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....

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Babies Beware! Billionaire Blathering

Babe of Wrath Pat LaMarche stood with her sign outside
the Janesville, WI office of Speaker Paul Ryan. The police were
summoned. She collected $6.79, and donated it to HEAR US. 
It’s not easy to stand on a street corner with a sign—asking for money or demanding justice. Between hecklers and honkers, and those who pass you by like litter, it takes a hefty dose of chutzpah to put yourself out there. Three good-hearted women in Greenville, MI discovered the perils of panhandling last Friday.

Panhandling is one of the least popular “professions” in America, aside from politicians and plumbers. That loaded term demeans those standing on street corners asking for money. Think of it as people trying to earn money honestly since they’ve been shut out of the brutal employment market.

The women who stood with their cardboard signs in this nondescript Michigan town were calling attention to homeless babies and children. 

What? Babies and children are homeless? It never ceases to surprise me how many are, and how few know. Using numbers of actually identified homeless students, I’ve estimated that probably 3 million kids in America—from infants to youth approaching adulthood—are homeless. That number shocks me. And I’ve been doing this work for over 3 decades. 

A couple years ago I visited with Becky, an astute mom in central Michigan, not far from Greenville. She, along with her family, had experienced homelessness, including a brutal winter in a pop-up camper. In 3 minutes she can enlighten and maybe inspire you. 

My national nonprofit, HEAR US Inc., “specializes” in raising awareness of homeless children and youth. For the past 11 years I’ve traveled more than 300,000 miles of mostly backroads to chronicle the kind of homelessness the press, politicians and the public fail to see. It’s not a pretty picture. And it’s about to get worse. 
My prediction isn’t based on partisan politics. It’s based on how a billionaire buffoon’s blathering bamboozled bubbleheads’ beliefs. 

Enough alliteration. For now. 

Having been around the block a few times during presidential elections, and being fascinated by media, I’ve witnessed the power of the idiotic overpowering the essential. I knew it was coming in this incessant election "news" cycle that had millions wanting to stick our heads into pencil sharpeners. And it’s not over.

That doesn’t bode well for vulnerable populations, homeless babies and children for example. HEAR US worked hard to create a catchy project, Yay Babies! Yay Kids!, to call positive attention to the millions of little and bigger kids without homes. Our effort offers free materials—a catchy short PSA (Public Service Announcement) video about babies, and a simple flyer with 3 action steps to help babies in local communities—and a modestly-priced ($10) guide, The Charlie Book: 60 Ways to Help Homeless Kids, to, well, you know. 

Despite my cogent nature, I had hoped these tools would light the world on fire, or at least generate a sizable and viral ripple that would make sure we are at least caring for the basic needs of babies and kids without homes. Um, well, no. 

But it’s not too late. The tools stand ready:
All that’s needed is you. 

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

4G Means 4 Generations, Homeless

4 generations of homeless families in one camper. That almost seems impossible. But I saw them with my own eyes. 

Their ancient camper belonged to the great grandparents. Great grandpa died, and when things fell apart for his widow (Gen1), her daughter (Gen2) and their 4 dogs—eviction. The mother (Gen3) and her family—husband (who works), 3 kids and their dog also lost their housing. Eventually all the families moved into this little home on wheels. It’s safe to say they didn’t choose this cramped lifestyle because they like the togetherness of a 32’ camper.

When I met them, they were in a Washington state park. These parks aren't cheap and have time limits, usually 10-14 days, I suspect to keep the “riffraff" from moving in and not moving out. I could be among the riffraff on my HEAR US journey, but that’s another story for another day. This conglomeration of campers discovered that old RVs are not allowed in some parks, though state parks haven’t gotten that fussy, yet. 

Dad works, 2 part-time jobs, lots of hours, but at $10 an hour, with no benefits and lots of schedule juggling, he doesn’t make that much. What he does make gets scarfed up by the sleazy auto loan people who enticed him into financing a beater van. 

When the family's stability crumbled, they fell behind on the payments and it was repossessed. But they still must pay the loan, so his paychecks are garnished, $200 a week! This leaves very little to live on and the insult of paying on a vehicle they’ll never see again. One more big thing. Because of this ding on their credit, landlords won’t rent to them, and they can’t get into subsidized housing. 

Their RV furnace isn’t working, and as cooler temps become the norm, that will be an issue. Everyone in this crowd has serious health issues, a byproduct of poverty. With my 11 years of full-time camping, I cannot imagine being in a camper with this many folks and having anyone sick, much less everyone.

Evidently the 2 grandmas will be moving out in a couple weeks, hopefully to an adequate place. That will give the family some breathing room, maybe easing the naturally-occurring stress when you have too many people in too small of a space with too many things going wrong.

As strange as it seems, the kids are being “home-schooled,” or “homeless-schooled.” I’ve encountered other families in similar situations trying this approach. Gallant efforts not withstanding, it’s not a good thing. But I understand why the families do it. Logistics are daunting, and sometimes schools aren’t that homeless-friendly. 

The McKinney-Vento homeless liaison in this area is involved with the family and will get things worked out, eventually. No easy task, though the district recently received a significant state grant that should help. In the meantime, she’s delivered sleeping bags, coats, book bags with all the fixin’s, and clothes. And her direct phone number. And a heap of compassion. 

The obstacles in front of this family are complicated. Their prospects for escaping this nomadic lifestyle are slim. They’re not alone. In one day I heard 3 stories from 3 Vancouver area families that made me so very sad, for them, and for the invisible families all over with stories like this and worse. 

I’m not new to this horrible reality. For over 3 decades I’ve worked on homelessness issues. I ran shelters. I’ve interviewed countless families and kids who’ve experienced every form of homelessness possible. I’ve seen multi-generations, but never 4. Our country has yet to put enough effort into reducing family homelessness for one generation. Now we're up to 4G. 

(HEAR US is working on a statewide film of family/youth homelessness in Washington, contracted by the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, McKinney-Vento program)

Monday, August 22, 2016

I'm No Wuss, But...

I’ve been living in a van/RV for the past 11 years. I’ve traveled to 48 states, over 300,000 mostly backroads miles chronicling homelessness of families/youth under my HEAR US Inc. ( banner.

I’ve been in blizzards (Snowzilla is the latest), dust storms, powerful wind and rain storms, and have lucked out avoiding hurricanes, tornadoes, and wildfires, with close calls. I’ve been in places cold enough to freeze all my water systems (thawing in a fire barn once) and in places hot and humid enough to scare me from any hell-earning behavior. I’m no wuss, but I’ve come to accept that cold is better than heat--not by much. 

My latest projects is a trifecta--filming in Oregon, Washington, then Idaho--three separate projects focused on how schools work with homeless families/youth. I’ve been hired because, I’d like to think, I’ve gotten pretty darn good at making documentaries of this topic, perhaps a product of my 3+ decades of homelessness work. 

When I made arrangements for this trip I naively thought “Great! A nice time to be in this part of the country!” Silly me. 

I’m in the middle of my first heatwave, with temps hitting 105. Fortunately it cools off dramatically at night.  I naively thought since this round of scorching temperatures is supposed to abate tomorrow, that I was done with the heat. But not so fast. Give it a few days and we’re right back up to the 100s again.

For me, the heat is inconvenient. I need to either sweat and film during the hottest part of the day or find a place to stay cool during the afternoon/early evening hours. It’s a challenge, but I’ve got resources so I can make stuff work.

What has been painfully evident to me--because I see it with my own eyes--is the number of infirm adults without homes, some very obviously seniors, who are out in this heat with no relief. In many cases, they have no place to go--few shelters, especially in the smaller cities and towns, much less rural areas. Oh yeah, they’re probably all hungry and quite thirsty, and often scorned.

The other reality--unlike my previous northwest area trips--is the absolute ban on anyone sleeping anywhere but a motel or expensive campground (most of which have been at capacity) or shelter (not always an option). I’ve joined the ranks of people without homes--though, again, I have resources--who are not wanted. For me it’s a good, albeit painful, experience. 

I’ve scrambled to find places, tapping resources of friends and friends of friends (thanks Facebook!) who might let me park stealthily in a driveway. I’ve drifted into a restless sleep, pretty sure I’d be disturbed by the authorities (or booted, like I was in Atlanta a couple years ago). 

Those not as lucky as me tough it out in a variety of abysmal situations--in the woods, in storage units, in vehicles that will often get ticketed or impounded--and all of those “solutions” are horrible for any number of reasons. Families often double up (or worse). Youth commonly “couch surf” or find abandoned buildings.
Homelessness is out of control--an assessment I don’t make lightly. Despite the gallant efforts of both those in this quicksand-like situation and those truly trying helping them escape, it’s getting worse, not better. I see far too many people on street corners or in doorways--way more than I’ve seen in previous treks through these same areas--to think we’re making progress. (My anecdotal observations are at least as valid as the inaccurate federal census of this nomadic population.)

I suppose it’s too much to expect that we’ll make any significant dent easing homelessness. It’s not part of the political priorities of either party. So our best bet is to build an underground railroad. It worked once. I’m sure it will again--if we can maintain some level of humanity. Let’s Make America Kind Again. Or something.

(Thanks to Mary Ann Parks for the design of this bumper sticker which you can actually order (for only $5 + shipping)!

Friday, July 22, 2016

Let Yay Babies! Work For You—Locally!

Leave it to the littlest ones to get attention about homeless families. HEAR US launched Yay Babies! Yay Kids! in July and received an unprecedented response!

Our cutest video ever was viewed over 2,000 times in less than a week! With lots of shares! And plenty of kudos! 

Yay Babies! video focuses on the youngest segment of this almost invisible population. It’s designed to be used by as many people as possible to share in their LOCAL circles to generate support for LOCAL babies—collecting diapers, baby food, formula, etc.— to donate to a LOCAL program serving LOCAL babies.
Yay Babies! Facebook PageYay Babies! Yay Kids! HEAR US Page
Get it? LOCAL. HEAR US created this awesomely cute short (less than 2 min.) video for you to use locally. It’s that cute. It will generate response—and you’ll be able to collect items—diapers, formula, baby food, etc.—for the LOCAL babies whose families struggle to survive. And, most importantly it will generate awareness of the massive number of homeless babies, toddlers, kids, youth, and parents that seems to be a surprise to most. 

HEAR US also generated a simple flyer to go along with your local campaign. And it has room for LOCAL contact info. Email Diane for the PDF file.

Thanks to the Justice Peace and Integrity of Creation commission of the Joliet Franciscan Sisters for the grant to film, produce and promote the Yay Babies! film. 

Oh yeah. All of this is free. HEAR US relies on donations and occasional grants or speaker’s fees. So we encourage those who can to become monthly supporters so we can keep these babies and other young ‘uns in the faces of those who need to have their consciences poked.

And very soon we’ll launch a powerful tool for Yay Kids! Stay tuned!

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.