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, February 19, 2009

How Does Family Homelessness Happen? An Example...

People often ask me, "How do families become homeless?" My usual response: they get hit with a succession of hardships when they're on the edge, and it surrounds them, finally taking them down.

Let me try to illustrate by sharing the details of a real-life, currently unfolding, incident, with names and specific details changed/omitted to protect those involved.

"Phyllis," a life-hardened mid-30s mom of 3 kids, including a child with special needs, has spent much of her adult life homeless or at risk of homelessness. Scrappy and headstrong, she and her family always got by, and the kids, much loved, were not neglected or abused. This single parent, who is due thousands in child support, has worked a variety of jobs, met a ton of challenges, and managed to, despite everything thrown at her, recently graduated with honors from college.

About a year ago, she was hired by a group that advocates for homeless people. This, in many ways, was a match made in heaven, because Phyllis is a tremendous advocate, with lots of direct experience and knowledge of her area's scant resources.

As nonprofit organizations tend to be, this is somewhat dysfunctional. Her well-intentioned and capable boss seems to lack personnel management skills, though is well-regarded, even by Phyllis, for his other talents. The board appears confused, as boards often do.

A misunderstanding has erupted between Phyllis and her boss, simultaneous to the agency's financial woes. Employees' paychecks and mileage reimbursements were recently delayed, never a good sign, especially when the employees weren't told of the paycheck delay. In this day of automatic deposit/withdrawal, that could be disastrous. For Phyllis, it would have been had they not gotten paid the Monday following the pay-less Friday.

Money pressures, teenagers with all their normal insanity-inducing qualities, a high-maintenance special needs child, and a stressful job on good days, all that would be enough on anyone's plate. Add a boss-employee clash, and it's enough to put someone over the edge. Phyllis is almost there.

The issues between boss/employee are important, but not the point. They're solvable. But in the push-shove world, when an employer is faced with financial woes, it doesn't take much to look at the roster and make cuts, typically to the person who is the lowest on the totem pole, or to the person causing the most consternation to the boss.

Any time you have a showdown between boss and employee, watch out if you're the employee, no matter how right you are. But this is/should be a little different.

Aside from the facts that the boss has seemed to act unreasonably heavy-handed, writing Phyllis up as a father would do to an errant child, piling one write-up on top of the other, before the time limit specified for rectifying the issue at hand, and then verbally suspending her when she admittedly "pitched a fit" (not a major one from what I could tell)
at the last confrontation, he's made a few mistakes along the way.

He's seems quick to point to the Employee Manual when it is suits him, and ignores good management practices, like having a deliberate fair approach, designed to solve the problem before it gets too bad. Preventive supervision if you will. He apparently overlooked the fact that he had okayed Phyllis' nontraditional work arrangements--both in writing in an email and by approving logs that also verified her actions. Accusing someone of deceit with that evidence probably isn't smart.

What, in my mind, makes this worse, to the point of inexcusable, is that if you hire someone who has never worked for a nonprofit, and that person is formerly homeless, despite astounding accomplishments, unless the employee is guilty of a flagrant violation, the employer of the homelessness advocacy group would do well to nurture the employee, not neglect her to the point of crisis.

And someone on the board should be overseeing personnel issues--performance of the boss and employees--to make sure things aren't heading toward disaster.

As someone who has been a boss and has worked at nonprofits for decades, knowing financial pressures, among other things, I know that human nature turns ugly at those times. A "kick-the-dog" mentality can unknowingly creep in, causing bad things to happen.

So Phyllis is faced with fighting for the job she loves with a boss who's faced with no money in the bank. I'd bet my lunch money on who will win, and who will lose.

Homelessness, that ugly dark cloud looming on the horizon, inches closer. This homelessness-inducing economy, ruthless as it is, offers little hope that Phyllis will land on her feet quick enough to prevent disaster, despite her best efforts. She has a very frayed safety net. Car note and insurance are due monthly or else. And when that "one more thing" happens, as it always does, then this family is truly on the edge of homelessness, again.

Seems to me that nonprofits need to do what some are expecting the banks to do with foreclosures--call a moratorium. Creating more family homelessness is never a good idea. Causing one of your own employees and her family to become homeless is a damn shame.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Caumoflaged Homelessness

With all the talk about PTSD-suffering military veterans, I'd like to take the discussion a step further--to families of beleaguered soldiers. From conversations I've had with military wives, I believe another invisible tragedy is unfolding.

The parent--often, but not always the mom--ends up leaving an abusive spouse-soldier, something the military doesn't talk about much. When mom and kids move out of base housing, leaving a volatile situation, sometimes they end up moving in with friends or family because the mom doesn't have enough income to get a place on her own. Losing housing due to hardship can often be defined as "homeless," even when the family moves in with others, called doubling-up.

One woman at a presentation I did recently came up afterward and thanked me for sharing the info on McKinney-Vento Homeless Education rights. She painfully shared that she's planning to divorce her military husband and, unless she lands a job that can support the family, they too may be homeless.

Now, isn't that a sad state of affairs, as military spouses and children join the ranks of our nation's homeless population because they fear for their safety staying with their PTSD-suffering spouse?

The courageous spokesperson Julianna has shared her similar story
(most recently at a domestic violence rally in AZ) about an abusive spouse in the military, relating the conundrum that military spouses find themselves in when it comes to DV. The military takes care of its own, and that can mean that the mom and kids get tossed to the street.

In Julianna's case, the final split took place after the parents left the military, but she had checked out the so-called safety net while they were on base, and it was too frightening. So she remained in a horrible situation until it hit the tipping point. Her resolve to leave was bolstered when her kids' condition--that they could stay in their same schools--was met thanks to McK-V.

I'd love to hear from people with direct knowledge about military spouses who leave a bad situation and become homeless--moving in with others, into motels, or landing in shelters or on the streets. What's the best way to get information to this population so they at least understand how to get/keep their kids in school?

Seems to me we need to stem the tide of homelessness that threatens the well-being of more and more kids and parents, and single adults. With the military, they have a strong obligation to their troops and their families. Keeping them from homelessness should be at the top of the list.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

When Advocacy Works

Fifteen years ago, weekly (in-between running a very busy homeless shelter) I was trucking down to Springpatch, the much-tarnished capital of IL, to lobby for the rights of homeless kids to get into school.

Little did the small band of do-gooders realize what we would unleash. Now, the Illinois Education for Homeless Children Act is the law of the land, under the auspices of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Improvements Act which became law in 2002. It has theoretically revolutionized the way homeless students get into school. They, er, get in.

I present this history lesson to reassure nay-sayers about our chances to change HUD's definition of homelessness to include families and teens. With a strong grassroots push, anything is possible. And that grassroots push is available in our HEAR US Piggies campaign.

This weekend I'm spending time at a homeless shelter campus in McKinney, TX. Tillie and I are parked and plugged in at their transitional apartment building. Lynne S., the director of Samaritan Inn, a pretty darn impressive approach to homelessness, and the only shelter in this affluent county, told me they don't take government grants because of the strings attached. I understand.

If HUD doesn't fund the shelter, that means the 20-some families in their overnight shelter and the dozen or so in their transitional program don't count. Yup. We don't see them. The kids who are riding their bikes round and round their building, circling Tillie with great curiosity, they're not here. Families or teens bouncing from motels to friends' couches and around again, or staying in campers or abandoned buildings, they don't count either.

Oh yes they do! They count, and with the help from countless compassionate ordinary people across the land, we're going to change HUD's definition of homelessness, and this nation's approach to homelessness, to make sure homeless kids count.

Seems to me that it's time for this feeling of powerlessness to be replaced by the can-do attitude reflected in this latest presidential campaign. Sure, Obama has hit a few speedbumps along the way, and that's not surprising considering some of the same people who caused the economic demise we're seeing now are still hanging around the Capitol. But that can't stop us from making the changes so long addressing homelessness, in its ever-growing forms, before it becomes the way we all live.