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....

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Survey Confirms My Fears

Standing on the edge of the sea of homeless men and women at the Phoenix Human Service Campus, this woman looks afraid to plunge in. Phoenix tries to provide services, and agencies work hard to meet the need, but with over 1,000 men and women showing up daily, and resources being limited, way too many folks fall through the cracks, er, abyss.

Yesterday I had the privilege of addressing an education class at University of Texas, El Paso. These teachers-to-be probably don't represent the mainstream, statistically speaking, but it was an audience ripe for my survey.

I asked their first name, and then inquired as to a brief description of their experience with homelessness. I offered a few examples: volunteer at a shelter, know someone who is homeless, or see homeless people on the street. They weren't limited to that, but it was a good starter.

Of the 19 students, 3 volunteered at shelters, 3 knew someone who was homeless, and 13 just based their knowledge, and less-than-sympathetic attitudes, on the multitude of homeless men and women they see on the streets of El Paso. That blew me away!

Only two people--someone whose childhood friend was homeless and someone with a friend who experienced domestic violence--acknowledged that families and teens are homeless too.

This group was at least open-minded and after they watched My Own Four Walls, they demonstrated a much more realistic knowledge and understanding of the scope of homelessness. The MOFW kids talking about their experiences of homelessness make a powerful tool to open peoples' eyes. I have great hopes that this class of (mostly) young people will go forth and share compassion along with education.

Would that the feds' homelessness czar, Phil Mangano, and his unenlightened policymakers have the same conversion experience! Each time I pass homeless men and women on street corners or in other outdoor locations I fume. In no way do I believe the administration's claims that things are getting better for those "chronically" homeless. Sure, a few folks here and there might be better off, but at what cost?

The feds approach to "ending homelessness" reminds me of the scam I used to try to pull on my Mom when I wanted to go out to play but she insisted I clean first. I scattered our dirt, removing it from view, hoping to dupe her. It worked a few times, but she caught on. Phil and his band are promoting the scatter method, and since they have clout, they can sell it well, at least to Congress. Our leaders have more pressing--to them anyhow--issues, and besides, homelessness isn't a problem with cheap, easy solutions.

Seems to me that homeless adults are emblemic of our society's throw-away mentality. Not working? Throw it out! But the "its" are people. P E O P L E. They are brothers, sisters, sons and daughters, aunts and uncles and cousins....Sure, some have problems, but who doesn't? Throwing them in jail; or, as some communities do, coralling them in to a specific area with the unrealistic expectations that they'll all stay put like lemmings; or chasing them away (read a spicy blog about Seattle's approach) by making life miserable enough to make leaving look inviting, all those methods are being employed in the "10 Year Plan to End Homelessness" scatter them approach.

Who to believe--the Ivory Tower Czar of Homelessness, Phil Mangano--or the cruising RV queen of homelessness, Diane Nilan? Depends on whether you want to sweep the dirt under the rug and go out and play or face the fact that what we've been doing with homelessness isn't working too well.

And, as a painful reminder... the long-time homeless adults on our urban landscapes will quckly be replaced by homeless kids we're currently ignoring by our "chronic homelessness initiative." Smart.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Think I'm Making Stuff Up? Think Again!

If you read this post and want to do something, click on the above pix.

Sometimes it's good to be validated, sometimes it's not.

Of all the places where people struggle to accept the reality of homelessness, affluent suburbs are at the top of the list. Such is the case in DuPage County (IL), where affluence is the way of life--for most. Others squeak by, like my friend Jan, my "guest blogger" tonight. Still others--children, teens and adults--are HOMELESS.

Jan volunteers at the DuPage PADS (Public Action to Deliver Shelter) program once a month. She goes for the reality check and to offer her simple but beautiful hospitality to anyone who needs it. Lots of people do the same--the nucleus of a compassion epidemic in the making. Would be nice to hear from more of you... and thanks, Jan!

6 p.m. Jan. 23, 2008
Tonight I am part of a routine that looks a lot alike from GoogleEarth,
city to city, across America. I am one of those volunteers who goes to
a church that doubles as homeless shelter once a week. The routine
commences. We are dragging out the pads, assembling the meal line.
Where's the pillowcases?

Good people coagulate like herds of sheep beneath gathering storm
clouds... it be nasty out there but together us "warm fuzzies" huddle
and shelter each other, the weak, the scared, the aged, the ill, the
hunted, the haunted, the lost and the little lambies without a home.

Tonight a 6 week old baby is at PADS. I was doing childcare and offered
to give mom and dad a break and hold Tommy Jr. for a bit. Mom said,
"Yeah, uh, you mentioned that last time. No thanks. You see, I got
control issues."

I backed off to drift back to play with the volunteers' kids, but I
wanted to cry and laugh, I SO UNDERSTOOD what mom just said. If my
child was born on the street and had her wobbly head banging against me
all day in the 25 F below zero wind chill today, I would never let
another soul hold her when I was in the warmth in a library or church,
eating, resting, cleaning up. Finally, at 7 p.m., free of cops and
DCFS, and strangers in the dark by the dumpster if dad takes off a bit,
why the heck would I volunteer to hand over my reason for fighting for
a better dream?

Hurts to know she is out there with that desperation, wanting to know
what it will be.
Jan Hamilton

Thursday, January 24, 2008

New York, New York Could Help Regauge Poverty

Homeless shelters in rural southern New Mexico are rare--or consist of ramshackle trailers gutted to make dorms, like this location outside Deming. Emma, the woman who runs this ministry, says it's not a place for families. But they come anyhow....

A New York movement to change the way poverty is measured could give rise to a long overdue adjustment to how this nation measures poverty. The reassuring message that "only" 12.5% of the population lives in poverty is misleading at best.

The current U.S. Poverty Level is based on the good ol' days--the 1960s. Remember those days?? Gas cost $1 for 4 gallons! Home heating and electric costs were minimal. Housing didn't require 2 incomes. Take a look at this link and decide if you'd be able to survive, much less thrive, at this level.

No president wants to adjust the poverty rate in this country. It just wouldn't look good, "My legacy is poverty statistically doubled during my term of office." Nah, it ain't gonna happen.

Some enlightened economic experts have determined what it takes to survive in this rapidly changing economy, suggesting that doubling the current rate would be more accurate. The independent and brassy mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, has embraced their concepts.

Shift from bustling NYC to the fringe of the SW United States border to the town of Columbus, NM. This crusty, dusty community of about 1,800 embodies poverty to the limit: at the current rate it shows up at 57%. More realistically it would be 100%, with no visible means of lifting itself out of the poverty pit.

As we were being shown around this area by the school district's homeless liaison, both Laura and I cringed at the thought of anyone being raised here in this shantytown. Hundreds of children walk to an overcrowded school and play on the shade-free dirt roads a mere 3 miles from Mexico.

"Doing without" typically means doing without water, without heat, without a solid structure to come between ravages of weather and your family.

Far too many places like Columbus exist in our still-wealthy country, hidden in the mine-scarred Appalachian hills; in forgotten fringe neighborhoods abutting fast food littered Interstate highways; spilling through the guts of large, medium and small cities; discretely concealed on the edge of glitzy resort communities; and scattered like tumbleweed throughout remote rural areas.

What seems to be lost in the argument is that these neighborhoods are comprised of people--adults and children discarded by the techno-economic monster that devours its own in its greedy pursuit of power and profits. Homelessness is a natural by-product of such inequities. Homelessness is proof that poverty is alive and well in America.

Seems to me that it's time to get the numbers right instead of deluding ourselves that "only" 12.5% are poor. Maybe by channeling 25% of our nation's resources to alleviate poverty and homelessness we'll start to undo decades of neglect that has led to the mess we're in right now. What do our presidential candidates say about this?

Columbus, NM poverty

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Pets Have It Good, What About People?

Beatrice, a bright 18-year old college student, came up with an astute way to describe FOSTER CARE that clearly depicts why this "solution" to kids being on their own doesn't always work.

First, let me say that I'm sure foster care works for more kids than I'm aware. Good foster parents and good kids can make the best out of what are usual bad situations: family crises, disconnection with parents, etc.--issues which make it impossible for the family to remain intact.

But for those of us in the homelessness arena, we hear countless painful accounts of foster care nightmares. Too often kids get chewed up and spit out of a system inadvertently designed to leave kids on their own when they're least able to cope--as they turn 18 and "age out." (An excellent documentary, Aging Out, does an powerful job telling this story.) The System deems them ready to be adults and pulls the rug out from under them.

Beatrice spent several years in and out of foster care. When we asked her about what it was like, her response summed it up:

Being in a foster home is like being a pet. They feed you and give you a place to sleep, but they don't give you what you need most, someone to really care about you.

Sadly, this seems to be the case with kids who have negative experiences with foster care. And the long-term effects of growing up in a non-nurturing environment eventually rears its ugly head, often in devastating ways--drug/alcohol abuse, serious behavior problems, inability to hold a job or maintain a relationship, etc.--problems that easily lead to homelessness.

Higher education can offer a way out of this vortex, but potential college students, like Beatrice, had to struggle to apply for financial aid because of bureaucratic barriers, soon to be removed by passage of federal legislation, the FAFSA Fix, removing onerous provisions that kept kids without parents in their lives from applying for funds to attend college.

Our current visit to Las Cruces, chronicled in the Las Cruces Sun, focuses on the effects of homelessness on young people who, like Beatrice, find themselves without a place to call home. These kids get a university-level education of life's realities, some of which are pretty ugly. This weekend a tragic stabbing occurred in the local shelter, the only place families can turn for refuge. Across the street from the mission where this murder occurred sits an empty family shelter. It needs an agency to run it and the funds to operate.

Seems to me that our families should be valued and nurtured, with kids given opportunities to thrive like Beatrice, who received significant help from the school's McKinney-Vento homelessness liaison. We can either lend a hand to kids and families who struggle with homelessness or let them languish on the streets like stray animals.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Perseverance with a Capital P

It's nice to be able to share some good news from the world of homeless families. I don't want to give a wrong impression either way. Homeless families have a daunting task in every aspect of survival. When they hit the speed bumps of life they're more of the Rockie Mountains' size. But when they succeed at something the occasion is worth celebrating. Such is the case for the family in Reno I wrote about last month.

They found housing, incredibly in their same old school district--a huge priority for the parents. The quality of education at their old schools has such a positive effect on their children. Perseverance. That was the key. They found the housing on their own and will treasure a place to call home unlike the rest of us who pretty well take it for granted.

Perseverance is at the core of the traits needed when families find themselves without a place to call home. They have to do things like call shelters each day to see if they've moved up on the waiting list. They must keep on top of their status with what few assistance programs are out there, in case something has changed for better or worse. They need to chase impossible leads, using precious resources of gas or money, to find a better job or a place to live. Then, hardest of all, they need to instill in their kids a sense of hope, protecting them from the grim realities that lurk around every corner. Perhaps that's what I admire about the homeless parents I've met.

Laura, my film partner, and I are in Phoenix filming for our documentary. We've met the most inspiring people. These aren't governmental leaders or corporate CEOs, but homeless/formerly homeless parents who steadfastly pursue a better life despite the incredibly daunting obstacles in their path.

One woman, who now works at a respected shelter program, found herself in a position where her husband left her for another woman on Christmas day 10 years ago. This was at the same time her mother died. She and her 4 kids were on the streets weeks later. She persisted, got a college degree and now dedicates her energies to make sure more families have some chance at doing the same.

It's our hope to shine a light on the realities of homelessness as it affects families. With the prospect of many more families joining the ranks of the dispossessed as the subprime scandal unfolds, we should aim to create an inspiring film so the nuevo-homeless have some good role models.

Seems to me that it's time to give families something--respect if we're going to let them dangle over the precipice of homelessness.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Intertwined Stories

Over a thousand miles apart, stories share some common elements, and some potential tragic outcomes.

On a bridge in Alabama, a father allegedly tosses his four children over the rail into the swirling sea. For now, little is known about the circumstances of this unimaginable act. Further reports will likely include elements of abuse, poverty and despair. No excuses for what he did, but we should probably open our eyes to see these horrible events coming....

Scan the headlines of this or any week and the horrors repeat across the country: parents kill children, children kill parents, foster children kill abusive adults, and the tragedies go on and on, to the point where most people tune them out and immerse themselves into fantasy something or another.

After visiting a warehouse-like shelter in Phoenix where dozens of families and over 400 single adults can thankfully find refuge, the scope of poverty and despair become even more vivid. This shelter, despite the warehouse setting, strives to provide a haven for people who have lost everything. But those who end up here, and at shelters across the land, carry some weighty baggage: indescribable amounts of pain and stress.

The agony of facing homelessness devastates children as well as adults. Folks at this shelter try their best to ease the experience of landing at a shelter. I'd hope that if families that end up in a caring environment, and receive hope-creating help, they'll have a chance to avoid the all-too-common powerful vortex of relentless poverty and despair that destroys life. But anyone in this profession will bluntly tell you--those needing help far overburden existing resources.

For anyone who has witnessed or experienced the ultimate stress that accompanies the strain of inadequate resources, hopeless futures, unsolveable crises, broken relationships, and all the other very real struggles that come at us like blinding snowflakes in a snowstorm, these stories of tragedies probably hit close to the bone.

Seems to me that our "respect life" mantra needs some bolstering. Do we respect only the lives of those secure in their environment, well-endowed with resources and opportunities, with nice wardrobes and bright futures? Or do we realize that "there but for fortune go you and I..."?

It's time to query our presidential candidates on some real issues. My question to the candidates: What would you say to the parent filled with anguish who feels all hope is lost for providing for their family?
Check out the HEAR US campaign:
It's a little thing you can do to ease the pain of homelessness...

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Bureaucracy Overload Burdens Homeless Parents

For anyone who thinks being homeless is a snap, especially those responsible for dependent children, think again!

A colleague who assists homeless families with education and other needs, her official job is the school district's homeless liaison, told me a story yesterday that astounded even me.

A Native American man had 2 children. His wife was gone, and he was doing the best he could to raise his kids. He had a decent job, but after multiple school calls--the routine kind: kids sick, missing lunch, need something or the other--he lost his job. The all-too-typical laundry list of crises hit them: transportation, health, nutrition, keeping their danger level at "orange" or above on a regular basis.

Their house, in the Phoenix area, was ramshackle at best. But, with tremendous help from the school and with his extraordinary effort, he kept a roof over their heads.

Several years ago he applied to his tribe for housing assistance. Somehow they "lost" the application, so his situation languished. He mentioned it to the liaison and she inquired on his behalf. "Oh no," replied the bureaucrat, "no application by that name is on file."

My friend isn't the type to take no for an answer, so she kept prodding, going higher and higher in the food chain. Finally, paydirt! It seems this dad had applied for housing, and he was eligible. The day after they moved out of their shack, a CONDEMNED sign was slapped on the house.

My friend told me about the different agencies this dad had to negotiate with over his years of homelessness. City, town, tribe, school, state, feds...I couldn't name them all, nor could I, a fairly savvy navigator, deal with the multiple layers without going even crazier than I am now.

How quick we are to dismiss homeless parents, or single adults, as incompetent. I've done it myself. Kudos to my friend for her steadfast efforts.

Seems to me it's time to give parents, especially those grappling with homelessness and poverty, the credit they deserve, or offer them "credit" in the form of supportive benefit of the doubt. What they need is the hand up, not a kick in the head.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

See, We're Not Kidding!

Maybe homelessness activists can be dismissed as kooks. I'm sure lots of people have heard my rants and dismissed me as a well-intentioned but misguided troublemaker.

Today, a Reuters' story at least touches the agony of families caught up in the wide reaching mortgage scandal. Families, once securely housed, now living in cars. We call that H-O-M-E-L-E-S-S.

The good news--their kids can stay in their same schools if that's desired and feasible. Thanks to the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Act, homeless kids can stay in their school of origin or attend the school nearest to where they are now staying.

The bad news--this latest spate of homeless families will not find much help in their communities. Homeless shelters are too few and overcrowded. Financial assistance, no matter how well-deserved and desperately needed, is all but dried up. So families who have been through hell and back as they fell into the vortex of the mortgage debacle are SOL.

It's like having a small fire in your house and finding empty fire extinguishers. How did our safety net get so tattered? Did anyone pay attention to the dismantling of housing and emergency assistance over the past 20 years?

In addition to obvious fall-out with this national disaster--and it is a disaster when so many people lose their homes--it doesn't take a PhD to figure out that the kids will be the ones who suffer the most.

Seems to me that it's high time to pay attention to the needs of thousands, if not millions, of kids and their families, some newly-homeless, some have endured this nomadic lifestyle for way too long. Any presidential candidates want to pay attention to this issue?

Monday, January 7, 2008

Ho-Hum-Homelessness Report

I forgot all about the annual US Mayors' homelessness report which was released mid-December. So I looked it up and ho-hum...Plenty of disclaimers turn a good idea into a fairly useless document. It's only a survey of cities represented by Mayors on the hunger and homelessness committee. They don't have any statistically valid way of gathering the data. It's only 23 cities and, gosh, they don't cover rural communities.

They've been doing this report since 1982. So why bother? How much does a report like this cost? Do they just take last year's report, change a few things and release it in time for Christmas each year? Happy Holidays! Homelessness and hunger are increasing. Have a nice day, and SPEND, SPEND, SPEND!

I'd have to say the media has caught on to the worthlessness of this report, based on the fact that I didn't hear anything or read anything about it.

You never change something by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete. Buckminster Fuller

Wonder what the tone of the report would be if a committee of homeless adults and teens, given essential resources, compiled the report?

I suspect that most mayors on the committee are far removed from hunger and homelessness. Most of us are. Which is one reason why things continue to worsen for the "have-nots" while those with a little piece of the American Dream hold on tightly.

For the close to 37 million in our country who live at or below poverty level (
Census Bureau), and the millions who are above the magic--but unrealistic--poverty line who can't begin to make ends meet, they're staring homelessness in the face. That's adults and kids, rural, suburban and urban.

A study by the Urban Institute is credited for estimating that about 10% of people in poverty will experience homelessness. I couldn't find the study, but it seems to be a safe, conservative guestimate. I'd point out that the poverty levels by some experts' evaluations, are extremely low, and probably should be doubled. People in poverty would agree with that. Politicans in office would pooh-pooh the idea. Me? I flunked college statistics twice so I'll stay out of the numbers arena.

Seems to me that we spend a lot of time and money hashing about irrelevant reports and too little time talking to those who know the issue, like 9-year old Deshaud (left) in Ohio, who observes, "We weren't exactly poor, we just didn't have a home to live in..." (from the HEAR US documentary My Own Four Walls)

OK, that's a clear statement of a problem.Now, what can we do to fix it?

Saturday, January 5, 2008

A Mother's Joy

When all is said and done with my life, which I hope isn't anytime too soon, one of my proudest accomplishments will be my work with homeless students' educational rights. Why? Julianna said it best...

When Julianna was reaching the point of leaving her abusive marriage, her oldest 2 kids made her promise 2 things: not to go back to him and not to make them change schools. Julianna, in her understandably stressed condition, was pretty sure she'd not go back to her husband but even though she worked in a school she had no knowledge about the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Education law.

The law, significantly improved back in 2001 and awaiting further refinements as Congress shuffles their priorities, provides that kids can stay in their "school of origin," a.k.a. where they were attending before becoming homeless, or go to the nearest school where they are now staying. Other details are relevant, but for Julianna's story, that is the key--the kids could stay in their schools.

This weekend I spent time with her and her kids. When we had time to talk, she, unprovoked by me, went into a rhapsody about her kids being able to enjoy stability in at least one aspect of their lives as they stayed in their schools while their living arrangement went from pillar to post.

I just sat there, listening to this unsolicited praise of the essence of this issue which I've spent--along with others--a huge amount of time and energy. My thoughts were simply, IT WAS WORTH IT!

Hearing and seeing Julianna's profound desire to turn her experiences into something valuable for her and others inspires me beyond words.

Seems to me we need to better tap this incredible resource. She's ready, willing and able to communicate with her members of Congress on the importance of protecting homeless children's rights. She's not alone--in her struggles or in her dreams for a better life for our nation's kids and families. My dream is to grow HEAR US into a strong instrument for courageous people like Julianna to share her experiences.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Just a Tad of Rejection

One of the hardest realities of homelessness for me would be rejection and denial of my humanity. I've had a lifetime of people responding--mostly positively--to my existence. People have often told me that their homelessness seems to reduce their humanity in the eyes of others.

Trying to fly out of O'Hare on a well-intentioned "buddy pass" on New Year's Day and Jan. 2nd, I had just a tad of that less-than-human feeling. Stand-by passengers are a sorry lot, ill-regarded by gate staff, almost if we are unworthy. All I wanted to do was get back to my RV in Phoenix, thus escaping the bitter cold that had swooped in overnight in Chicago.

Getting to the airport for a morning flight was the easy part. After dropping me off, my friend Helen let me know that if I got stuck she'd get me, a safety net I didn't anticipate needing. After being turned away like yesterday's garbage from 3 flights, with no prospect of other open flights thanks to the weather-related cancellations, I took her up on her offer. Friends like Helen are treasures!

She even brought me back at 5 a.m. to try again. Rejection was clear-cut as the ticket counter person said buddy passes were embargoed on this day. Ouch. To add insult to injury, I hadn't had any coffee, figuring that once I crossed through security I'd take care of that essential.

Not wanting to waste another day at the airport getting nowhere, I did what any computer-carrying, coffee-deprived homeless woman would do--went into the bathroom, plugged in my computer and looked up options. My resources are not infinite, but I had enough to choke up for the 1-way ticket. Boarding pass in hand I tried to patiently wait in the seemingly endless security line to get my coffee. I landed in sunny, warm Phoenix before noon. Helen's friendship extends this far, with her friends picking me up from the airport.

Seems to me that besides the obvious home-less situation, the worst part of being in that category is the scorn that comes with it. It wouldn't take me long to start deserving that scorn because my coffee-less self was getting quite annoyed with hitting brick walls, and that was just with air travel, not life or death situations that face most people who lack homes.