kids with nowhere to go on
For the past 3 decades, our country has abdicated its responsibility to those most vulnerable—children and youth, some with parents, some without, who have nowhere to go. "The most dramatic cut in domestic spending during the Reagan years was for low-income housing subsidies. In his first year in office, Reagan cut the budget for public housing and Section 8 rent subsidies in half," points out Peter Dreier in his Nation post.

When I say “nowhere to go” I mean nowhere. Most don't realize how little help is available for families and youth with nowhere to go.

Few communities have programs (not decimated by funding cuts) to help families/youth with nowhere to go. A frightening number of people seeking a place to stay are routinely turned away. 

During my 9 years of HEAR US travel, I’ve been to many communities with little or no assistance for families/youth. I’ve sat in sleazy motel rooms listening to desperate parents. I’ve stood on street corners talking to youth who didn’t know where they were going to sleep that night, much less do their homework. I've listened to kids describe their sucky lives (watch 4-min trailer). 

Having run a shelter for 15 years, only open 9 months of the year because we lacked volunteers and resources for a year round program, I dreaded answering phones in the summer when we weren’t open. Invariably I’d end up talking to a distraught mother with small children looking to escape abject poverty, violence and abuse. And I’d have to say, “Sorry, we can’t help and no other program in the area exists to help.”

No matter how kindly I delivered the bad news, it was bad. The family with nowhere to go ends up in a desperate situation beyond the imagination of many people. The youth with nowhere to go does what she/he can do to survive, at high risk of getting caught up in perilous circumstances. 

Knowing that millions of babies, toddlers, children, youth, young adults and parents of children have nowhere to go compels us to fight to change the way HUD defines homelessness. And a fight it has been.

But those of us fighting for homeless kids don’t just give up. We’ve heard and seen too much—kids and parents with nowhere to go, torn up by stress, hunger, sickness, despair, desolation. We’ve seen lives lost, promise turn into disaster.

HUD’s involvement with homeless families has always reminded me of the rigid bachelor uncle who is not used to being around kids. Paltry assistance. Insensitive involvement. Resentful when asked for more help. Clueless about what it means to have nowhere to go.

The bipartisan legislation recently introduced in Congress, the Homeless Children and Youth Act of 2014, will begin to turn things around for the way HUD deals with homelessness. 
  • It frees up local communities to decide to create solutions and services for families/youth with nowhere to go, unlike the current approach. 
  • It removes bizarre bureaucratic barriers that force families/youth to give up whatever precarious arrangements they have cobbled together—a shabby, budget-busting motel room, a cruel relative with unreasonable expectations, an abuser who knows the abused partner has no options—to become ‘more homeless’ to maybe qualify for admittance into a shelter. 
  • It gives families/youth a shot at getting help from whatever agencies might offer shelter and services.
Knowing the desperate need of families/youth with nowhere to go, I can’t help but be
dismazed at those who continue to oppose this bill. No explanation they throw out makes any sense when pitted against the devastating circumstances of having nowhere to go.

It’s up to us to break through this impasse. We need more legislative sponsors. We need to raise hell until sufficient pressure pushes Congress to insist on HUD creating a more effective way of helping families/youth with nowhere to go
ACTION! You can do something about this in mere moments. No money, just 30 or so seconds of your time. Picture what it would mean to have nowhere to go, then ACT (CLICK HERE)! If you’re really convinced that change needs to happen, share the action page with your friends.
HUD won’t change until we force the issue. Some Members of Congress are ready to act. But they need a push. That’s where we come in.

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.