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, 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. (www.hearus.us) 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 food...at 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.

Respectfully,
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 www.helphomelesskidsnow.org 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 www.hearus.us (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 www.helphomelesskidsnow.org 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.
JOIN US ON JAN. 26, 2016, 7:00 PM, DICKINSON COLLEGE, DENNY HALL, FOR A FILM (MY OWN FOUR WALLS) AND A DISCUSSION ON HOMELESSNESS. FREE. OPEN TO THE PUBLIC. FOR INFO, http://www.carlislecares.org
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 www.helphomelesskidsnow.org 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.