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....

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Seeing is Believing

Believing is all a child does for a living. Kurtis Lamkin

The just-released report “Economic Crisis Hits Home: The Unfolding Increase in Child and Youth Homelessness” documents the painful reality of a long-ignored, worsening dilemma facing millions of kids. And it offers deliberate, well-considered solutions. But let’s not analyze yet another report.

Boiled down, this report verifies this nation’s huge increase in the number of homeless families and unaccompanied youth simultaneous to the tumultuous economic meltdown in real estate, corporate and banking headquarters across the country and world. Not surprising, it’s a bad-news report. Perhaps the only good news is that some still gallantly try to help kids cope with the loss of friends, teachers, neighborhoods, and school that comes in the wake of losing their home.

Of the hundreds of kids I’ve talked to on my HEAR US journey, this report validates their observations. If you watch the HEAR US documentary, My Own Four Walls, and listen to the astute deliberations of these young homelessness experts, you would view Hits Home differently.

Authors of Hits Home compiled this data and wrote this report to convince people that the growing number of homeless kids in our country represents harm more crucial than the billions consumed by pyramid schemes and greed. They point to each and every child and teen who lost their home—the haven that gave them a sense of belonging—and give visibility to these innocent victims of failed housing, poverty, family welfare and health care policies. They offer starting points to reverse this colossal damage.

For far too long, families and teens have languished on the invisible edge of homelessness. The slow-to-respond Congress needed proof that these families were out there, not only in the urban decay of big cities struggling to survive, but in the hinterlands, in of thousands of tiny towns, dusty rural areas, and nondescript cities that dot the map. Hits Home hits home. Those in the trenches, homeless liaisons at school districts in communities across the land, are screaming the substantiation of existence of a frighteningly escalating number of homeless families and youth. And they plea for help on behalf of these kids.

It seems to me that the next steps are the most important. We can walk away from Hits Home, ignoring the plight of millions of kids and desperate parents, hoping it will go away. Or we can insist that we rebuild the human infrastructure of our country by assuring these kids that they really do count. Look at the picture on the cover of this report or the one at the top of this essay and proclaim your response to these children….

Friday, December 12, 2008


Pardon my cynicism. Releasing their report on homelessness on a Friday, the US Conference of Mayors completed their annual ritual, a token nod to millions of homeless children, teens and adults who, by virtue of their homelessness, aren’t considered a part of any community.

For the past 22 years, USCM has issued this report. In the 20+ years I’ve been working on the issue of homelessness, I can’t recall anything that evolved from the time, money and minimal fanfare connected with this tradition.

Miami’s Mayor Manny Diaz talks about the cities being the “front line” of the war on homelessness. I’d like to suggest a good research project: dredge up the past USCM press releases and reports and see if anything is different. Investigate how “mayors have been proactive and implemented local initiatives to combat hunger and homelessness in their communities.”

As a vocal critic of HUD’s 10-Year-Plan to end Homelessness, I automatically question the motivation of elected officials who boast about efforts to address hunger and homelessness. Sorry, but I’ve not seen or heard of the impressive results that these efforts have yielded. My 65k miles of travel in the past 3 years, talking to homeless children, teens and adults, and to those who try to help them, despite dwindling resources, I can’t say things look better (that's the best I can do for a positive spin!). And this economic free-fall will be more disastrous than I want to even ponder.

And to point out something USCM, with their membership criteria of cities of 30k or more, fails to address, or even mention: if cities are the “front line” then a massive guerrilla war is happening in rural areas and small towns across the country. Hunger and homelessness are rampant, and solutions are scarce because no one (other than those experiencing it and the ill-equipped "medics” trying to help) knows that the problem is out there, or perhaps no one is willing to look that far.

Gallant, but insufficient, efforts to feed and house families, teens on their own, and single adults in non-urban areas barely touch the population needing help. Congress has been kept in the dark about the explosion of homeless families and youth by the very federal agency, HUD, charged with providing housing assistance to those most in need. HUD seems in the business of protecting Congress from the bad news of a failed housing and hunger war in the hinterlands. Oh yeah, and lots of those out there are kids and struggling families.

So, if lawmakers rely on the ho-hum report from the USCM, then the ho-hum response will continue to foster ho-hum non-solutions and, ho-hum, ho-hum-lessness and ho-hum-hunger will be around to give next year’s ho-hum-Hunger and ho-hum-Homelessness committee something to do.

It seems to me that the excitement of Ho-Ho-Ho-Obama coming and dropping some “Ready-to-Go” big bucks under the tree took all the pizzazz out of the ho-hum-hunger and homelessness report. Maybe they can use some of the Main Street Recovery money for Tent Cities so the poor grunts on the streets and the guerrillas out in the backcountry can have a place to sleep. I’ll bet the tents won’t be allowed in any USCM members’ cities.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

STOP Doing That!

'Kicking the dog' is the age-old reference for what happens when angry people take out their frustrations on the innocent pooch. Homeless kids know how that dog feels, especially now that the economic crisis swirls around us all, making us feel fiscally-violated by the greed-meisters of Wall Street and Congress.

I read with dismay an article decrying the cost of getting kids to their school of origin. First, my fuse was lit by the cheap trick of headline deception--"costs up to $200 a day"--to bus one child. The only thing thought-deprived readers will see is "cost $200 a day" and they'll hit the roof. The blog that referenced that article added toxic icing to the cake, not correctly presenting the issue or the reason behind the law.

Now that every aspect of the economy is swirling down the drain, including the oldest profession--prostitution, everyone is upset, sometimes at the wrong people for the wrong reasons. With homeless kids' educational rights, stories about kids being deprived of school stability and, in too many cases, any school at all, are common and heart-wrenching. Watch My Own Four Walls, the HEAR US video, if you need convincing.

So to read the unenlightened blog of a person who professes to be a homeless advocate reminds me we have a long way to go to foster understanding of the plight of the invisible homeless kids, way over 1.5 million by my estimate, who seem destined to be kicked around by the system.

Seems to me we need to figure out a way to stop the proverbial dog-kicking. Adding to the hate-filled dysfunctional environment that seems to surround all of us is not the answer. I'd love the blogger of the aforementioned entry to rethink this issue and offer what I think she's capable of--thoughtful analysis of why the news article was in error.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Moral Outrage Turned Off?

Moral crisis requires moral outrage at both the problem and the seeming imperviousness of the problem to viable and permanent solutions. We need to be morally outraged at what poverty and systemic injustice is doing to people. Michael Maher

Moral outrage might be headed for the history books as national and global economies swirl down the drain of greed and destruction. Liberty and justice for all reflect ancient ideals. Now it's survival of the richest, and those ranks dwindle as the 'dog-eat-dog' mentality takes hold.

Moral outrage, which used to motivate some of us to protest war,cruelty or injustice has been replaced by don't piss off 'the man.' Be nice. Go along. Or you might find out that government, aka 'the man,' refuses to help, kicking sand in your face in the process.

In Atlanta, one of the main emergency shelters for this city's unwanted and neglected adults has seen the writing on the Peachtree City's wall. Allegedly tied to frustration with the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless' refusal to go along with the "chronic homelessness initiative," the City, holding an unpaid water bill of about $160,000, shut off water for this shelter that houses about 700 people a night. Nice.

As a former shelter director, the prospect of a waterless night at a shelter sends shivers down my spine. It's the ultimate indignity thrown at a population that feels nothing but scorn all day long. Their nightly humble haven, the human equivalent of a sardine can, has now been violated by the authorities--those with power to do good or evil--who have chosen to do personal harm to each person staying at the shelter.

The disrespect of the cut-off reeks--not allowing people the dignity of flushing a toilet or taking a shower or brushing what's left of their few dentist-deprived teeth. Many people without homes still try to maintain human dignity by practicing at least basic forms of hygiene. Water is crucial for that. Shutting off the tap stinks. It hurts.

Imagine waking up in the morning, not being able to wash up, hesitating to eat or drink anything because of the Third World conditions in the restrooms, and going forth to meet the day, with no hope in sight. It's not like restrooms doors are thrown open to those who look obviously homeless. And for hygiene-impaired individuals, boot-strap-jobs are unattainable.

The Metro Task Force, by refusing to play nice with the City on the 10-year-plan, apparently has taken a moral, though risky, stand. I admire their courage. And I agree with their refusal to shape their program to comply with the morally reprehensible approach to homelessness of Bush's anti-homelessness initiative.

Case in point: if the federal 'homeless czar' really cared about the well-being of homeless people, he'd have been on the phone to Atlanta's Mayor Shirley Franklin, demanding that she restore water to the shelter that takes 700+ people off the street each night.

In a few weeks, a long-awaited change in presidential leadership will take place. Changes in presidents bring changes in policy. The absurd failure of HUD's "chronic homelessness initiative" will hopefully be halted and reversed.

It seems to me that Mayor Franklin should read the writing on the wall. Knowing that HUD policies will certainly change for the better, why not do the right thing and let the tap flow at the Peachtree and Pine Street Shelter? The way the economy is going she might be showing up there for a stay....

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Our chance to weigh in on homeless kids

Maybe it will do some good. It can't hurt.

Am I so hope-deprived that I doubt the power of the Internet?

You can help both promote the idea that homeless kids and families need their own four walls, and at the same time restore my faith that homelessness is an issue that people are willing to care about.

I've set up a page on and have challenged people toVOTE on the issue of homelessness as it affects the invisible families and youth. Plus I'm asking for financial support for our nonprofit organization, HEAR US, which gives voice and visibility to homeless kids.

HEAR US has been involved in some amazing endeavors to help homeless families and youth:
  • We created and are distributing a powerful video that helps homeless kids.
  • We've worked hard to successfully remove barriers for homeless youth so they can apply for financial aid to go to college.
  • We have staved off the attempts to narrow the definition of homelessness, and at the same time managed to get Congress talking about this long-ignored problem.
  • We're going behind bars, helping homeless parents protect their children's educational stability, and more...

So if you care about this issue, click on the widget--the thingie at the top of this post. If you'd like to support HEAR US buy some of our "stuff" that really does make a difference.

Seems to me we are so overdue for change in this country that we can't believe we have the chance to bring it about. But we do, if we act. Feel free to share this invitation with your circle of friends and colleagues.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

'I'm Freezing' if it matters...

Pansies planted in Atlanta-area flowerbeds get more concern than people it seems. Pansies are my favorite flower, and seeing the Peach State's profusion of hearty pansies in November makes me smile.

Flowers and plants have been highlighted in recent weather report freeze warnings in this southern metro area. Bring 'em in, cover them or you'll be sorry.

My reaction, not surprisingly, is 'what about the people??!' who live outside or are forced to spend a great deal of time in the cold waiting for a nighttime shelter to open.

I gave a couple presentations in Saratoga Springs, NY this week for National Hunger and Homelessness week, strategically slotted for the week before the oft'-gluttonous Thanksgiving holiday. This NY resort community has a mixture of the very wealthy and the very homeless. Some still linger in between.

The learning curve is steep, but a handful of dedicated and compassionate leaders are trying to make a difference. When you have school district homeless education liaison
s teaming up with college professors, good things can happen. Toss in some motivated, enlightened kids, like the group(see pix) from Captain Youth & Family Services program, and results are all but guaranteed.

They need all the help they can get in this horse-centered community. If you're a race horse, you get a nice place to sleep. I
f you're a family in need of shelter you'd be out of luck.

Saratoga Springs is one of the many places across the nation where homeless men and women can find a place to sleep and perhaps get some help, but families, nah. The local safety net consists of putting families in motels for a limited period--typically a few nights to a week. You can bet that they don't get a spot in any of the luxury extended-stay motels.

When a concerned audience member approached me after my talk asking me about my
reaction to putting families in motels I welcomed the chance to explain. After listing the standard concerns:
  • drug trafficking,
  • prostitution,
  • sex offenders,
  • little way to store food or prepare meals,
  • no privacy/space
  • cost
I asked him to think back on the last time he stayed in a motel with his family. How long did it take until staying the cramped living space got on his nerves? Toss in a heavy dose of stress--losing one's housing, financial woes, no hope--and the thought of being stuck in a money-sucking motel. He had the look of someone whose heart and brain were beginning to make a connection.

It seems to me that communities lacking shelters should hold a homelessness awareness experience for their local government leaders, especially those in charge of social services. Set them and their families up for a week in a local 'no-tell-motel' and make them promise to stick it out, not using their financial resources or personal networks to ease the discomfort. I bet my lunch money that you'd see some significant progress in making sure a real safety net gets woven real fast.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Get Hope (non-political) Here

Some of us in the room of 600+ attendees at this year's NAEHCY conference had the same thought--wishing we had forcibly kidnapped congressional staffers who oppose expanding HUD's definition of homelessness to include families and teens who have lost housing but are not staying in shelters. We wouldn't kidnap them for ransom, but to have them sit through the agonizingly painful, but beyond-inspiring testimony of 17 young LeTendre Scholarship winners given to college-bound teens who have experienced homelessness.

Why is it that some young people can go through so much--horrible abuse, repeated rejection, extreme neglect, abject poverty, and more--and still have hope? We adults aren't that resilient. We're wimps. These teens were rich in hope--someone believed in them, instilling a sense of belief in self, which kept them from giving up on themselves. They are the reason we fight so hard to level the playing field for kids without homes.

Each of these students stood courageously before a full crowd and shared deeply personal accounts of loss of housing and their typically patchwork quilt of survival, moving from place to place, friend's house to someone's car, nomadic lifestyles weaving patterns of street-smarts and school-smarts that shame the rest of us "silver-spooners." They spoke of how they value education as a ticket out of poverty and a way to give back for all they've been given.

These kids, with the exception of 2-3, were "unaccompanied homeless youth," a specific population that Congress seems determined to ignore, heeding HUD's warning that they can only save so many people from homelessness, so let's concentrate on "chronically" homeless adults.

They're not considered homeless enough. Or maybe they just don't count. Or maybe Congress is going to eventually get it right and look at housing from the ground up--and decide that everyone deserves a place to call home.

Seems to me that we should just kidnap the staffers and somehow arrange a big switcheroo. Let the staffers experience this highly-mobile, unpredictable lifestyle when you don't know if or where you'll be able to sleep each night, or worse yet, if you'll be sexually abused by an adult you trust, powerless to fight it because it means you have a place to sleep. Insert these wise-beyond-their-years teens who understand that homelessness comes in different packages into congressional offices to advise their bosses about the real needs of Americans. These determined young people are virtual hope machines. I vote to turn them loose on this confused country.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Signs of the Times

Counting my 3 blogs--this, my Camper's RVue, and the HEAR US media center--this entry is my 100th blog! In honor of this momentous occasion, I am offering a free "Piggies" poster to the first 10 people who email me mentioning the 100th blog. will do it!

(This house is not the house in this blog, but it easily could be. It is in the same neighborhood.)

Sunday morning at the campground I watched a 5-ish year-old girl do the kid thing on a scooter, going up and down the paved road in front of the campsites. She was focused on her mission, seemingly to set a worlds’ record for going back and forth on a scooter. Some adult was outside, sort of keeping an eye on her.

Then I headed to M’s house, one of the kids who participated in the HEAR US documentary, My Own Four Walls. The yard and street were not fit for playing in. To be honest, the house, from what I could see, wasn’t fit for living in, but it is a roof over this vulnerable family’s head.

From the porch I could hear sounds of kids playing inside. One of the older boys answered the door and at least had enough sense to appropriately question why I wanted to talk to his younger sister.

Some families have everything, or at least an abundance of what they need, or sufficient resources to meet their needs, and sometimes even their wants. Other families, a growing segment, have not even enough to meet their basic needs. M’s family would fall in that category. They live in poverty in an impoverished neighborhood. They have little, if any, hope to get ahead. Their worry is keeping this shabby roof over their heads, knowing that if they lose it, homelessness hits them in the face, again.

As I drove along the PA countryside, through the mountain towns and countryside, I saw as many “FSBO” (for sale by owner) signs and for sale/rent signs on shuttered businesses as I saw presidential campaign signs. I thought of the money spent by both sides on this blistering campaign for a job that no one in their right mind would want. Spending hundreds of millions to slam the other and promote themselves, these candidates are taking disconnected to new levels, so far from M and her family that the gap will never be closed.

Will the next president be able to reach his influence into hopeless neighborhoods like this and so many others, to touch the lives of people with homes and without, to gently lift them up from the downward spiral that has enmeshed so many families in this past 8 years?

Or will more join these, the huddled masses, in the growing underclass that doesn't seem to matter unless it's you or someone you know heading in that direction.

It seems to me that it's time for a trickle-up approach. Let's reinforce the safety net, insulate people from abject poverty, provide resources for health care, education, and child care; utilize abandoned/foreclosed housing to shelter families, create jobs that would let people work on the infrastructure that the rich have so long can't be any worse. But it will take some informed voters to figure out the candidate likely to care about those who have nothing. I'm having a hard time not mentioning any names....

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Cries from the Street, People Moved to Tears...

Yesterday I shared My Own Four Walls with a group of women from Naperville that I refer to as "the salt of the earth." They are members of Church Women United--the women that faith communities rely on to get things done.

Naperville, one of the most family-friendly communities in the nation happens to be the HEAR US home base. Tillie and I have slept in Naperville--just to be able to say I was homeless in Naperville--and I know lots of good people from this homogeneous suburb.

Despite an educated populace, I suspect it's like every other community--largely clueless when it comes to homeless kids.
Following the 20-minute screening of MOFW, the reaction of almost the entire audience to these articulate young spokespersons was clear...tears. Several woman bought MOFW DVDs and books that we sell to raise awareness of homelessness and to keep me from being homeless in Nevada.

Meanwhile, on a totally different level, tears were being shed on Wall Street as once-solid financial firms crumbled under the weight of what people like me would attribute to greed.

I understand the financial market about as much as most people understand homeless families. At least I admit my ignorance. And I try reading about the problem--and proposed astronomical solutions--numbers my little brain can't comprehend.

Seems to me
that it's time for some mutual understanding. Since people affected by the shattering sounds on Wall Street are inching closer to calling the streets "home," perhaps we could share some street-wise tips. I can tell you where some good places are to sleep in Naperville if you don't have money. You can tell me where to find some pockets of dough to fund HEAR US. Sounds like a fair trade to me....

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Back to School with Red Flags

Few people would be able to answer the question: Where were you or what were you doing 15 years ago?

Back in `93 I was up to my ears in a legal conflict involving a family staying at our shelter and a nearby affluent suburban school district.

The short version of a long, fascinating story is that the school district didn't want the family to return since they moved out of district because of homelessness. The mom, very understandably, wanted her kids to have the stability of the school setting where her kids had spent the past few years.
The family lost the Intense court battle, but good eventually evolved....

We created and lobbied for the Illinois Education for Homeless Children Act, a.k.a. Charlie's Bill, passed in 1994, paving the way for landmark legislation that now helps homeless kids across the country by removing common barriers and providing essential assistance so homeless kids can grow up as productive adults.

Now, if you knew Aurora, IL was the birthplace of this amazing legislation, you might be silly enough to think that they would be on the forefront of compliance with it--you know, kind of a local pride. Nah!

In a news story last week, the Beacon News reporter described a case where a student was being kept out of school by the school district because of concerns about residency.

Now, I'll be the first to issue a disclaimer--all I know about the story is what I read...well, and also what I have repeatedly come across in years advocating for homeless kids to be enrolled in school. So, I'm going to dissect this story (Red--or for some reason green-- copy are excerpts from the Beacon News) like I was a 12-year-old classmate of Nathan. Maybe someone will be able to follow my logic.

Nathan's residency on the West Side is in question by district officials, prohibiting him from enrolling for the year. What's more, mom Renee Cavada has been hit with a $7,000 tuition bill for his sixth-grade year at Jefferson Middle School.
12-year-old: Could it be the money? Schools are always complaining about money, though it seems a lot of school administrators drive nice cars and wear expensive clothes....
Cavada and her two children have been living with her parents at their home on May Street on the West Side since last summer. Amid marital problems, Cavada moved with the children out of the East Side home she and her husband had shared. When school began last year, Cavada enrolled Nathan at West Aurora's Jefferson Middle with no problem.
(OK, this is where thinking like a 12-year-old can be handy...pointing out the obvious: LIVING WITH HER PARENTS AT THEIR HOME SINCE LAST SUMMER. AMID MARITAL PROBLEMS...moved with the children...)

12-year-old: What is it like to live with your grandparents? I imagine things were pretty tense at your house before you and your mom moved into their house. Your parents were arguing all the time, and you said you never had any money because your family was going through hard times. And you never could have friends come over because it was too crowded... (clue--HARDSHIP).

Now, the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance law, which governs all public schools, talks about loss of housing due to hardship as being a condition of homelessness.

Any parent who has gone through marital problems would probably agree that this is a time of hardship. When things deteriorate--and we don't know if any physical, sexual, or emotional abuse was involved--but when things get so bad the parent moves out of their home and into the parent's home, I'd suspect that it's not just because Mom makes good lasagna.

Think of the last time you lived, or stayed, with a family member. Even vacations can count. Did there come a time when it ceased to be fun any more? Overcrowding, too many people for too few bathrooms? People eating your specially purchased food? TV up too loud? Kids getting on the adults' nerves? Unless your parents are some kind of special people and their house is large enough for 2 families to live together without crossing into each others' space, then it is not fun to double-up with family (or friends).

It gets worse...
...her home on the East Side has gone into foreclosure and is up for auction in September. Moving back to East Aurora schools, Cavada said, is not an option.

FORECLOSURE...does that perhaps qualify as hardship? Think about it...

The clue, in case you need one, is in the following:

While West officials said they could not comment on situations with individual students, they did confirm that the district has been more aggressive recently in identifying non-resident students.

When enrollment information is sent out in the spring, any mail that comes back returned throws up a red flag, prompting a residency check, said Greg Scalia, the principal at Jewel Middle School and the district's residency liaison.

Residents must show two bills dated within 60 days of each other with a current home address. If West still suspects a student is living outside district boundaries, officials may perform home visits or use other investigative tactics.

Returned mail = red flag = residency check. Now, if the residency check includes the checker being aware that a family may not want to be forthcoming about marital problems, financial crises, or other personal business with a residency checker, then I'd say the district was on the right track. And I'd like to give them the benefit of the doubt. But...I've seen too many cases where the family is guilty until proven that time the residency hearing has been held and it's too late.

Another red flag that indicates the district may be afoul of the law is the guardianship requirements.
Scalia said, students living with other family members must either also be living with their legal guardian or have the other family member take legal guardianship.
If a family (or unaccompanied youth) becomes homeless--loses their housing due to hardship--they do not need to appoint a legal guardian for purposes of school enrollment.

Here's the segment from 100 Frequently Asked Questions about McKinney-Vento that talks about guardianship requirements:

54. Can a school require a caregiver to get legal guardianship to enroll a student in school? A: No. The McKinney-Vento Act requires states to address the problem of guardianship issues in school enrollment and requires school districts to enroll youth in school immediately, even if they lack typically required enrollment documents. 42 U.S.C. §§11432(g)(3)(C), (g)(1)(H)(iv), (g)(1)(F)(ii). The decision to seek legal guardianship is a serious decision that significantly affects the legal rights of the parent and caregiver well beyond the school arena. While that step will be appropriate in some cases, it will not be in others.

I am surmising that some of the other families in the story might also qualify to attend District 129's schools because of homelessness.

Seems to me that this is a classic example of shooting one's self in the foot. A community fighting gang problems probably would be well-advised to make sure kids are getting an education. Perhaps someone--the Mayor, the IL State Board of Education, or SOMEONE should be looking into this situation before the school district ends up sued. That would cost a whole lot more than the price of tuition....