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, April 30, 2009

The Longest 100 Days--Now What?

I'd be the last one to fault President Obama for overlooking one very important task, reshaping this nation's homelessness policies. He's had a few things to do since moving into Pennsylvania Avenue.

My Facebook page just served a rare purpose: giving me good news. My quick peruse of my friends' posts led me to the one from Timothy Harris about the pending resignation of Phil Mangano, who for the past 7 years led our nation's deteriorating homelessness policies as the head of the Interagency Council on Homelessness.

I have heard PM speak a few times. I've read some fairly negative stuff
(though I can't argue the point), including this blog. I've spoken with city officials who had to deal with him, much to their dismay. I've heard from providers who decry (privately, as not to jeopardize their funding) the Continuum of Care and Point-in-Time count, and the way they have to shift their focus to fit HUD's demands.

But the clincher was last summer when my video partner, Laura Vazquez, and I tried to interview him for our documentary about homeless families. This pre-arranged interview
was in Springfield, IL. We shared our purpose and questions, so as not to "Michael Moore" him.

And, after he blew off our morning appointment, we had to follow him around all day. Finally, 13 hours after our initial time, having listened to way more PM than I would ever choose, we got him for a few minutes. As I wired him and he was sitting down, he said, "I sure hope you're not going to ask me about those kids..." or something very much to that effect.

Laura was much better than I could have been. "Yes, Mr. Mangano, that's exactly what we're here for, just as we had told your 'people' as we arranged this..." or something like that.

The interview as I remember was just a waste of time.

Me, I seethed as I stood behind the camera that was too expensive to toss his way. I couldn't quite control myself when, after the interview, he made a remark that insinuated that communities wanting to serve homeless families and teens could do so if they chose. I disagreed, knowing a bit how HUD funds programs, or not, depending on compliance with policies and priorities, stated and implied.

Then Laura disagreed with a remark he made about statistics. Between the 2 of us, we probably ruined his night. He stormed off, shouting at us as he crossed the hall to leave. We stood there, not really knowing what to make about the show of anger that far exceeded a typical disagreement.

It gave us plenty to talk about on the 3-hour ride back to DeKalb. It's given me plenty of food for thought, to the point when President Obama was elected and his site was opened for people wanting to work for his administration, I submitted my application for Executive Director of the Interagency Council.

It wasn't that I don't like what I'm doing with HEAR US. Quite the contrary. But after seeing the mess that this country has made of trying to address homelessness and poverty I couldn't hold back if I felt I'd be able to do a better job. That's how I've gotten many of my jobs in the past--complaining about a wrong but being willing to do something about it.

The person being considered (or perhaps already decided) reportedly is someone tied to the "chronic homelessness" crowd that has been opposing our campaign to expand the definition of homelessness. Described by one of my colleagues as "Phil-lite," it's hard to imagine that this person would take a drastic step away from the current direction of addressing "chronic" homelessness of single adults. He's a big city his knowledge of rural and non-urban homelessness may be limited.

But the biggest reason for concern at this point is that whoever gets the job needs to expand this nation's focus on homelessness to include the millions of invisible families and
teens. It's a big job.

Seems to me that our window of opportunity has at least 4 years (minus 100 days). Time's a-wasting, especially in the eyes of the children who have no place to call home.

baby crying photo courtesy of Pat Van Doren

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Incredible Efforts in the Trenches

Fire departments can be all-volunteer or funded by municipalities. Every community has some form of fire protection. Every public school district has homeless liaisons. Dedicated fire-fighters and McKinney-Vento homeless education liaisons have similarities--both do amazing work despite incredible odds. This blog offers both a tribute and opportunity for these liaisons.

One bonus of my travels is that I often get to spend quality time hanging out with McK-V liaisons.

They are often the unsung s-heroes and heroes of a school community--going to places many wouldn't even know exist; finding, assisting and keeping track of invisible kids who otherwise would not get into school; fighting ravages of poverty and homelessness threatening to swamp families/youth; butting heads with clueless educators or administrators; wrestling with budget issues and bad attitudes; providing life-sustaining assistance and moral support to their students; training district personnel in McK-V policies; and always going above and beyond to make sure kids have the best chance to succeed in school and life. (This list is by NO MEANS inclusive....)

Another perk of my HEAR US job is to get to talk to kids who have experienced homelessness. If you haven't seen "My Own Four Walls," the first documentary I filmed featuring all kids talking about their experiences of homelessness and education
, it's worth getting (I guarantee it!). One thing all these spokespersons had in common--they loved their homeless liaisons!

Sadly, another common trait is that McK-V programs and staff are often grossly
unappreciated and under-supported. They're the ones locating the families after the fire, eviction, or domestic violence, trying to figure out how to help the families or teens patch things together again, at least enough to preserve the educational haven for the students.
We, the unwilling, led by the unknowing, are doing the impossible for the ungrateful. We have done so much, for so long, with so little, we are now qualified to do anything with nothing.
Commonly caused by lack of knowledge or sensitivity to homeless students, I've seen McK-V disregard at the district level show up as:
  • Program focus gets shifted (weakened), too often without discussion, by administrators who may be trying to do the right thing....or not.
  • Personnel gets shifted to non-McK-V programs if they are perceived as "too effective" or troublesome to non-compliant administrators.
  • Little or no time gets made in professional development schedules to inform district personnel about McK-V issues.
  • Funding gets, um, redirected by administrators, knowing that McK-V staff can't cause a stink.
  • Superintendents name themselves as liaisons, or appoint someone who either has no time or desire to perform the task.
  • Violations of McK-V are overlooked by district or state bureaucrats, especially if the offender is a "respected" administrator.
It's hard to find a safe place to voice frustrations of McK-V work. But this blog allows anonymous comments and I'd be interested to hear what's going on out in McK-V land across the country. Good or bad. If a district or administrator has done exemplary, let's give voice to that too!

I'll start...what's with apparent blatant disregard of McK-V that seems to be overlooked, if not sanctioned, by McK-V authorities? If families broke the law like some districts do they'd be behind bars.

Seems to me that if we have a law it should be followed. What will it take to ensure the protection of educational rights of homeless kids? Maybe I'm opening a can of worms, but it's a discussion that needs to happen with hope for improvement on the local, state and federal level. Let's hear from others....

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Times are Tough--Too Bad!

Even people living under a rock have figured out times are tough. Well, not everyone. It appears that the powers-that-be in West Aurora (IL) School District 129 have decided to crack down on residency scofflaws, including what I'd bet my lunch money are homeless kids.

Seems like the relatively new superintendent wants to impress voters with his fiscal responsibility. So he's ordered a review of suspicious residency claims. OK so far.

But an indication of probable trouble appeared in the Aurora Beacon News last August in a story about a mom and her 2 kids who moved in with her parents after marital trouble.
(Read my blog from last August detailing this story.)

Now the district has
announced on their website a "residency tip line" to weed out non-residents. I understand the theory, and as a previous taxpayer in that district before I sold my home to pursue my HEAR US mission, I feel I can speak about this.

When untrained, and sometimes even trained, observers view a family's unconventional lifestyle, e.g. moving in with a family or friends, but sometimes popping in at their previous residence, it may appear that the family is up to something, especially if school-age kids are in the picture. And they may be trying to send kids to a better district.

Or they may be homeless, often times as a result of domestic violence, or severe marital problems. Typically, one parent and kids leave the hardship situation and move in with someone because they cannot afford their own place. Or they move into a motel, or combination of motels and doubling up.
I won't even go into the immigration issue which would send out vigilante posses faster than announcing free beer at a softball game.

So the district encourages anonymous reports of residency law violations. I've talked with many "professional" residency investigators who are absolutely clueless--or care less--about laws governing homeless students access to school, and who fail to make a good-faith attempt to rule out homelessness as they toss out the kids.
I can't even imagine the possibility for trouble with non-professionals, neighbors with an ax to grind??

I've talked to kids who reported being yanked from class in front of their peers, humiliated as they were forced to clear out their lockers in crowded hallways, and escorted off the property. And in every case I was involved in--hundreds--we were able to vindicate the family and restore their right to attend that school because of homelessness.

Many of these cases were "investigated" and others were results of anonymous reports.
School officials need to learn a lesson--about homelessness, a subject not taught in college nor typically covered in professional development. At the risk of sounding self-serving, HEAR US has several tools to raise awareness of homelessness. I do presentations to guide educators in the aspects of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Act. And I offered my services to the West Aurora District, being told "we're handling it."

Seems to me that handling could be viewed as mauling, depending on what side of the desk you're on. That's a lesson that will stick with all who have to experience it.