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....

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Travels Tell the Story...If Only HUD Would Listen

The map gives an idea of where I've traveled over the past 3 years in my quest to give voice and visibility to homeless kids. Although metro areas were unavoidable, most of my driving and stops centered on non-urban areas. I never lacked for homeless kids to talk to....

Trying to update the HEAR US website is one of those one-thing-leads-to-another projects. I realized how out-of-date my travel map was, so I took the time on this refreshingly cool Sunday afternoon to do a new one. It was a trip down memory lane....but I got distracted.

As much as I could wax on about the sights and events of these 64k miles, I found myself thinking of the current infuriating battle being waged in DC over who "deserves" to be defined homeless.

The primary focus of my journeys has been to learn about homelessness from homeless and formerly homeless children, teens and parents. I've talked to hundreds of homelessness experts from places that most people wouldn't be able to find with an atlas. These experts know because they have lived this uprooted lifestyle. They fuel my fire. Their stories, available on our HEAR US documentary, My Own Four Walls, will convince you that they are truly HOMELESS.

I've also had frank talks (because I'm not connected with government) with workers in the trenches--educators and service providers--who painted a frightening picture of how un/under-addressed homelessness is exploding in their communities. I'll stack what I've seen and heard, topped onto my 15 years of running shelters, against a Beltway bureaucrat or politician any day.

Some of us have been trying to get HUD to expand their homeless definition--and focus--to include families doubled-up and staying in motels because of hardship. A strong contingent--let's face it, they have the money and clout--have thrown everything they could at our little band of advocates. Barbara Duffield, NAEHCY's policy director, has been at the table, a brutal and draining task, deserving kudos and a huge raise!

But the battle (I'd like another word that doesn't sound like war, but I'm Thesaurus-challenged--nothing does this justice) continues. Sympathizers PLEASE let your thoughts be known! HEAR US has the PIGGIES' Project for this purpose. DO IT NOW!!

Here's the gist of the arguments of those who are opposed to changing the HUD definition of homelessness...

HUD already uses an absurd under-count to assure Congress they're on top of homelessness. It's a point-in-time street count that providers will privately tell you is a well-intentioned sham. HUD says 750,000 people are homeless. They don't count families doubled-up, in motels, or otherwise not visible to the counters. Families don't want to be on the street --it puts them in jeopardy of getting involved with the foster care system. Ditto for homeless teens. Don't count them--and they won't count.

That's the point--the system is already overwhelmed. It has been--since the '80s. Since HUD has somehow reasoned that it's OK to ignore the existence of families and teens outside their "system" they shouldn't be surprised that we haven't gotten ahead of the problem.

Congress--under both parties--has been negligent in addressing homelessness, diverting resources to...well, that's too much to cover in this tiny blog. Congress, and the President, gives HUD marching orders.

Worth noting: The ignored homeless kid from 20 years ago--the beginning of the fed's "coordinated" approach to homelessness--is now in his/her 20s or 30s. Chances are that homeless child of the 80s is now a homeless adult of the 21st Century. That makes HUD's non-response a virtual feeder system for homeless shelters down the road.

Take a faulty premise and build on it--where do we see that happening? "Mission Accomplished" comes to mind. Another argument that I can't believe someone would put in writing, "Changing the deal by considering a different group of people homeless could lead to some communities giving up.”

OK, this is where my travels have come in real handy. This "10-Year-Plan," a.k.a. the "DEAL," is a farce. I've seen scads of homeless adults--the ones HUD proclaims to prioritize--who have no place to stay because the shelters are over-capacity. They stand on street corners in cities and towns across the land. They get shoved out of one town by police and they go to the next. Ask around—does anyone think the 10YP is working (besides HUD)?

HUD's 10YP is like saying you're losing weight by not eating cupcakes. It ignores the reality that you're eating cake...and ice cream, etc. It's delusional. It's OK to be delusional about weight loss/gain, but not about children and teens living in highly-mobile, inadequate, insecure, and often dangerous environments.

Argh! I don't know how BD can sit in her chair when they say that our proposed definition is “arbitrary.” HUD decides they’re the expert in homelessness (OK, I'll grant them one thing--they've been a part of homelessness creation for long enough) and THEY can define it:
“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.”

Missing from their "enlightened" definition are kids and families (and non-disabled adults). Because many communities have NO FAMILY SHELTERS--Reno, Las Vegas, Las Cruces— come to my mind, but lots more would be on the list if I had time and space to compile it--families and teens turn to whatever place they can find: Sometimes motels. Sometimes a patchwork of friends' and family's houses. Sometimes a horrible combination that includes physical, sexual and/or emotional abuse. Typically their choices are places that are overcrowded, unstable, unsafe, unpredictable...but I guess it's OK for families according to HUD.

Anyone who would use this argument would be giving away their naïveté in the world of homelessness. Most families who bounce in and out of homelessness get the experience of all forms of homelessness--doubling up, turning to shelters, being turned away from shelters and going to motels, living in vehicles, and then recycling through this devastating circuit.

Seems to me that the millions of our nation’s homeless families would validate my premise given a chance to be heard. But the people responsible for prolonging homelessness will have the comforts of home to insulate their ignorance as homeless families look for a place to call home.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Choices: Kids or Adults or...

In Arizona, where temperatures soar and shelters are far past full, some homeless adults do the only thing you can do--wait for night to fall and temps to drop. Disabilities, mental and/or physical, keep many homeless adults prisoners of the streets.

Sometimes it seems that homeless kids' issues get pitted against homeless adults. Programs depending on federal assistance to serve homeless people must follow Washington's priority proclamations or not get funding. That's a strategy guaranteed to get the attention of beleaguered shelter operators. Right now, as it has been for the last 6 or 7 years, the feds say "chronic" homeless adults are NUMBER ONE!

One could wonder, do they really care that much about the long-term, most challenging to help adults who have lots of problems? That would be nice. That's probably not the case. In fact, scenes play out across the country where communities, often major metro areas, are taking some drastic steps against the long-term homeless adults. Take Seattle for instance....

In that rain-soaked, fairly wealthy and supposedly enlightened community, the mayor has shifted the city's stand on homeless people in encampments from a fairly tolerant position to a CLEAN SWEEP
strategy, damn the cost to human dignity. City workers in haz-mat suits descend upon a "campground" and remove all the possessions of those who have little. Not remove them as in put in storage, but throw in dumpsters. The City, with a double-barreled media and legal campaign, supports this travesty by falsely demonizing homeless people, justifying the trashing of their meager "homes."

Real Change Newspaper is the Seattle version of Streetwise, the Chicago paper written and sold by Chicago's homeless vendors. RC led the recent protest against the sweeps. The best description is from RC Executive Director Tim Harris' justifiably profanity-laced blog, Apesma's Lament. You can compare his account with the local press.

Reading of this courageous stance against the sweeps, I could only think back to the days when I organized some lesser-contentious but still powerful demonstrations in Illinois. Or when we pulled together an event to honor the memory of homeless people who had died. It's electrifying to be among--and in solidarity with--people who have lost almost all shreds of their humanity, as far as material possessions go, who stand up for their brothers and sisters who have lost even more--their lives. Adults and children joined together for these events. No one had to choose.

I'm an avowed homeless kids' advocate. Does that make me care less for the adults? Not in your life! In fact, I'll go one step further. I made a modest donation to Real Change, organizers of this sleep-in. I challenge, or invite, or plead with readers to do the same. You may securely donate HERE.

Seems to me that by standing together we stand strong. That's what it's going to take to right the wrongs that have made homeless people--adults and/or children--the scapegoats for all the trash in this country.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Despite the Odds, Pat Pursues New Children's Book

Writing a book--children's or adult's--takes a huge amount of work and an equal amount of perseverance. I've been astounded at the progress made by my friend Pat Van Doren, author of the wildly popular children's book on homelessness, Where Can I Build My Volcano?

Pat's newest book, Family of Five or Six, is now available! It too is a book about homeless kids, this time a family that loses their home during a storm. Artist Wanda Platt, who illustrated Pat's first book, added her talented touch to the cover, but they also had some unique help--5th and 6th graders from Carrollwood Day School in Tampa, FL.

The Volcano book connects these Florida kids with this Illinois author. Pat's first book made its way to teacher Barbie Monty via Tampa school district's homeless liaison, Kathy Wiggins. After reading it to her class and seeing how deeply moved the students were
Barbie called me to get Pat's contact info. The rest is history.

The students, after hearing the Volcano story, wanted to convert it to a play to perform at the year-end comprehensive inquiry project demonstration. OK, these kids aren't the average ambivalent students. I know, they interviewed me like professional journalists for this project, a comprehensive look at homelessness. Pat went down to Tampa for their performance and they bonded like Velcro.

Pat's new book needed some expert input. She turned to Barbie who in turn asked her kids. They were all excited about the prospect of Pat's new work. Barbie checked with Pat about adding her young friends to the editing process. Pat quickly agreed.

When Pat needed someone to provide some technical details--what it's like when a hurricane hits, etc.--she turned to these kids and got the lowdown. Pat ended up inviting the kids to
provide illustrations. All of this work was in addition to their regular school responsibilities. They sacrificed their lunch periods to be able to do the weekly conference calls.

The results are cool! I'm so excited! Pat's first book shed a bright light on children's homelessness. This one hits it on the head, with Wanda telling Pat, "You did it again, you made me cry."

Seems to me we should shed a tear or two about the invisible families that continue to experience homelessness at a rate not seen since the Great Depression. But we also need to act--all of us--to urge some basic improvements in federal legislation that could ease homelessness for children and teens. If Pat, Wanda, and the Carrollwood students can work this hard to create a book to help readers understand homelessness, then the rest of us should be able to spend a few moments to let Congress know that they need to help homeless families.