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....

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.




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.)


Friday, September 25, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Thursday, September 17, 2015

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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




Friday, August 21, 2015

Shock! Homeless Families Get Attention In Florida Media

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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