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, February 27, 2008

'One Paycheck Away' Gets a Lot of Use

Of all the phrases I've heard when people talk about homelessness, "One paycheck away..." is most frequently cited to show a person has a clue, and empathy, about homelessness.

Why, if the average person I talk to understands this, do our legislators and policymakers struggle with the concept that families fall in the "one paycheck away" category?

I'm reading HUD's first report to Congress (the "evil Diane" wonders why HUD never bother reporting before, and wonders how much was spent on this piece of work.) I must work quite hard at self control as I read HUD's reassurance that homelessness isn't any worse now than 10 years ago. Oh pl-eee-aaa-sss-e!

The most frustrating omission is the slick ignoring of the existence of families. H-E-L-L-O! Family homelessness, along with unaccompanied youth homelessness, is exploding. Just ask my new friend Kathy Wiggins, homeless student liaison in Tampa. This area, besides having an abundance of palm trees, is overwhelmed with families living in all kinds of horrible, highly-mobile conditions. Hey HUD, they are H-O-M-E-L-E-S-S!!!

What would "homeless czar" Phil Mangano say about these folks whose plight was reported on Tampa's local news (VIDEO)? I truly want to know. How can HUD offer the absolutely ridiculous number of 754,000 homeless people (which they say is a "one-night count," a phrase designed to confuse even the enlightened) and not at least give a horrified side-note explanation that their number represents such a gross undercount, specifically of non-urban areas and families, that our nation needs to be embarrassed?

Some disturbing/absurd
HUD comments include: "In comparing these results with those of previous studies, there is no evidence that the size of the homeless population has changed dramatically over the past ten years," (pg iii) and, "Homelessness is concentrated in central cities rather than in suburban or rural areas," (pg vi). I'm stopping with those 2. Read it yourself if you need evidence that homeless kids are being prepared to be homeless adults of the future by being ignored today.

Of course, the most glaring omission is the fact that HUD chooses to use the definition of "chronic" homelessness which virtually eliminates children and youth. "A chronically homeless person is defined as an unaccompanied homeless individual with a disabling condition who has either been continuously homeless for a year or more OR has had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years. To be considered chronically homeless a person must have been on the streets or in an emergency shelter (i.e., not transitional housing) during these stays." That fails the "keep it short, stupid" KISS test.

Across this nation, in urban, suburban, and rural areas, families and teens face the bleak realities of homelessness. Sometimes they weren't even a paycheck away when it hit. Sometimes--quite often in fact--the mom and kids hit the streets because of domestic violence. Julianna's story is sadly typical.

Seems to me that the first step of doing something about a problem is learning about it. With unabashed self-interest in working myself out of a job, I recommend that our HUD friends watch My Own Four Walls, a powerful account of what kids think about their homelessness. Then adopt the "one step away" language. At least you can fake sounding like you know what's up....

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Explain It To Me Like I'm a 6-Year Old

Beach towns are nice, especially for us "snow birds" who flee the wintry mess that makes everyone north of the Mason-Dixon line real miserable.

We're now filming in the Panhandle of Florida. Yes, they have plenty of homeless adults, and a shocking number of homeless families with children. One local advocacy group, the EscaRosa Coalition for the Homeless, offers some sobering numbers to dispel myths that homelessness is just the visible adults who dot cities and towns nationwide.

In our interviews of kids whose families have experienced homelessness, we hear much of the same story--hurt, embarrassment, fear, hopes, dreams and determination--all fueled by their experiences of homelessness. The kids' stories are amazing, and worth getting, if only to be inspired. Our documentary, My Own Four Walls, will set you back $20 bucks, proceeds which help our cool organization, HEAR US, continue to give voice and visibility to homeless kids and families.

Last week I went e-scouting for homelessness indicators in the counties around here. I won't embarrass the county educator I spoke with, but let me lay out my premise and see if I make sense to my readers:

Homelessness and poverty go hand-in-hand. If you look at an area's poverty stats by going to the Census Bureau site, you'll find CONSERVATIVE ( gross underestimates
by my thinking) numbers and percentages of poverty in a town or county. Look up a county, click on the map link, follow the directions to identify the poverty area.

The particular county official who is supposed to be helping homeless students with school issues said, "We haven't identified any homeless students." Bull feathers!

If you look at this county and follow the map, you'll see the geographic area with the most concentration of poverty. Look up the schools in that area, find out how many students are receiving free lunch (qualify by poverty) and just know that AT LEAST 10% of those students are going to experience homelessness.

The county I examined has a town with a poverty pocket and schools where up to half (hundreds) of the students were getting free lunch.

Seems to me someone is missing some real basic math lessons. Ignoring homelessness doesn't make it go away. It makes it worse.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Big Stakes, Big Shame

Seated at this huge table, 3-year-old "Sassy" awaits her mother who is picking up the tray of food served at this church/homeless shelter.

Some things hit me as more absurd than others. I perused the Baton Rouge newspaper last night following our filming session at the Lafayette shelter-de-jour, the First Christian Church, where four families stay for the night. The above photo just jumped out at me...a little girl waits at the table for her mom to bring her food. Homelessness families in Louisiana (and elsewhere) struggle to exist, relying on the goodness of people of faith, while the state's most talked-about industry, casinos, spend over $7.5 million dollars to influence the recent election to pick one of them to operate a casino in East Baton Rouge.

Seems to me that saying anything more about this would be fruitless. I'll place a bet that the state doesn't spend $7.5 million to help people move out of homelessness....then fold my hand and step away from the table.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Cubicle Solution--WWJD?

Corporate sloggers regard cubicles with great loathing(to say the least).

Ask any homeless mom how she likes living in one and she might not be as forthcoming, to avoid appearing ungrateful, but chances are she'd have something to say about the bright fluorescent lighting that doesn't get turned off till way past her kids' bedtimes, minimizing the restful sleep they get. Then she'd talk about the privacy issues, sharing bathrooms with strangers, hearing crying babies or noisy volunteers throughout the night, or how chilly it is and the lack of blankets, or what a pain it is to schlep of her bags of clothes and personal belongings out each morning and back again each evening, or...

This nation's wholesale response to homelessness, for families as well as single men and women, has been the faith-based shelter in whatever building the congregations can offer. While it certainly is better than living under a bridge or in a car, come on! This band-aid solution was created over 25 years ago--at the time the federal government de-funded mental health services--to give severely mentally ill adults a place to go to keep from freezing.

Now we use churches, synagogues and mosques as homeless shelters touting their faith-based solutions to homelessness. With deep appreciation for the sacrifices and significant contributions people of faith have provided over the past quarter of a century, IT WAS AN EMERGENCY RESPONSE TO AN EMERGENCY NEED! It is not a solution!

Now, any definition of "emergency" that I've seen doesn't imply something that lasts 25 years. But in the past 25 years, this country has managed to grow homelessness, particularly the invisible family and youth species, and in our predictable manner we've managed to say "let the churches (and other places of worship) take care of it." (A whole other conversation could be had about the declining number of functional places of worship and clergy to lead them.)

The other night Laura and I followed a young mother as she navigated the logistical transportation nightmare to get her 2 small children to the shelter of the night. Once she arrived, she made her way to her cubicle where her little baby got a much-needed diaper change. The chill in the hall/shelter was enough that I kept my jacket on.

Coming "home" after a long day's work (she is a housekeeper in a motel earning $7 an hour) means dealing with her kids' most basic needs in a sterile, impersonal environment; waiting until it's time to eat whatever the volunteers have prepared for dinner; and waiting until it quiets down so her kids can be put to bed. Most of the facilities have no showers/tubs, so bathing needs to be done at the day center in between work and taking a series of busses to get her children to/from childcare in time to catch the van to the shelter site.

Now, I don't know about anyone else, but for me this life would only be a step up from life on the streets. Yes, it's well-intentioned assistance, but it's assistance that comes at a price--human dignity and respect.

The hackneyed "WWJD?" phrase can be used to prick consciences. Would Jesus believe that homeless moms and their children deserve the barest of essentials or would Jesus ask why in the hell this country, which has used trillions of dollars in weapons and actions of mass destruction, has homeless families, teens and adults by the millions?

Seems to me that if we are doing these shelter programs in good faith, then people of faith have the moral obligation to move these families beyond the cubicle into the corner office.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Frustrating Flood of Families

This emergency shelter offers some privacy--albeit limited--which lets families stay together in a cubicle. Too much stuff for the limited space, an unnatural schedule dependent on the shelter's staffing (always too skimpy), and the overall environment can bring out the worst in families that might also struggle to function "normally" for many reasons.

Of the many years I ran shelters I saw way too many homeless families. It was not pretty. They came because of need, and dysfunction reigned--on the part of our shelter program and the family's circumstances.

I'm as guilty as the next service provider for indulging in a survival-mode (mine) method of operation which rarely gave me the opportunity to consider the whole person sitting before me (rarely did we get to sit).

One horrible consequence of this type of interaction is that the family, adults and kids, gets into a survival mode too. They carry their baggage--the reasons for their homelessness--with them, and seeing their behaviors it makes it easy to judge: lazy, assistance-dependent, drug addict, smoker, poor parent, etc.

Some of those behaviors might be accurate, as far as that goes, and most will admit their faults if you have time to ask, but these beleaguered parents have much more to their story. It's that story we're trying to capture as we film On the Edge.

Homeless families (and unaccompanied teens) represent a wholesale failure of our nation's approach to ending homelessness and addressing poverty. Instead of a safety net, the families find a band-aid system--at best. Some communities don't even have shelters or their shelters sit empty because of lack of funds.

By the time families get to a structured program they've been mauled by well-intentioned (I'm making a generous assumption) system which may treat the surface problems but does little for the human being bearing the weight of the world. Unfortunately it's gone on for so long that these problems encompass generations.

I'm not condemning well-intentioned workers--I'm including myself in this criticism. The system isn't set up (normally) to really take care of families with their myriad needs. Their needs come from some serious stuff which may include any/all of the following: sexual abuse, physical abuse, which often result in alcohol/drug use; domestic violence that went on too long; limited intellectual capacity; untreated and chronic physical and/or mental health problems; financial disaster, high mobility, dysfunctional family network, etc. All of these challenges require more than band-aids.

So we set up a system that inspires failure by all but the lucky/strong and we wonder why we have a mess?

What I fear is that our ability to maintain compassion becomes compromised by our limited resources to help people with complicated needs. Our frustration is fueled by the seemingly hopeless situation. We run the risk of blaming the victims for their problems and that makes it easy to cast them in the trash heap.

Seems to me that it's better for us as individuals and a nation to nurture a compassion epidemic. The multitude of families--adults and children--we've met and interviewed are amazing for many reasons. They've survived and they are more humane than some persons who are supposed to be helping them. Looks like we could learn from some true homelessness experts. What happens if we give up?

Friday, February 1, 2008

Explain It to Me Like I'm a 4-Year-Old

What would you say to this child if she asked you why she didn't have a home?

She doesn't. Her family is in a shelter--they're "lucky" compared to the countless kids who have a lot tougher surroundings. A conservative estimate is that over 1.5 million kids are homeless in this country.

Family homelessness is getting the short end of the stick from the federal--and probably lots of states--government. For starters, the feds don't recognize the realities of homelessness that most families experience--they're doubled-up, insecurely housed, or precariously staying in motels.

"We don't want to open a floodgate," is the classic Beltway response from those protecting the federal definition of homeless.

OPEN THE FLOODGATE???!!! is my flabbergasted reply.

Of course, this is the same government that has managed to evade any responsibility for the floodgates that opened in New Orleans. I shouldn't think that government and responsibility go hand-in-hand except when the government is laying down the responsibility law to impoverished parents.

As the U.S. economy crumbles--at least for some--it's the families who will find their resources dried up. When that happens, it's a short hop to homelessness. And homeless families rarely have it good. It's a lot easier to get into homelessness than to get out of it.

This little girl is at least in a shelter with her family, being assisted by structured programs and caring staff. We'd like to believe that all cute little kids have the same. But, truth be told, most kids without homes are not in shelters. Many communities have no shelters or their shelters are full.

So, when are we going to get this message across in a way that someone with clout will start to do something about it? Who is going to push this issue--one that holds the well-being of kids like this little girl as central? When are the presidential candidates going to even mention the term "homeless families" in their laundry list of ailments in this land of plenty?

Seems to me that we should paste this picture up on our mirrors and be painfully reminded that this nation, under God, doesn't seem to care what happens to 4-year-old girls, or any poor children and their families....and then take a breath, and realize that each of us has a responsibility to do something about it. Then DO IT!