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....

Thursday, July 31, 2008

KUDOS to the champions!

It's hats-off time at HEAR US.

Today's mark-up session in Congress is the first major step in the grueling legislative process. Through the "magic" of technology you can watch/listen to the hearing (it won't be available till tomorrow but I don't want to forget to post it).

The champions, a partial roster, are those on the side of we who believe that families and teens should be considered when HUD funding is given out to local Continuum of Care groups. Among my champions:

Congresswoman Judy Biggert (R-IL) led the charge. She listens to experts who actually talk to homeless families and teens--and to families and teens themselves. She gets it that people's lives are not in the neat boxes of "homeless" or "not homeless," and that sometimes their realities don't fit ridiculously pristine definitions thought up by Congressional staffers and their advisers.

Kathy Lydon, Judy Biggert's chief of staff, has put a lot of energy, brainpower and passion into this and other homeless children's issues. Big thanks!!

Nicole Austin, JB's legislative staff, has been astoundingly insightful on the need for changes in the current policy and law. She's been ardently on top of this from the beginning and she will not quit!

They've all been fortunate to work with my friend and colleague, the most honorable...

Barbara Duffield, policy director at the National Education for Homeless Children and Youth, who has wrangled and negotiated, twisted, turned and hung on in the insane process of hammering out a negotiation. She's amazing.

I'll share her email of today's proceedings. That will be enough fuel to stoke our fires of advocacy needed to move this issue forward apace.

From Barbara Duffield:
Legislative Update: HEARTH Passes Committee; Definition Debate Continues

BACKGROUND: Today, the House Financial Services Committee approved H.R. 840, the Homelessness Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing Act (HEARTH), after first adopting a substitute amendment.

Congresswoman Judy Biggert (R-IL) and Congressman Geoff Davis (R-KY) offered an amendment to include children, youth, and families who are verified as homeless by federal program personnel (including school district liaisons, Head Start programs, Runaway and Homeless Youth Act programs) in the HUD definition of homelessness. After an intense and emotional debate, the amendment was withdrawn in an exchange for a commitment from Full Committee Chairman Frank and Housing Subcommittee Chairwoman Waters to continue working to improve the HUD definition of homelessness before the bill moves to the floor in September. The Committee leadership of both parties also agreed to send a letter to the Government Accountability Office, next week, requesting a study on expanding the HUD definition of homelessness.

NEXT STEPS: Today’s markup was an important step forward in an ongoing effort to ensure that the HUD definition of homelessness is expanded to accurately reflect the full range of people experiencing homelessness in this country. Almost the entire debate was focused on the issue of the HUD definition and the needs of children, youth, and families. While the Biggert-Davis amendment was not approved, we believe that its introduction and today’s spirited debate will result in meaningful improvements to HR 840 before it is considered on the House floor. And we are deeply grateful to Mrs. Biggert and Mr. Davis for their leadership and commitment to children, youth, and families. Thanks to everyone for the calls, faxes, and letter, and ongoing advocacy.

A more detailed summary of the legislation will be forthcoming next week, including additional provisions related to children and youth (including provisions related to education).

Today’s markup can be viewed on the web site of the Financial Services Committee at:


If you read this far and wonder why the above people are the champions, I'll tell you.

Issues of injustice--no shortage of big and lesser ones--if they are going to be righted, require steadfast effort when the odds are so against you that even your own mother would bet against you.

The small band of integrity-filled advocates and their legislative crusaders are working to right the terrible wrongs that occur to countless children, teens and adults who find themselves without a home, no matter what their temporary accommodations.

This fight is against those whose organizations and agencies might give the impression they are on the side of homeless families, children and teens, but whose actions speak frighteningly contrary. Their argument that the "flood" of homeless families would overwhelm the available resources falls flat.

Seems to me that we might want to issue name tags--"For Homeless Families and Teens" or "Against Homeless Families or Teens." It would be interesting to see who would be on what side.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

HEAR US! Stay with us!

Imagine, if you can, staying with your 4 kids here in a 12'x12' motel room for more than 5 minutes....

I received one of those dreaded voicemail messages from someone who had seen the impressive coverage on homeless families in the Aurora Beacon News this past Sunday. This mom with 4 children staying in a DuPage County motel needed help.

My years of answering phones at homeless shelters never prepared me for calls like this. I knew I couldn't shy away from the call, ignoring the reality that someone was desperate enough to call me to ask for help. I also know that the person could be a scammer, hoping to get money or other resources, gasp!, to use for drugs or alcohol.

When I called the woman I knew at least some of the story to be true right away. I was familiar with the motel she and her children were staying at--a teensy, seedy place dropped in the middle of nowhere between DuPage and Kane counties. I've been there and seen what passes for "affordable housing" according to HUD.

For whatever reason, this mom had been asked to leave the suburban shelter they stayed at for the past 11 months, according to her. She just got a job with a cleaning service and worried about having enough money for gas while paying for the room. This place is so tiny that it doesn't have a web presence. My best guess is rooms are probably about $40 a night, the cheapest place around, which makes it a great place for unsavory characters to stay, something I didn't mention to the mom.

Her immediate worries/needs: gas for her car so she can go to work, money to cover the motel room. Food would also be essential, and the logistics of getting it, storing it, preparing it, and serving it would challenge the most capable among us.

My first thing I stress when speaking to someone in this desperate situation is to disclaim my ability to work miracles. When she shared her story I looked up the number for DuPage Human Services and gave that to her. I explained that she may not get help and to call me back if she didn't and I'd pick my brain for the next level of possibilities, a much slimmer list.
This family wouldn't be considered homeless by HUD's definition. No, they're just vacationing on the outskirts of West Chicago in a dumpy motel room far from anything, even McD's. Instead of a swimming pool they have a parking lot puddle. Their front yard is a fairly busy highway. Their meals come via good luck and culinary ingenuity under the most primitive conditions. Their entertainment is watching drug addicts, prostitutes, and sex offenders come and go in the parking lot.
Seems to me King Phil, the nation's homelessness czar, should stop by this motel and and explain to this family why they are
not so bad off, at least why they wouldn't be counted as homeless. I'd even pay for his room.

RECOMMENDED ACTION if this story appalls you: Call or fax Congress. All the info you need is available here. It will take a moment. This issue of who is/is not homeless will be decided upon this week. Your action will make the world of difference to families like this who are not vacationing but staying in seedy motels because homeless shelters are not available and better housing options are zilch.

Friday, July 25, 2008

DEFINITION DEBATE--Update & Interesting Info


In the next few days, probably July 28 or so, the US House Financial Services Committee will consider legislation covering HUD's definition of homelessness. YOUR CALLS/FAXES ARE STILL URGENTLY NEEDED!

Since this issue (the HEARTH ACT) has caught fire, some interesting behind-the-scenes info has emerged. It appears that the crux of the issue is the so-called research the feds use to define homelessness. In my humble opinion, that's where the process needs to be fixed.

We would like to assume that the feds paid for good research. After all, countless (an operative word!) families and teens will be affected by the outcome of this research.

Those of us who have been around for long enough to know better realize that the feds never did really acknowledge the existence of homeless young people. Perhaps that's too painful of an issue to address, because it means our wealthy nation isn't quite taking care of the vulnerable among us. SEE THE AURORA (IL) BEACON EDITORIAL

Two key happenings this past week confirmed my worst fears about the policymakers' knowledge base. One was our interview of Phillip Mangano, the Bush-appointed "homelessness czar," and the other is a an email by a prominent researcher (I'll protect her identity at this point) frequently quoted in the policy-wonk world.

When asked if the "expert" would be able to address an audience of educators concerned with homeless children's issues, she replied,
yes in the abstract, but no with respect to the particular subject matter. about the only thing related to homelessness I don't know very well is the education/school part. so I'd have to decline if you asked me."
Argh! You don't know the education/school part--the main part of a homeless child's world. How interesting--and dismaying!

And the Phil interview, well, you'll have to wait to see the HEAR US documentary, On the Edge, but let me just whet your does vehemently denying the problems/needs of families strike you? It's not in line with HUD's "business approach" to addressing homelessness. It's not cost effective.

Citing "Million Dollar Murray*" as the poster child for non-cost effective approaches to homelessness, and relying on outdated, incomplete research limited to 2 major metropolitan areas, the administration's super-spiel-spewer to keep homeless families and youth from spilling over HUD's floodgates, confirmed my worst guesses about existing policies.

Seems to me that it's time to pull back the curtain covering the Wizard of HUD, and expose his accomplice, the Wicked Witch of the East, freeing the children and teens from their tyranny. You can help to do that by reading details of the simple calls/faxes needed and doing it.

* Million Dollar Murray is a guy used by Phil to point out the insanity of spending millions of dollars on individuals who bounce from streets to emergency rooms, jails, hospitals and around again. Your point is??? Is this Murray's fault? Or does HUD and Congress and the President have any accountability for dismantling every safety net known as it restructured the federal budget to....ah, forget it....

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Go to the Wall--If You Have One

When I need that extra boost of determination and focus to face the dragons of this world, I can get it by recalling my little friends pictured above. I met Destiny, Tiffany and Amanda in Reno, where they have no real family shelter--just "roller beds" parked in a church site that rotated weekly. The family couldn't hold onto the motel they were staying in so they hit the church-shelter, but were asked to leave because of some problem with one of the other families. They were sent off to CA on a 14-hour bus ride to stay with someone supposedly willing to take in the girls, their baby sister and mom.

My Own Four Walls was a brilliant name for the HEAR US documentary (DVD). It points to the value of what we take for granted--our own place to live. Probably most people who read this blog have not only a computer to connect you to the immense Internet world, but also have your own four walls.

As much as we'd like to think everyone has at least a humble place to call home, sorry, that's not the case. And maybe later blogs will dwell upon causes, effects, cures...but for now I want to ask you to picture the face of a homeless kid who touched your life. Got it?

If you haven't had the pleasure of getting to know at least one kid without a home, let me share some of the faces of kids I've met along my HEAR US sojourn. Jose (left) captured my heart during my visit to central PA. His family bounced in and out of homelessness--staying with family and friends and in/out of shelters, but fortunately he enjoyed school stability thanks to caring McKinney-Vento liaisons.

Tommy and his family called motels home for longer than he cared to talk about. His parents tried to make things work--both held low-paying jobs that barely added up to enough to stay in cheap motels. The mobility and the pressures of high school weighed heavily on Tommy. His McK-V liaison was there to pick up the pieces when the family's short-lived stint in their own apartment fell apart.

Cody pretty well had it with staying with other families by the time I interviewed her. Homeless thanks to Hurricane Rita, she and her siblings found out that the home they had taken for granted was much better than sharing space with another family. She ached with impatience for the process of getting her own four walls.

OK, now that you have a name and a face of a kid without a place to call home...would you be willing to help that kid?

No money required--just a phone call or a fax on MONDAY, JULY 14--to your Member of Congress to urge the House Financial Services Committee to make the right decisions to help homeless kids. It's a big vote--but most of them probably don't know it.

If you're willing to make the call CLICK HERE for simple instructions and more information.

Then, next time you stare at your own four walls, think about "your" kid that your phone call helped get closer to getting their own four walls. And smile....

Seems to me that the issue of families and teens on their own having their own four walls should at least get the amount of attention Congress gave the baseball steroid issue.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Do Homeless Kids Count?

Somewhere back about 1994-5, Congress was about to do away with the entire McKinney homeless education law. We had just passed the Illinois Education for Homeless Children Act and it didn't take a political scientist to figure if McKinney went down the toilet so would IL EHCA. So we made a bunch of signs including the one on the left that says "the question is not CAN homeless kids count, but DO they count?" next to a picture of Charlie. And we mustered together a protest march and a press conference.

We had Republican legislators, (now retired) State Reps. Suzanne Deuchler and Mary Lou Cowlishaw show up for our conference and they made very supportive comments. Our kids carried signs and were very much a part of the action. Barbara Duffield had just started working for the National Coalition for the Homeless and I had met her once or twice, sizing her up after her predecessor, Joan--name escapes me.

Barbara and I spoke often during this crisis. I learned something from/about her. She wasn't a pie-in-the-sky ivory tower advocate, she was grass-roots and VERY determined. I had to ratchet up my efforts to keep up with her. We involved our shelter volunteers and our homeless brothers and sisters who stayed there if they were so inclined. They were. We sent faxes by the bazillion to our legislators telling them to back off this silly plan.

Mary Lou Cowlishaw made a phone call to her Congressman, Harris Fawell, a personal friend. She said something--I can only imagine it was vintage MLC--"Harris, get them to back off this silly plan..." or something like that.

Denny Hastert sent a staffer to talk with me one night as I was squeezing in a few more faxes before our shelter doors opened at 7. STOP! was their plea--you've convinced us. We quit--the "we" being Congress, brought to their knees by a fierce army of advocates and fax machines.

That was then. This is now.

We need a fierce army of advocates to call and fax their Members of Congress, particularly if they sit on the House Financial Services subcommittee. The committee meets Tuesday, July 15, and they will decide the fate of homeless kids, much like back in the mid-90s.

Back then we didn't have email, blogs, or access to the Internet. Now you can click here
type in your zip code and in a flash get your congressperson's name and contact info (HINT, HINT).

Then you could either call or fax (NO SNAIL MAIL OR EMAIL FOR THIS CAMPAIGN) a brief message to urge them to:
1) NOT SUPPORT THE HEARTH BILL, HR 840, (yup, the same bill we supported until today when it was gutted like a catfish and replaced by a piece of crap). We want them to PULL THE BILL and,
2) If an amendment comes up that allows homeless kids to count (letting HUD count them if they've been ID'ed as homeless by other federal programs), then support that amendment.

HOMELESS KIDS COUNT! What a concept. We fought for this 15 years ago and we're still fighting. We won 15 years ago. Will we win this one? We have a lot to lose, because to some of us, homeless kids count to the max.

Seems to me it's time put aside the fantasy sports and reality TV,
dust off the fax machines, and write a message to your member of Congress. Feel what democracy is supposed to be--voters letting their legislators know what's important. HOMELESS KIDS COUNT.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Neat Little Boxes? No--It's a Mess!

These are NOT homeless boys. No, their family stayed in a motel after their house was condemned. They paid for the motel with a combination of their own money and agencies' money. The proposed definition of homelessness would NOT consider them homeless.

The latest in negot
iations over HUD's definition of homelessness leaves me shaking my silver-thatched head.

For newcomers, or those lucky enough to forget this saga is dragging on, HUD is fighting tooth-and-nail to avoid including families and unaccompanied youth in their very narrow definition of homelessness if the aforementioned are doubled-up with someone who was willing to take them in, or if they'v
e scraped together enough to get a crappy motel room.

When I think back to the homeless families and youth I've known, I fail to conjure up any situations that fit the neat, box-like definition of homelessness that HUD is pushing. The definition isn't even worth typing, but for those who want to see that I'm not making this up, click here.

And that isn't even the definition of "chronic homelessness," the actual definition for HUD-funded shelters across this unevenly housed land. (
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." )

I want to point out some obvious flaws in their Beltway-bumblehead "logic."

Proposed changes to the definition assume that a family will stay for a specified period at a motel, or simply stay with Uncle Max and Aunt Martha who have made arrangements with their landlord for a whole slew of "company" to stay for an unknown period of time. THAT'S NOT HOW IT WORKS!!

A newly-homeless family, especially those without a shelter in their area (common beyond the Beltway or metro areas), will usually try the motel route, hoping they'll just be there a short time. Classic case was a family I met in Reno (CLICK to read a more detailed account).

Mom and Dad worked--albeit irregularly--and took care of their 6 kids the best they could. The owner of their house chose not to make essential repairs, thus the house was condemned and the family, including a baby, were evicted. Reno has no family shelter--but they have
one for adults (another story for another day). The parents pieced together a combination of their own money and agency money to stay in the motel until they eventually found a place.

HUD would not consider them homeless, and as non-homeless they wouldn't be eligible for the sparse assistance HUD-funded agencies give. THEY WERE NOT HOMELESS? Come on.


Melissa and her kids in Milton, FL shared their story with us for the documentary we're working on. My fingers would fall off if I tried typing all the contortions this Mom and her kids went through to avoid sleeping on a sandy Florida beach. They did sleep in their car when turned away from the shelter right before Christmas because it was full.

Suffice to say they hopped from motels to friends, to motels, trying the shelter that wouldn't let her stay if she kept her job because it conflicted with their curfew, to motels, to friends...well, you get th
e idea. THEY WERE NOT HOMELESS? Give me a break.

I could go on and on. And this diatribe of mine doesn't even touch the bombshell of an issue of unaccompanied homeless youth. Some other day... I want to poi
nt out some huge flaws in the NUMBERS controversy.

HUD uses their very inaccurate "point-in-time" count which counts people in shelters or "chronic" (I much prefer the term "long-term" or how about the more truthful term "ignored"?) adults the well-intentioned volunteer enumerators happen to find on the streets. HUD gives the number 754,000, often sliding over the confusing fact that it's a point-in-time count--whatever that means. It ends up being reported--in the media and to Congress--as 754k. Not bad for a wealthy nation of more than 300 million. Way to go, America!

The US Dept. of Education, using an admittedly under-counted but more verifiable census of school-age homeless kids, came up with over 900,000 for a school year. That doesn't include parents and younger/older siblings. It doesn't include kids who are not identified as homeless. It DOES include families in motels or doubled up.

Most outrageously, one of the "advocacy" negotiators, citing concerns of unnamed advocates and cities among others, pointed out that the proposed expan
ded definition would possibly cause the 750k number to be bumped up to 2.5-10 million. HOW CAN YOU CALL YOURSELF AN ADVOCATE if you capitulate to the argument of "not enough resources" as the reason to restrict the definition change? Look at homeless kids in the face and tell them that.

So, let me get this straight. People who lost their housing and move into a motel or double-up or combine those survival strategies are not homeless because a few bone-headed advocates and unenlightened bureaucrats don't want the estimate of homelessness to reflect reality???? Are you kidding me?!

I'm sure they'd justify their position by saying the government doesn't have resources to help
that many people. Nah, not in this country of tax-cuts for the richest and a military strategy run amok, and bail-outs for friends in high places, and....

Seems to m
e that it's time to let the negotiators and advocates who that think it's a vacation to stay in one cramped and crappy motel room for an indeterminate period of time with very little money and a bunch of kids who know this isn't Disneyland--let them try it for a night or two. Then move over to Uncle Max and Aunt Martha's, with their surly landlord who is just looking for a reason to kick someone out.

Then come back to the negotiating table and play nicely. Up to 10 million Americans are counting on you.