Monday, August 18, 2008
Heading Deep Into Homelessness Land--Behind Bars
I'm not a rocket scientist, not even a social worker.
But I've made some amazing (to some people) observations. And tomorrow we're going to take the first big step to shine a light on one of those observations. My observation: homelessness is often caused by incarceration--done rightly or wrongly.
Tomorrow Andrew, a grad student from Northern Illinois University, LeeAnn Trotter, a reporter from Channel 5, NBC-Chicago, and I are going to jail: Cook County Jail, one of the largest--imagine an inmate population of about 10,000 on any given day--institution of its kind in the country. We're filming a training film to help moms (and dads, eventually) secure education for their kids despite the moms' incarceration.
You see, when someone is arrested and locked up, they usually don't make arrangements for childcare, much less getting their kids to school. They probably hope they won't get arrested if they go out with the intention of doing something unlawful. But in some/many cases, they may get arrested in error--an error that turns their lives, and the lives of their families, upside down, to say the least. Regardless of their guilt/innocence, they're locked up for an unspecified period of time.
When the head of household, living in a fragile situation as many impoverished families do, gets removed unexpectedly from her (mostly her) household responsibilities--including getting her kids to school--the kids often suffer. Families get evicted when the adult isn't there to pay rent. Child welfare services may become involved. Kids don't know who's going to take care of them or when mom will be home. Ideally, family or friends will take care of the kids while the scales of justice weigh a decision as to freedom or time behind bars.
When kids lose their homes due to hardship (and who would deny the unexpected incarceration of mom as hardship?) they often become "homeless" according to the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act because they lack a fixed, regular and adequate place to live. As bad as things may be, the little ray of sunshine in their otherwise bleak world is that homeless kids have strong, clear rights about their education. But the cloud--few people know this.
Boiled down to the most important points, kids who are in a homeless situation get a choice of:
1) going to the school they last attended or the school they last attended when they were permanently housed, whatever is in their best interest, or
2) going to the local school where non-homeless kids go if that is in their best interest.
Other important points are included in this federal law that applies nationwide.
Our effort will be to help women (and men) who are incarcerated know these rights. We'll create a short "how-to" film and other materials to guide inmates and staff on these important rights. Advocates stand ready to work with families to enforce the law. Imagine, after being on the "wrong" side of the law (either truly deserving punishment, or being locked up in error) and getting empowered to help enforce a law for your child.
Seems to me that hearing the heavy clank of the steel door close behind us as we enter this other world is a fair price for what is hopefully going to be a glimpse of sunshine in the often dark lives of destitution.
PHOTOS 1 and 3 by Pat Van Doren; 2 by Diane Nilan