Monday, June 1, 2015
Sometimes I just don't do well asking for money.
We have our 10th anniversary coming up July 1. Donations up to $5000 will be matched, so we can raise $10,000 without having a dinner, dance or auction.
For the past 10 years, I've been honored to be the instrument to give homeless kids and parents voice and visibility. It's been quite a ride. Check our website and blogs for more info, www.hearus.us.
Funds keep me going on projects that don't always have funding attached, but they're important. HEAR US is frugal. We're effective. And we've gained respect and gratitude of people across the country, especially those without homes who are grateful that we provide them with voice and visibility.
HEAR US is a lot like public broadcasting or other worthwhile web sources that rely on public support. Help us hit the 10 year $10k mark!
If you can give--or know someone who can--please take a moment and sign up. On behalf of the 3 million+ homeless kids in our country, thanks!
Thursday, May 28, 2015
The cardboard sign poked out from the doorway where the family huddled. As Chicago’s Magnificent Mile shoppers and tourists streamed obliviously by, this (apparently) homeless family (I’m guessing grandma by her appearance) scrunched on the concrete, out of the way of foot traffic, tattered cup propped by grandma’s feet, kids leaning on her like a beanbag chair, all trying not to hope for a miracle to release them from this panhandling hell.
If everyone who walked by in an hour would have given a dollar, their homelessness would have been solved for a month or so, assuming that money was the answer. Maybe lack of housing is just one stumbling block. Who knows?
While waiting to meet my NYC friends Heidi and Markus and their kids for dinner a few doors down from the family, I stood close enough to watch the action around them without being seen. Very few people stopped to drop money in the cup. One guy was so flummoxed he walked a few steps past them, reached for his wallet and dropped it, and almost got trampled by the ensuing traffic as he recovered it and went back to drop in a few bucks.
I’d venture a guess that most people didn’t even see this bedraggled, forlorn clan. The “Gold Girl” perched on a 5-gal. gold painted bucket in her gold painted dress with a song blaring in a feeble performance designed to attract donors about 30’ away. I mused about having a speaker blaring some music to attract attention to the family’s plight… “Give a Damn” or “Jesus Loves Me.”
This family posed quite a contrast in my mind and in the minds of my friends, too. They were quite concerned. Their question, why doesn’t Chicago have a “right to shelter” law like NYC? Good question.
Family values. I suppose if we asked the grandmother what was going on in her life, she might share the same story thousand of grandparents do—something happened to their daughter/son’s situation—they were locked up for some petty crime, got hooked on drugs, or just lost their ability to cope with being a parent—and they left, asking grandma/pa to take care of the kids until they returned. About 3 million grandkids are being raised by over 2.7 million grandparents, with median incomes of less than $36,000 a year.
Of all the issues I have heard about in my 3 decades of working in homelessness, and of all the topics people have asked me to make a documentary about, grandparents raising grandkids is at the top of the list.
My organization, HEAR US Inc., made a short video to help grandparents and guardians get their charges enrolled in the proper school. Often kids lose their housing and bounce around with others when their custodial parent gets locked up or otherwise disappears. Watch REACH, my free 11-min. video , to learn what rights kids have under the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Act.
A few years ago I heard from a grandmother with custody of her homeless 8-year-old granddaughter. They had just been told that the little girl couldn’t return to her school because she wasn’t a resident. The astute grandmother knew this was wrong and researched this situation, leading her to HEAR US.
I told her about the film REACH. Her plan was to be in the school’s principal’s office first thing Monday morning. I assured her that her granddaughter would be reenrolled immediately, but told her I’d be waiting for a call if she needed backup.
This grandmother rocked her challenge! And she called to thank me. I know thousands more could use help. Here’s more info on this law.
The heartbroken Maryland grandmother, as she tried to explain why her daughter wouldn’t hurt her three-year-old son found dead after being swung around by the obviously distraught mother at a playground last week, said, “(Romechia) would never harm my grandson in any type of way. You know, I just believe she had some type of mental illness, some type of mental break that came upon her where she wasn't able to get herself out of that situation,” (WTSP-TV news story). Evidently the family was homeless.
My mind keeps tumbling back to the family in the doorway. The grandmother didn’t sign up for the task of printing their pleading message on a piece of cardboard with hopes that someone would rescue them from homelessness. At what level of desperation do you reach for the marker and cardboard and sit your grandkids around you? At what level of humanity do we decide that families count enough to provide access to shelter, mental and physical health care, and other essentials?
When we’re willing to let grandmothers and grandkids beg on the streets, we’ve hit a new low.
Monday, May 18, 2015
I had no idea these slow moving reptiles were so common crossing roads at this time of year. After the first mishap I paid attention. And saw lots. Most ducked their heads into their shells when my van approached. I can't imagine how terrifying that must seem. Plenty didn't make it, run over by other vehicles. I'd like to think I didn't hit any more, but who knows?
Inadvertently snuffing out a life is one thing. It wasn't practical to stop and carry them across the highway, though the thought occurred to me, and I'm sure some do-gooders do. As horrible as it seems, I'm sure other drivers take to crushing them for sport. Which led me to my train of thought about homeless families...
Having just left Kansas after a productive and surprisingly pleasant 3 months working on Worn Out Welcome Mat --KS, a documentary about homeless families and youth who doubled up with others because they have nowhere to go, I met some amazing parents and young people. Despite all that has happened to them, and they've all been through many different forms of hell, they keep trying to survive and thrive.
Melissa's story is probably the most grueling, though Maggie's is pretty awful, too. Candace, a young Marine with a darling 4-yo daughter, will rip at your heart. (All short YouTube vids on my Worn Out Welcome Mat KS playlist)With ample road time to think and the unpredictable appearance of turtles in various stages of going from one side of the highway to the other, I couldn't help but make the comparison between turtles and homeless families.
I watched one resolute turtle just climb onto the pavement and plunge ahead, not looking for traffic. Kind of a damned if I do, damned if I don't way of thinking. Kind of like when a parent makes the desperate decision to move in with a risky host because she and her kids have nowhere to go.
Kansas has identified over 10,000 school kids in various forms of homeless situations. That doesn't KS policies and practices seem aimed at, well, crushing vulnerable families.
|Melissa and her 7-yo daughter are homeless,|
doubled up and desperate.
And yet, HUD, the federal agency charged with housing the housing-vulnerable and un-housed, continues to fight the need to expand their definition of homeless.
To urge your congresspersons to support the bipartisan legislation to change HUD's definition of homelessness, go to http://helphomelesskidsnow.org and TAKE ACTION.In my mind, HUD's like the cruel-hearted driver intentionally running over the helpless turtle.
Saturday, April 25, 2015
This sign didn't stand near the obviously dangerous
oil pump area. No, it was perched on an empty field in the park, inexplicable even to me.
My layover day—besides getting things done, a chance for "me" time. My time in Kansas filming the Worn Out Welcome Mat --KS project has taught me a valuable lesson: don't wait for outdoor activities, when the weather is right, do it! So I went for a walk around my surprise find—a $10 campground with water and electricity, peace and quiet.
Western KS is not for wimps. Two consecutive nights of tornado warnings made that clear. This mostly flat land has its own charm, unlike the picturesque Flint Hills and rocky bluffs of the eastern part of the state. Today the winds qualified as a gentle breeze, as opposed to the land-clearing blasts more common out here.
I'm staying in Beymer Water Recreation Park, directly south of Lakin, KS. The price is right and I get a wifi signal on my hotspot, enabling me to get work done.
My fresh air and exercise walk was intended to free my brain from cobwebs. Instead I'm stewing. This park, established in 1979, could be an ideal, affordable getaway for area residents in addition to a simple place to hook-up to water and electric for nomads like myself. Instead, it's an environmental nightmare.
Remnants of 4 ponds demonstrate not only the devastation of the drought, but also the ruthless power of aquifer-sucking irrigation systems watering cattle feeding crops.
Oil pumps, boasting of toxic properties, loom like scary monsters among the green alfalfa and hay fields behind the park, unfettered by fences or even "keep out" signs.
True, these are ubiquitous sites, not just in Kansas, but many states. What bothered me most, perhaps, was the destruction of this little park. Obvious from the placement of picnic tables and playground equipment, this was once a vibrant recreation spot.
Not so much now. At. All.
Based on the signage, and mind-numbing bureaucratic legalese regulations, this was once a popular fishing spot, too. The chemicals smell and the crusted fishing hole bottom confirmed the abject neglect of not only the park's well being but that of the surrounding area.
As I entered the last leg of my doom and gloom walk, I paused to get "beach" pictures, if you will humor this beach-loving gal.
The irony of the "No Dogs on Beach" sign hurt as I stared at the dried-up pond, now a puddle, likely chemical-laden with no wading, no swimming warnings. No kidding.
How do adults explain this all-too-common reality to kids? "Well, when I was a kid we used to come out here all the time. We swam, fished, and played for hours."
"But now, we've killed this park with our lack of personal and governmental responsibility. Sorry kids. Let's go home so you can play on your computers."
You might wonder what a post of this nature has to do with my HEAR US Inc. mission. A lot, really. Our collective apathy and our nation's systemic failures have contributed mightily to the economic and environmental demise of our country. I feel a sense of desperation to call attention to what I see--whether it is the desperate conditions facing millions of kids and families or the demise of our environment as I travel the backroads of America.
Wait, you say. Is not your use of fossil fuels contributing to this demise? True, but with my deliberate, purposeful, frugal use of the resources available to me, I try my hardest to balance the use with the mission--to leave the world a little better than I found it, for all kids. Thanks for asking, and for reading. Now, let's do something to make the world better.
Tuesday, April 14, 2015
Going from bad to worse. Frying pan to the fire. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. None of those adages express the level of dire anguish Melissa and her daughter face.
A 3-year string of horrible events culminated in this pert mother and her adorable 7-year-old daughter landing in the Kansas version of prison: a town of less than 400, with nary a grocery store, much less any sign of life, no transportation and no support network.
Melissa, who's worked in the home healthcare field for a number of years, tossed out a desperate Craig’s List plea a few weeks ago to escape from the apartment she platonically shared with “Max,” who had “compassionately" offered to share the 2-bedroom apartment he was about to rent with Melissa who had just escaped another untenable living situation.
“Sex,” she told me in the interview she agreed to do for my HEAR US doubled up project, Worn Out Welcome Mat--KS. “What is it with men who think of nothing else, even after I clearly spelled out that I was not interested in it…at all?”
A divorce tossed her over the edge 3 years ago. The job she had fell apart. When she faced eviction she remorsefully turned to the father of her older daughter to take her, knowing he could provide a decent living situation for the few months Melissa anticipated it would take to get back on her feet.
She attentively and creatively strove to patch her life together, protectively tending to her youngest daughter’s needs. The school McKinney-Vento homeless liaison accommodated their high mobility. They bounced from being doubled up in friend’s apartments to motels to the highly-restrictive, religious shelter back to friends.
Melissa’s housing choices in this military town were nil, subsidized housing not available, so she generated options intended to give them a place until she could save money to get their own place. Jobs paying a living wage, even for this hard-working woman who put herself through college? Forget it. So she turned to the underground employment and housing network to compensate for the basic needs’ drought in Kansas (and other states).
Even this didn’t work. Seemingly “safe” arrangements turned hellish. Moving from one bad situation led to even worse. A constant state of panic and heightened parent-protective alertness were matched by the absolute lack of alternatives in the Sunflower State.
Social services and the hypothetical safety net have been all but eliminated by the tax-slashing Governor Sam Brownback and his Republican conspirators. So few shelters exist in Kansas—and they have months’ long waiting lists—that families like Melissa’s desperately do what they have to do.
When the last straw came in the form of sexual and physical confrontation that needed police intervention (again), Melissa turned to a town I’ll call “Hell.” The man who agreed to take in these two vulnerable nomads assured her this was to help him with home health care, not sex.
Three days later, Melissa told me he made explicitly clear that he had needs and expectations.
I suggested she contact the nearest shelter (and even offered to give them a ride). I explained the “trick” of qualifying for admission—to make sure the intake counselor knew she and her daughter are in danger (they are), that their circumstances are dire and housing is dependent on her providing for her “host’s” sexual needs. HUD has a high bar when it comes to determining eligibility for their vaunted homeless shelter beds.
Melissa and her daughter might not be “homeless enough” to qualify for help. If that’s the case, she is absolutely out of options.
The public library in this hellish town is only open a couple hours a day, three days a week, with one computer. That is, if she will be able to leave the house of this invalid-predator. So searching on Craig’s List won’t even be an option.
Friday, March 6, 2015
She, her husband and other child, Brittany and her boyfriend and her 2 children, and Tyler and his partner, a motley community that shared this rundown but affordable house in Kansas City, Kansas, celebrated “Danny’s” birthday Saturday.
On Sunday, they were picking through the ashes of their rental house. Everything was destroyed in an electrical fire caused by, they surmise, shoddy repairs done by a dubious “handyman” hired by their landlord.
The Red Cross gave them 2 rooms in a motel for 3 nights and a promise of first month’s rent and security deposit if they found housing within the week.
Crystal’s family hugged their yellow lab as they left him with a friend, then they made their possession-less way to the motel.
They went from housed and self-sufficient to homeless and desperate in a flash. It wasn’t their fault. One might be tempted to blame the landlord for neglect. According to Crystal, he didn’t have insurance, so he told them not to expect anything from him—like their security deposit or unused rent. Without that money they had nothing.
One of their stops Tuesday morning was the KC School Board building, where I happened to be on my HEAR US Inc. quest to film stories of families experiencing homelessness, doubling (or tripling or worse) up with others, families not considered “homeless enough” by HUD. (READ this EXCELLENT article on doubled up from the Educational Leadership Journal.)
They enthusiastically said I could share their story to let others know how easy it is to slide from independence to scraping through the rubble of our shattered safety net.
Fortunately for the two moms, their school board stop netted them more help than they could have imagined. Thanks to the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Act, federal legislation removing barriers to school stability, their kids would be transported to/from the motel to their same schools.
Staff gave the moms uniforms, backpacks, school supplies, toiletries, food and a few books. The families were connected with resources to stay in the motel for another week, only possible because they could stagger back on their feet with a little more time.
But I must clarify a few crucial points:
- These families, though tripled up due to economic hardship prior to the fire, and figuring to be doubled up (or more) again after leaving the motel next week, will not be eligible for HUD assistance because they’re not homeless by HUD’s definition.
- Besides the fact that they wouldn't have been able to find room in area shelters because every shelter across the land is at capacity thanks to this beastly winter weather, they would not be able to stay together because few shelters take intact families.
- And with Crystal’s work schedule, overnights, she would have to choose between work and staying with her family at the shelter, a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you don’t choice.
- Public (subsidized) housing in KC, and mostly everywhere else, has 3-years or more waiting lists.
- The only way they can afford the $700 mo. rent and utilities is with 3-4 adults working, the others chip in by providing childcare. Even then it’s dicey.
If they’re “lucky,” they’ll find another landlord—likely to be a slumlord because they don’t have sufficient income and lack good credit records—who will rent to them, dog and all. If not, they’ll tumble deeper into the hole of homelessness, finding that it’s hard to be self-sufficient when you have nowhere to go. And their lovable labrador will also be homeless.
The campaign to get HUD’s definition in line with the more realistic US Department of Education’s definition—which includes those doubled up and in motels— continues. It takes but a moment, and your zip code, to nudge your federal lawmakers to cosponsor the Homeless Children and Youth Act. www.helphomelesskidsnow.org TAKE ACTION!
Saturday, February 7, 2015
- Crawling though decrepit attics to find doubled-up families.
- Cutting taxes for the highest income bracket to stimulate the Kansas economy.
- Discovering that a stable, financially comfortable community has close to 50% of their students living in or near poverty.
- Realizing that the state's budget has gaping holes, so cut education funding across-the-board.
What a state I'm in, Kansas, where I'll be spending the bulk of my time in the next several weeks. My unplanned offer to film Worn Out Welcome Mat--KS, a short documentary on families doubled up because they have nowhere to go was accepted by the state coordinator of the homeless education program. What a tremendous opportunity! And the timing couldn't be better. It's like being dropped into an economic war zone.
Homeless families and youth have been, in many places across this state, hidden. Very few resources exist, especially away from metro areas, and even there it's a brutal struggle.
The KS Department of Education has made tremendous strides training and encouraging educators to identify and assist homeless students. Their census numbers have steadily climbed, not a good thing on one hand, but good that they're identifying and serving more, nearly triple since the recession.
- 2007 -- 3,569
- 2014 -- 10, 378
I've spent worthwhile chunks of time this past week with school officials, migrant assistance staff, community leaders and volunteers here in Manhattan, KS. Riley County, which includes Manhattan (The Little Apple) and surrounding area--rural and military--just completed a needs' assessment. Not surprisingly, they determined,
"Riley County is a community that is divided between a high quality of life, prosperity, and growth on one hand, and dwindling resources for and lack of attention to those who are most in need on the other."A brief conversation I had with someone who should know better (remaining unnamed for the time being), reinforced the importance of our WOWM film project--which will be comprised of kids and parents talking about the struggles of living doubled up because they have nowhere to go.
This person differentiated between those "literally homeless" and those "choosing" to live doubled up. The "literally homeless" term is HUD (US Dept. of Housing and Urban Development) language reflecting a limited definition of homelessness that excludes millions of homeless families and youth. I'll get back to this person.
I listened to the migrant assistance worker telling about crawling through the dark attic and finding a family living/cowering in the far reaches of this abandoned building's top level. Desperation and fear caused this homeless Kansas family to hide in the attic. At least these outreach workers were bringing help. How many more are living in these dire circumstances?
It's worth the reminder:
- No community has adequate emergency shelters for families/youth.
- Some communities have NO shelters, especially for youth (on their own without parent/guardian) or families.
- Some shelters turn families away because they don't accept intact families with older boys, two parent families, or parent/s with work schedules that conflict with curfews, or because a family member has a felony, mental illness, addiction problem, etc.
- Time limits, capacity issues, immigration status and requiring proof of homelessness can also be barriers for families seeking emergency shelter.
Right now my hope is resting heavily on the families and youth I'll be interviewing in the next several weeks. Their faces and stories will, I know, be powerful tools to open minds and hearts, raising awareness of the struggles of thousands of people--families, youth, and single adults-- in this state with nowhere to go.
Please consider helping HEAR US raise funds for this project. Yes, it's for Kansas, but they need the help--at least the homeless families/youth and those working hard to serve them. If we can make things work in KS, we can turn to the next state where gross neglect of impoverished families and youth is rampant. Plenty of choices.