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....

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?

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