Wednesday, April 30, 2008
Binghamton, NY seems to me like the proverbial "every-city," nothing special, but a decent place in many ways. This city of less than 50,000 in south central New York made the news recently--tragic news that has popped up in other cities as well--fires that not only destroy houses but also lives.
An eight-year old boy was critically injured in this fire, which displaced 10 people. Sadly, as I've inquired as to what happened to the family involved, the best people can say is "the Red Cross helped them."
Unfortunately, and fairly unknown to many people, the RC solution is far from the kind of help anyone needs whose place to live was just destroyed. I'm not bashing the Red Cross. But I want to dispel the myth that all is well. TV News Clip of my visit The Red Cross probably could never help people get back on their feet after a tragedy like this.
Imagine the early morning scene: smoke, flames, sirens, emergency vehicles, an ambulance speeding away with a little boy who used to look out the upstairs window of this aging house in an industrial area that doesn't qualify for a neighborhood where kids play outside....
After the fire is reduced to smoldering, the parents' next thought is "where do we go now?" The family learns that a motel is arranged. by the Red Cross. They stumble in, exhausted, stressed and worried about the little boy who was transported to a Syracuse burn unit, over 70 miles away. They have only the clothes on their backs.
And days later, the family learns that the motel room offer is short-lived--they have to go. In Binghamton, as in far too many communities across the country, no family shelters exist.
Read that-NO FAMILY SHELTERS EXIST-- and think of what you'd do if you had nowhere to turn and you lost your home for whatever reason--fire, flood, domestic violence, eviction....
Where do people go in this predicament? From what I know listening to people's stories of homelessness and working with families in the shelters I used to operate, families split up, farming kids to anyone who will take them. The entire family may move in with family or friends for a while, but that often is unworkable. Landlords don't allow it, people in public housing can't have long-term "company," or safety issues make it untenable. Little kids told me of being bullied by the kids of the host family. Food gets stolen, physical/sexual/mental abuse occurs, and the already insecure family has to move on.
Try to absorb what stress that will cause in both children and adults. Think of your own life--any upheaval and crisis you've experienced. Add to that memory the devastation of losing your home, your stuff, your security. Think of trying to hold a job down, going to school, even taking care of loved ones becomes stressful during these times. Look for a new place to live, drive up to the hospital (not to mention the cost of gas, which exceeds the national average at $3.71), see your little boy hooked up to machines that are keeping him alive....
Most people living on the edge have no insurance. They have little, if any, savings. They have few places to turn for help. And this family is supposed to pull themselves up by their bootstraps? Agencies in cities like this are strapped with pleas for help and too little resources. A New York Times story the other day described the effects of winter and poverty on people's ability to keep their houses warm. Turning families away is a horrible thing to have to do day after day.
Seems to me when the smoke clears that every community might want to look at what really happens when these inevitable tragedies occur. If the safety net is so frayed or, worse yet, nonexistent, then it's time for action. In a country that is witnessing a presidential campaign spending millions by the minute; where gamblers plunk down billions pursuing the dream of hitting the jackpot; where war destroys lives and hope on both sides; where super-rich hedge fund operators struggle to find ways to spend their obscene amounts of our money...please don't tell me we don't have money to help families survive.
Wednesday, April 23, 2008
Babies are the ultimate sign of hope. Their very existence demonstrates that 2 people love each other enough to create a life that reflects that love.
That's the theory, and sometimes it is true, or sometimes it's a variation of the above, or sometimes, well, let's not go there.
Recently Laura and I visited with Chery and Ben, known to audiences across the land because of their role in My Own Four Walls, the HEAR US documentary series released last year. They've agreed to participate in our new documentary, On the Edge, a look at families during and after homelessness.
Chery and Ben now live in a $375 a month abode in Harrisburg, in an abandoned neighborhood too awful to call a slum.
Recently they added a member of their household. Seth, now a precious 3-month-old baby, clamors for attention and gets a healthy dose of it from his 2 loving parents.
Their story is filled with incredible and predictable happenings, some good, some tough. Seth is the good part. He's got a promising start if you don't look out the window to the neighborhood that surrounds their home like a dark, stormy cloud.
Garbage is piled in the streets; evidently this area is not on the regular trash pick-up route. Boarded up windows and doors are the norm, with graffiti covering every spot within reach. Police presence is limited to an occasional squad car meandering through. Thumping bass from passing cars vibrates what's left of this young couple's plastic-covered windows. Ben and Chery talk about the regular echo of gunshots, police sirens, and bloody fights outside right below their apartment. Ben calls the police when he sees something but it seems like emptying the ocean with a sand pail.
Stoop-sitters decorate the otherwise bleak streets, reminders that humans still occupy this forgotten chunk of the city.
Lest readers think that this city is a mere speck on the nation's vast landscape, it's not. Harrisburg is the capital of Pennsylvania, with a dwindling population of approximately 47,000. Laws get made here. Rich and famous people come here. Barack Obama was here for a rally this past Saturday night on the steps of the picturesque Capitol.
Just blocks from this government center, Chery, Ben and Seth hunker down in their apartment, desperately wanting a way out. Ben's job with a student loan company will likely be yanked from his capable hands because the company is losing money, a side effect of the economic destruction plaguing this country. Chery decries the limits of poverty that trap them in a hopeless situation that requires money and some good fortune coming their way. Both prioritize family and wrap their loving arms around their symbol of HOPE.
Seems to me that this situation challenges Obama's Audacity of Hope. Chery and Ben had the audacity to hope that this precious life they brought into the world would have opportunities to thrive. But deep in their hearts they are hoping to survive. How many young parents like Chery and Ben are out there, limited by income and circumstances, filled with hope, and looking out the window at the gloom of the ghetto? Who and what will it take to change this reality? Who is willing to walk with these courageous young people? Or will we ignore them like the City of Harrisburg has ignored the trash pick-up?
Monday, April 21, 2008
Imagine being a homeless family in Alaska.
Seems like land of ice and snow has its share of unenlightened legislators. Fortunately some more enlightened people didn't ignore the opportunity to reply to...
Rep. Mike Kelly, R-North Pole, (who) said he ... believes too many people cash in on the homeless programs. "I've seen too much abuse of the programs — 50-inch TVs and a Lexus in the driveway with some folks that are just staying low enough to get in on some of the programs," said Kelly.
Well, he must be doing some impressive outreach to homeless Alaskans. Imagine going out in the sub-zero cold, all bundled up, looking for homeless Alaskans with a Lexus parked in the driveway and peeking into their house (OK, where does the house come in??) and seeing a 50" TV.
Does this fool think that homeless families are lying? It's time to insist he prove his asinine claim. Here's his contact info...
Seems to me the people of the North Pole must have been asleep at the voters' booth. Hope they wake up in time for the next election.
Wednesday, April 16, 2008
The 2008 edition of My Own Four Walls was unveiled today in Boston. This is the enhanced version of the HEAR US production that has captured hearts of audiences across the country in the past year. Hearing kids share their thoughts on homelessness seems to have touched bunches of people based on the feedback I'm getting at the Horizons for Homeless Children conference.
All I'm going to say tonight is I'm so proud of each of the 75 kids who volunteered to be a part of this incredible documentary project. They need to know that their courage will have long-lasting effects far beyond what is calculable. I'm so delighted that our paths have crossed!
My deep gratitude to Laura Vazquez, media professor at Northern Illinois University, for her incredible expertise that converted my raw footage into this award-winning documentary.
Seems to me that it's time to unleash those with the most to gain in this "end homelessness" movement. Don't get me wrong--I'm not talking about the housing bureaucrats. HEAR US will seek even more ways to give voice and visibility to homeless kids and adults. We can learn lots listening to experts.
Sunday, April 6, 2008
The question was simple enough: what kind of work did you do with homeless children?, a question recently posed to me by a college student working on a paper.
My initial reply was the standard stuff, the recitation of running a shelter for 15 years, blah, blah blah....
Then looking over the email to make sure I didn't send something stupid, I reconsidered my generic answer. This was a college student I was writing to, someone who's making life-altering career plans. "Running a shelter," doesn't quite describe the reality of running a shelter. Nothing much could, despite my gallant effort in my book, Crossing the Line: Taking Steps to End Homelessness.
So I scraped the cobwebs from that part of my brain that I haven't visited for awhile, the part that kept me going for 15 years of insanity/immense satisfaction, and came up with this list:
I’ve tucked in kids, growled at them when they wouldn’t go to sleep, hugged them when they needed a hug, played with them, held them in a safety hold designed to keep them from harming themselves and others, found Halloween costumes for them, driven them to school when they’ve missed the bus, helped with homework, fought for their right to get into/stay in school, arranged for funerals and gone to graduations or other celebrations.
We tend to dismiss, or even overlook totally, the work that goes on to keep people alive, to further their chances to succeed in an increasingly unforgiving society, to buffet the vulnerable from the far too common horrible realities. That's not an all inclusive list, nor is it unique to me. An incredible force of dedicated people across this country do this and more every day and night.
That's not an all inclusive list, nor is it unique to me. An incredible force of dedicated people across this country do this and more every day and night.
So, if you know shelter staff, or someone who works in grueling conditions that typify the human service work, give them a thanks or a hug, or in some way let them know that you appreciate their dedication.
And if you want to do something directly that will take a few moments of your time and will have far-reaching effects for homeless kids across the country, participate in our Piggies' Action Project. Even better, circulate it to your friends, colleagues, anyone who cares about kids and wants to draw a line in the sand for Congress to heed, one which redefines homelessness to actually try to help kids.
Seems to me that the way things are going in this beleaguered country we're going to find ourselves on the short end of personnel to operate life-saving human service programs, the safety net if you will. The least we can do, since we don't manage to pay living wages to people in this kind of work, is to let them know we appreciate their efforts.