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....

Monday, November 22, 2010

Land of 'Yes Ma'am' and Tragedies

Deep South manners are the same, no matter the state. "Yes ma'am, and ya'll come back" punctuate most sentences. Such is the case as I paid my fee at this little campground outside Starkville, MS, where I await my meeting with Mayor Parker Wiseman to talk about what's happened to protect desperate families that lose housing.

Last December, fire swept through a 2-bedroom apartment in Starkville, taking the lives of 9 people crowded into the dwelling. Six children under the age of 6 and 3 women perished. Cause of the fire? Hard times. 

After blogging about it, I met with Mayor Wiseman earlier this year when I was crossing Mississippi. Why not, I thought, because someone needs to make sure these women and kids didn't die in vain. My organization, HEAR US, collected money to help with burial costs. He graciously agreed to meet me, and by chance the Alderwoman who represents the family's district happened to be at City Hall, so she joined us.

We talked about resources and need. Mayor Wiseman had done his homework and was appalled at the gaping holes in the safety net. I wasn't. He vowed to bring stakeholders together to strategize how to, as best as possible, avoid this tragedy in the future. I vowed I wouldn't forget his promise.

So I'm back. The economy has gone through another shellacking, or drubbing, or whatever you call it when the rich get theirs and nothing is left. Mississippi, according to a recent report issued by the National Center on Family Homelessness, ranks 41/50 on the problem of child homelessness. Their stats are a year-old. Things continue to spiral downward.

Winter hasn't hit with its bone-chilling fury, and when it does, the thousands of people in MS who can't afford heat will do what any of us would do--figure out how to heat our humble abodes by any means possible. And this problem is certainly not limited to Mississippi, as reported in this story about a recent Florida fire that killed five children.

I'm not sure how polite I can be today. I'll try. But when the economic tailspin causes budget cuts, I know where those cuts fall--to those who have no power to fight for their stake. In cities and towns across America families teens, and single adults have no place to call home. On the other side of town, some families have multiple homes. And houses sit vacant, emptied by the foreclosure debacle that has upended life across our land. The folks from NCFH have a plan. It requires political will. Harrumph.

Sorry for being a radical (no, I'm not really sorry), but I think when we have housing surpluses we should make sure people in our communities are housed. That's an approach that needs to be certified by government. So I'll ask.

Seems to me we've tolerated seeing homeless families and poverty far beyond the point of tragedy. I'd suggest one gauge: if your family was on the brink of homelessness, what would you want? Don't accept less. Yes, ma'am. Ya'll come back...we'll see.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Let's Roast (Some) Politicians on a Stick

Sitting in a campground in my awesome Tillie work space, I tend to look out the window quite a bit. That's one of the perks of my "corner" office. So today as I slogged through some boring, but necessary, admin tasks, I found myself checking out the young woman with a little boy across the way.

No camping gear or motor home, just a beater-car, its insides brimming with stuff. They parked at the vacant campsite and made their way up to the shower building, reversing their path soon thereafter with wet hair and a change of clothes. Hmm...I thought....

A few minutes later I noticed her going back and forth to the little faucet (see photo), bending over, as the little guy sat calmly on the trunk, entertained by something. My curiosity got the best of me and I took a break from my computer, wandering out to the trash barrel between our campsites.

"H-e-e-y-y," I uttered in my best Louisiana drawl. She looked up, the little boy smiled. I figured she's walked by Tillie, my home/office on wheels, and couldn't help but noticed the abundant and obvious signage proclaiming my cause. "So I know I'm seeming to be nosy, but I'm wondering if..." and she cut me off.

"We're not homeless," she adamantly professed. "We're just out here because we like the quiet and the trees." I just nodded non-judgmentally and agreed with the quiet and trees thing. But peering into her car, I gathered she was something more than a nature-loving mom. Maybe the dripping undies and outies drying on her car windows provided the clue. Or the chunks of firewood on the car floor, purchased from the guy who drives through hawking his campfire ingredients.

I subtly explained my role in life, and she nodded in agreement that belied her first sentence. I wanted to say "I'm not CPS (child protective services)," but I just said that I'm from Illinois and I work around Lafayette quite often. I told her a bit about our newest documentary, "on the edge," featuring 7 women who were homeless, including mothers from around here.

Maybe it's the time she spends with her little 7-year old cutie, but soon she shared a whole lot of her story. Although displaced by Katrina 5 years ago, that was only secondary to the storm that hit her life. The sperm donor, aka the boy's father, did as so many men do, turn from lovie-dovie to intimidating beast shortly after she gave birth. Their eventual split was evidently abetted by her mother-in-law. Her parents are in the area, and it seems they provide some support.

"Andrea" appeared naive and bright throughout our extended conversation. "Ben" continued contentedly writing on blank pages of a little tablet, then turned normal, raiding the remnants of the Halloween candy she generously offered me. Her story spilled out as he romped obediently, not straying far from mom.

After Ben was born, and the marriage shredded, she bounced around, avoiding what she thinks homelessness is by racking up huge credit card bills staying in motels when she can, otherwise staying with friends (the classic form of homelessness among families). The pittance of child support is barely worth the intrusion she endures from the state's child support Gestapo. Ben, obviously bright, attends school regularly, with Andrea grousing about the school's no-tolerance policies for tardiness. She proudly boasted that he has only 3 of the allowed 5 tardies this semester. Quite impressive given their highly-mobile circumstances.

She rues the day she put the father's name on the birth certificate, not realizing that it means that she's tied to him, for better or worse, by virtue of this bureaucratic web. She applied for Medicare, but quit when they demanded information about the boy's father, her sex life, and other intrusions known well by women in poverty. Ditto for child support expectations. She'd move away, but cannot without creating a huge to-do.

Her goal today was cooking hot dogs and marshmallows by the campfire, but as stress-laden women (and men) often demonstrate, intentions aren't enough. She forgot the hot dogs and marshmallows, and asked if I minded "fire-sitting" while she ran to the nearest store. I capably pointed her to the neighborhood grocery up the street from this wooded haven. She yanked down the laundry as not to drive down the street with her bra and undies hanging on the window, and Ben hopped compliantly into the child seat in the back, the only vacant spot in this ancient escape vehicle.

I offered paper plates and tongs which Ben came over to get. He gazed admirably at my humble but adequate home on wheels. I felt uncomfortably affluent in light of their bleak situation. He's bounced over to say a sweet "thank you" a couple times, and returned the tongs, all nice and clean.

This crazy country, where we provide more for animals--strays and pets--than we do for families. We listen to clueless politicians rant about undeserving children shackled with preexisting medical conditions. We vote for budget hawks who promise everything and threaten the remaining shreds of the safety net. We shake our heads when we see stressed parents struggling to pull life together enough to not appear negligent.

What can you do? Fair question. Sign my petition expressing outrage about the insane proclamation about insurance. Get a copy of on the edge, watch it and share it. Lend a hand at the local shelter (if your area is lucky enough to have one), or send them a donation. Drop off diapers and wipes, or pull-ups at the pantry. Tutor a kid. Or just be aware the next time you're in a campground, and offer tongs and paper plates.

Seems to me that those who have so little can teach us so much. My gratitude for my lot in life expands significantly after these chance encounters. My intolerance for disregard of true family values--the kind that say parents with kids should have all kinds of help as they navigate the bumpy path ahead--also increases. Andrea and Ben provide fuel to my fire, confirming my belief that homeless families are everywhere. Time to roast marshmallows on the front steps of the Capitol.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

(Too) Great Expectations?

Although I don't have time to spend getting involved in what is always a vortex of chaos and stress of homeless families, sometimes I do it anyhow. I'm in the midst of not one, but two, um, challenging conundrums right now. Plenty of lessons to be learned....

Situation 1, Melissa A and her family of 5 young kids (10 YO - 7 months) crammed precariously in a motel in DuPage County, the 23rd most affluent county in the country.

Homeless since July after job loss and inevitable bailing before eviction,  this stalwart 24-year-old mom is in the process of redefining "wrecking ball lives." I've hung with her on a few occasions, enough to give me deep admiration for how anyone can manage to juggle incessant wants and needs of her tribe while battling what seems to be the evil forces with little-to-no money.

The latest, it appears renting a car for a credit card-challenged friend 2 months ago as a favor has returned to haunt Melissa. Friday, when checking her precarious bank balance, one fed by meager unemployment checks, she heard a horrible message: "overdrawn by $2000." In shock, she checked into it. Apparently, the car rental company I'll call "hurts" decided to snatch her money to repair what they allege is $2500 damage to the car. According to Melissa, she received NO NOTICE of this pending action. And she's quick to point out that if she inadvertently tries to use her credit/debit card when she lacks funds, the transaction is denied.

I don't know all the facts. And, having signed several car rental agreements laden with lawyerly language printed in tiny type, it's not hard to imagine she signed away her life, tenuous as it is right now. And the hurtful car rental company smelled blood.

To be continued...

Situation 2, my friend Tina and her 5, soon to be 6, boys in Las Cruces, NM. Last we left Tina, she and her boys moved from the minuscule 13' camper into a "real" home, a 3-bedroom single-wide trailer. It had to feel like paradise. This move took an act of God. During it all, she and her little guys endured oppressive heat, bone-chilling cold, and ever-growing claustrophobia as they rode out a seemingly endless bureaucratic trail to end their homelessness.

Tina, about to give birth (take your little comments about her pregnancy and stuff them in your judgmental arse), is looking to the future, 2 months and counting, when her rental agreement and stimulus-fund housing payments are kaput. Now what is she going to do? She flung a text message my way in hopes that I could bring about a miracle.

Part of her unworthiness, according to the local public housing agency, is a $5205 past due balance in another state, where she and her ex lived before she fled. She can't rent from the Las Cruces housing authority unless this balance is paid. She has no way of paying that.

OK, I understand responsibility, but why is it at the expense of a mother and her children, and not her ex? And why are we willing to spend considerably more than $5205 on the damages that will occur to this family (think medical bills, just for starters) in a town that has NO EMERGENCY SHELTER for families? Can anyone besides me see the tragic folly in this?

We are society. It's not "them," the bureaucrats or elected officials. We are responsible for what happens to people in our communities. Involving bureaucrats and elected officials is essential. And we, their employers, must do that. We've allowed rules and laws to overcome common sense and realities, and then wonder why we have such a mess.

Neither mother is an evil person. Nor do they have resources adequate to care for their families. We can condemn their multiple pregnancies all we want, but that does nothing to help. Melissa and kids are at the mercy of rapidly depleting donations that HEAR US has been collecting. Tina and crew are riding the declining wave of federal stimulus funds designed to prevent families from being homeless. These are just 2 of what I can assure you are hundreds of thousands....

HEAR US--yours truly--and Laura Vazquez, media professor at Northern Illinois University, have created a perfect enlightenment tool, "on the edge," a 60-minute documentary featuring 7 women's stories of homelessness. Melissa and Tina would have fit right in. The stories resonate with the realities of countless families nationwide. Urge our leaders to watch "on the edge" by taking 30 seconds to sign this petition. If you have an extra 4 minutes, watch the trailer.

Seems to me we need to inspire and enlighten our President and those responsible for devising our nation's homelessness policies and practices. And if 30 seconds is too much to spend, well, I'll take my judgmental thoughts and....

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Shocking Reality is the Reality for Low-Income Moms

(Oh, my poor neglected invisible homeless kids sorry. Hope you're catching my Friday posts on Poverty in America)

The ongoing saga of Melissa and her family continues to enrich me with, um, shocking experiences. Tonight's phone conversation--her kids squawking kid-like in the background, me enveloped with Tillie-peace--was about lots of things, but mostly money. In the 2-1/2 weeks since our paths have crossed, HEAR US has raised about $2000 to keep her afloat, one step from joining the ranks of millions of homeless families. She's more than appreciative, and is trying her darndest to make it work.

First off, afloat is relative. She and her 5 kids are in a modest motel "suite" for $55 a night. It's better than the streets, for sure. And it's better than the rotating emergency shelter program. Imagine, if you can, schlepping 5 little ones (10, 5, 4, 2, and 6 mo.) in/out of shelters--7 p.m. to 7 a.m., in and out of her beater van with astronomical gas, maintenance and insurance costs, and not knowing if they'd even be able to stay, with shelter overcrowding so common.

Anyhow, the shock...came to me when she said how much she had to pay for formula. Her little guy needs to eat. To be blunt, she can't produce breast milk. So formula is the answer. She told me his formula was $300 a month. I thought she did the math wrong. She didn't. Here's ubiquitious WalMart's pricing ( Follow the link. Scroll down. More shocks....

"Financing" is offered on purchase of $250+. Couple cases of formula (not even enough to get you through the month) and diapers and wipes to catch the outgoing, er, by-products. That will get you over the $250 mark easily. Bill Me Later "service," aka payday loan substitute, is brought to you by the fine folks of EBay. More about this scheme/scam some other day... and onto the next shocker....

Not knowing anything about baby formula, I got busy looking. Doesn't WIC provide formula? Yup. Melissa had been on it, but missed an appointment with her unplanned move interrupting her mail delivery. Next opportunity is not for another 6 weeks. Looking at some official explanations about WIC (Women, Infants and Children), the government effort to keep babies nourished, I was yet again shocked. In 2000, formula sold for about $3-4 a can. Now it's over $25?? ( Holy cow! What's with that? Another story for another day...back to moms...

So babies need to eat. Poor moms. Yeah, poor moms who don't get WIC. Decide between paying the rent and paying the baby formula hucksters. I'd bet my lunch money I'd be shocked at diaper prices too. Poor food pantries try to supplement the inevitable gap in nutrients for babies if donors come forth. Not every family can get to the pantry. I vaguely remember hearing about retailers locking up formula to prevent theft. This could explain it. So we'd lock up the mom caught stealing formula to feed her baby. Now, that is outrageous...which makes it fit in perfectly with today's totally out of balance realities.

Babies, in their most formative phase of their lives, depend on good nutrition. I'd question a product that is primarily corn syrup solids, but that is yet another story for another day. Formula, too expensive for anyone but wealthy families to afford--unless you're getting WIC, which is subsidized by taxpayers, mostly none the wiser about how these companies set up monopolies and jack-up prices that the goverment pays, ransom I'd say, so babies can have a half-chance to grow up sort of healthy.

Seems to me we're being bamboozled, and poverty-stuck parents are being robbed every time they plunk down their hard-earned money to buy a drink that will nourish their babies. Robbing the poor to give to the rich. Where have we heard that before?

Thursday, August 12, 2010

What Do We Expect?

My plan to sit down in my 87 degree motor home and complain about the heat was disrupted by a brief email from a friend here in Naperville, an Illinois city ranked as one of the nation's most family-friendly cities.
diane, there's brief video news clip  at this link showing i heard like 2400 or 24000? people nearly rioting in line for public housing applications in georgia yesterday.if you get permission, use a clip of this as part of documentary as it walloped me as to how serious america is underwater
In just that brief moment I was connected to thousands of desperate people in the Atlanta area, and the invisible millions across the country.

In Atlanta right now, 9:00 p.m., it's 93 steaming freaking hot degrees. I join most people who grumble mightily when it's hot, cold, windy, get the idea. People standing on a hot asphalt parking lot for hours or that's something to complain about.

Let's get one thing out of the way right now. For those who use this as an opportunity to paint the pushing and shoving during this application distribution with an ugly black racial brush, let's just use our vivid imaginations and picture any race and/or class of people desperate for what is going to be given away (much less a CHANCE to get a vital housing certificate that would greatly relieve your housing cost burden and perhaps improve the environment you and your family live in), set you for hours or days on a brutally broiling parking lot in an extremely overcrowded and unorganized setting, hmmm....wonder what would happen?
We all get a little crazy when forced to stand in line for 5 minutes in an air conditioned McDonald's! What if it could mean something better for our families? People tough it out. Incredibly, over 75% of the entire population of this beleaguered town of about 40,000 may have gathered for this event.
Section 8 certificates are like gold for the ever-growing income challenged population in our previously wealthy country. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development oversees the Section 8 program on the broad level. Local housing authorities deliver on the community levels, with citizen board members appointed/elected to supposedly oversee the process.

I'm sure I would get boo's from the crowd (that are probably too poor to have Internet and read blogs) by asking if this is a well-run public housing authority. Most PHAs I've encountered are infuriatingly abysmal, and I'm not depending on them for my housing. Another story for another post.

The fact that the applications for vouchers haven't been made available for 8 years in this income-ravaged area, well, I'd suppose things could be a tad, um, insanely difficult in many households, not to mention the homeless families. Remember, these applications are just the 1st step. They have to be reviewed and applicants must be able to crawl through the eye of a needle to qualify. Even people with bad credit are winnowed out. When my friend said "America is underwater," she ain't kidding.

So much galls me about this display of blatant disregard for the "customers" of this tax-payer funded housing service organization that I am, well, hot. To hear the head of the EPHA say she thinks they did a good job considering...well, I'd have her head on a platter, or at least make her stand in the heat among a riotous crowd for a few days if I were the mayor. To that point, here's the city of East Point's official form for reporting problems. If you're as outraged as I am about how our sisters and brothers were treated in this process, take a few moments and share your feedback with Mayor Earnestine Pittman. Ask her to go up the food chain to Congressman Lewis and find out how to get more housing certificates.

Seems to me that if we have this wonderful (sometimes) tool called the Internet, we could do a better job making it work for the good of people. Writing this post, with my sweaty fingers sticking to the keyboard and perspiration cascading down my face has been good therapy. Next month when I'm in the Atlanta area, I might just see if I can meet with East Point's mayor and the EPHA director. I want to hear their secret for staying  cool in these hot times.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Could It Be?

As the ever-growing ranks of homeless children and youth continue the tragic upwards climb, some glimmers of hope need to be nurtured, much like the damp kindling in a campfire.

Last month, from what I imagine to be the dark DC basement where the Government Accounting Office (GAO) probably operates, a hugely-significant report was issued. This document validated what many of us have been saying for years--that the too-narrow definition of "homeless" confuses Congress, and worse, keeps too many families, youth and individuals from getting the life-saving help they need.

Vindication isn't what we're after, though I'd have to admit it feels good. Some of the so-called (and unnamed in this post anyhow, but look in my previous posts if you're curious) national advocacy groups had fought a change of definition. One Senate staffer told me it would "open a floodgate" if we increased the number of homeless people by changing the definition to what I and others believe is reality. We're not there yet--but having an official government publication on our side helps.

The other glimmer of hope comes from an unlikely place--Congress. The newly-formed Congressional Caucus on Homelessness has the potential to generate more comprehensive discussion, perhaps leading to action, on this long-ignored issue afflicting millions in our country.

One of the caucus chairs, my Congresswoman, Judy Biggert, recently spoke at the premiere screening of "Homeless: Motel Kids in Orange County," a new documentary airing on 7/26 on HBO. As the title suggests, the richest county in the country has kids, with their families, living in motels. I previewed the film and, despite my vast experiences with families in motels, I was aghast at what I saw.

At the DC screening the other night, Judy Biggert addressed the bipartisan, diverse audience assembled. Her remarks pave the way for progress on this solvable plight. Maybe I'm reading too much into her comments,
"...join me in sharing our passion with others, and pushing Congress to redouble its efforts to ensure that homeless kids have access to secure, stable housing and the same educational opportunities that millions of Americans take for granted."
What can you do? A few things quickly and easily:

Seems to me, given the unprecedented gridlock gridding and locking immobilizing our national policymakers, that perhaps our hopes rest in the little children, leading the adults to realize that if we don't do something to change our destructive trajectory we're doomed.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Tree Houses vs. No Houses: Is it Right?

I spent the July 4th holiday at a parade like countless other Americans. Instead of sitting on the sidelines, which I don't do well, I volunteered to take pix for my sister and brother-in-law's builder who wanted their 54 Chevy (or do I need to say Chevrolet?!) to pull his float. It was a beautiful day. The town of Blowing Rock, NC, quaint and vibrant, had people lining the streets, in some places 10-deep, to see this modest parade. Yet I was troubled....

First off, the white-faced crowd belies the reality of multiracial America. Where were people of color?

Most ironic for me, however, was the tree-house. Me, the voice in the wind on behalf of children without houses, accompanying a well-built domicile that will land in a stately tree in the builder's backyard, an instant mecca for neighborhood kids. I'm not begrudging these kids their house, but I wonder what it will take to make sure all kids in America have a house, a secure modest place, to put their heads at night?

The latest grossly understated homeless government figures on the plight of homeless children, teens and adults reminds me of the pathetic attempts by BP to mask the dreadful reality of how much oil spills from the gushing Gulf well. Well, it's not so bad. Like hell. Even 1 family is too many. Millions--unacceptable.

The Obama administration just released "Opening Doors," a revised plan (pdf) on addressing skyrocketing homelessness, and they at least mention families, albeit minimizing the quantity that lack a place to call home. Furthermore, the resources to carry out the plan, well, let's say we'll have to wait and see. But if your family was the one experiencing homelessness, a wait-and-see attitude would be impossible. Outrage, yes. Patience, no.

Millions of kids this summer are spending their time dreading each day instead of splashing around in a cool pool. Their parents struggle for survival, and the kids pick up on that, absorbing anxiety instead of enjoying childhood. Night-by-night "plans" of where to sleep, day-by-day agendas of where to hang out, worrying that "back to school" time will be a battle because of a lack of permanent address. More and more kids are traumatized by homelessness and poverty...and some kids, by virtue of birth and "luck," will have a place to call home, and a refuge in a tree to boot.

Seems to me that strengthening the human infrastructure of America should be the first task on our national agenda. Spending our nation's dwindling resources destroying countries and killing in the name of peace haven't proven effective for them or us. And it makes a lousy excuse that fails to explain why some kids have tree-houses and some have no houses.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Good-bye Mary Lou! We'll Miss You!

Homeless kids across the nation never met Mary Lou Cowlishaw. But they'd love her.

This school-marmish unpretentious woman served as an Illinois State Legislator from Naperville for 20 years. She died yesterday, 6/23/10, after a battle with cancer.

Over 16 years ago Mary Lou led the charge to make sure homeless kids could get an education, bucking the trend to ignore this issue. As a Republican lawmaker in an affluent community where the local district threw up a significant barrier for homeless kids, she didn't need to engage in this controversy, but she did.

A small group of us, including photojournalist Pat Van Doren  who took Charlie's picture (right), developed the concept and campaign behind "Charlie's Bill," which ended up becoming the much-acclaimed IL Education for Homeless Children Act. Mary Lou grabbed the reins and was the relentless sponsor, successfully navigating the bill with a bipartisan team of lead sponsors through a pathetically dysfunctional legislative session back in Spring of 1994.

Mary Lou didn't stop there. I'd get an occasional phone call from her, with her distinctively deep voice commanding my attention. She'd float a story by me, and I'd find myself listening despite the chaos wafting around me, a constant reality of my homeless shelter director duties. At the end of the story she'd leave me with a thought or a challenge.

In the Summer of 1998, my friend called and suggested that newly-elected Congresswoman Judy Biggert (IL, 13-R) should tour Hesed House, where the homeless shelter I directed was located. MLC arranged for me to pick up Mrs. Biggert at Mary Lou's office. After the tour, the flabbergasted legislator asked what she could do. I asked her to include provisions from Charlie's Bill into the eventually to-be-reauthorized McKinney-Vento Education for Homeless Children Act. She did. It's profound. And Mary Lou never got the credit due for this accomplishment.

Another such conversation in 2004, Mary Lou proposed that unaccompanied homeless youth who wanted to go to college needed help removing the FAFSA barriers that kept them from college. She suggested  Congresswoman Judy Biggert as the go-to legislator in DC. I suppose Judy Biggert knew I was coming, and she readily agreed to pick up the mantle, again. And since then she's more than proven her devotion to this issue. Thanks to Mary Lou.

In the past 5 years of my latest venture, HEAR US Inc., my nonprofit national effort to raise awareness about homeless kids, I would make time (not often enough) to pop in on Mary Lou. I was shocked to see her almost hairless after a round of cancer treatment. I didn't know she wrestled with that brutal disease. The last time, this past Spring, her hair was back but her strength wasn't. Her beloved, Wayne, and I sat and the three of us chatted. She encouraged my uphill efforts with her characteristic plainspeak style.

Mary Lou Cowlishaw will be fondly remembered by many people for many reasons. My memories of this amazing woman include a deep sense of gratitude on behalf of millions of homeless kids whose access to education can be directly attributed to my friend and mentor. With soaring homelessness among families and youth we need her now more than ever.

Seems to me it's time to get back to the basics--legislators who believe that government exists to protect and assist the vulnerable. Mary Lou proved it was possible.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Unclear on the Concept

My neighbor--this bird family--recently experienced a violent attack that left 3 hatchlings dead and a mother "homeless," and family-less. The symbolism haunts--and motivates--me....

Over my 25-years working with homeless adults, families and teens, one constant has served as a pebble in my shoe--ivory tower professors who influence our nation's housing policies. Maybe it's my aversion to theory vs. reality, or my disdain of people who seem to lack a reality base to their thinking, I dunno, but here's a recent example:

Dennis Culhane, a prof at the University of Pennsylvania, just penned a report for Massachusetts, "Ending Family Homelessness in Massachusetts: A New Approach for the Emergency Assistance Program." (this is my highlighted copy for ease of perusal). For those of you not following homeless stories from across the nation as I do, major consternation has exploded over the $143 million being expended in MA on emergency assistance (EA), mostly paying for motels for homeless families.

Let me say upfront, motels are often not ideal places for homeless families. There. Dennis and I agree on something. The nay-sayer that I am, I have a few "nays" to offer. I will also comment on another blog I read by Steve Lendman, "Growing Homelessness in America."

Part of me wonders if it's a guy thing. Do most men fail to grasp what's happening to families in America (elsewhere too, but that's someone else's story)? Well, maybe not, because Steve's blog refers to Nan Roman, the head of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, who until lately engaged in a vigorous campaign to deny the existence of homeless families. 

In case you won't read till the end, here's my biggest concern about the MA report. Government, always looking for a quick, less-expensive fix, will pick the less expensive options, especially when it comes to the poor. History of humankind backs me up on this.When have you seen government say, "Gee, these folks need lots of help. Let's do everything possible to help them..."? 

Additionally, Culhane's report seems to miss--let off the hook??--a major government flaw and reality: since state and federal governments have abandoned the responsibility of creating affordable housing (Steve's blog mentions this), at the same time housing costs have shot literally through the roofs, well, homelessness has skyrocketed. Anyone see a connection here? If people are supposed to quickly move through the EA system, where the hell do they move to, the slums they abandoned when things became too  expensive, violent and/or uninhabitable?

So what we have are desperate families, teens, and single adults falling through the abyss of poverty, un/under-employment, unaffordable housing, health care crises, lack of viable treatment options for people with addictions, and on and on...being told to get a life and move on. Assuming the best (not always the case) these families are being pushed by agencies that are already overwhelmed by the tsunami of homeless families and the dearth of resources and viable options.

And what this has created over the years is a huge number of families and individuals who lack the basics--basics that Dennis Culhane, you and I enjoy. Sure, we work for them. But some of those folks now on the other side of the economic tracks do/did work too. They just got screwed by government, corporations, and Lady Luck. You're right--some made poor decisions, but don't we all? And isn't it true that the worse your circumstances, the easier it is to make stupid decisions? Sadly, too many of these families will be hit by the wrecking ball hanging over their heads.

I'm really upset by the tone of Dennis' report, which in my reading seems to coddle MA lawmakers, hoping to at least get something out of them. I seethe at Lendman's reference to the US Conference of Mayors annual drivel on homelessness and hunger too. More money gets spent on creating these reports than helping people in need. And no one seems to pay attention to them unless they need a reference for a blog/report.

My ranting could be endless. But none of us have time for that. Let me leave this golden example of how I fear the system will fail. This story is one I'm following. This family of mom and 5 little boys stands on the edge of disaster. They've been told by distributors of the rapid rehousing funds (HPRP) that they're "not absolutely homeless," therefore not qualifying for housing assistance. Mom owes money in another state for public housing, so she's ineligible for subsidized housing for at least 10 years. 

What I fear will happen is this family will soon be split up--it means the mom loses her kids--sort of like my bird family--with dire consequences (seeing as child welfare/foster care systems are in disarray). Maybe that's the point where my thinking (childless by choice, but I've worked with families all my life) diverges from Culhane and Lendman. Do they not understand how precious family life is? 
If you care, sign my petition to HUD Secretary Donovan and President Obama to urge a change of HUD policy that would help families like Tina's and countless others.
Seems to me we need to rethink our approach to solving homelessness. Let moms and compassionate people set the parameters. Because without heart, we'll have more of the same, draconian policies that will make families' lives even worse. And that makes it worse for all of us, even the clueless. The only ones who benefit are those who get paid to write fancy reports.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Textbook Example: How We Push Families Through the Cracks

Sometimes it's good to take a few deep breaths before posting a blog. Sometimes that won't help. It didn't help to breathe. So I need your help to act.

Back in January I blogged about a woman I met in Las Cruces, NM. Tina, mother of 5 little boys under the age of 7, was moving from 3 nights in a motel into the tiniest of campers (left, actual picture of her camper), at the time without heat, water or electricity. How tiny? How's 13' ? Click this link to read her story.

Forward to the present. As would be expected, dealing with these circumstances has been really hard on her and the kids. She's made some questionable decisions. And she was struggling to do the right thing--but we talked and emailed a few times and she agreed to go to her housing appointment the other day. I asked her to let me know how it went.

GRRR! The housing authority representative evidently pointed out that she owed money from her previous (another state) stint in subsidized housing, so she's ineligible for assistance in LC, even if she paid the money she owes (from when she and her estranged husband were together). And, to make sure public housing doesn't provide a roof over the heads of undeserving scofflaws, she was told she was banned for at least 10 years.

It strikes me as immoral that we punish poor parents (and single individuals) more than we punish, um, people who have destroyed national and global economies. It's not just this one family--but countless desperate parents and kids with no safe options.

Before I continue--and sadly and infuriatingly there's more to this saga--let's get some facts straight. 
  • Public housing was created to house people who cannot afford market rate rents or who need assistance for any number of good reasons--disabilities being one. 
  • It's federally funded, administered through a local housing authority. 
  • They have rules, made and approved by Congress. Few outside the system pay attention to these rule which, in the past 15 or so years, have become, um, punitive. You could even say draconian. Like insisting candidates for PH have good credit, punishing the residents if they have family members that have gone astray, or several other absurdities as described by Aaron Haas, a legal aid attorney in San Antonio. You get the idea....
Right now, thanks to federal stimulus funds, for the first time in what seems like a hundred years, some (OK, a drop in the bucket) money is available to prevent or end homelessness. These funds come through HUD, the freaking Department of HOUSING and Urban Development. A school social worker urged Tina to apply for funds. This is what they found out:
They (keepers of the funds) both stated that HUD's number one rule is that the client has to be absolutely homeless, they cannot have any type of roof over their head. I tried explaining that the trailer is not appropriate for a pregnant mom with six kids but neither would budge.
Important to note, especially for all who have the comfort of climate-controlled environments: This is Las Cruces, New Mexico, where temperatures now run into the 90s during the day, and get down into the 40-50s at night. This sardine can this family's lived in for the past 5 months sometimes has electricity, sometimes not. It's not air conditioned, it has no space for living, and this is not not being considered ABSOLUTELY HOMELESS??? Give me a f***ing break.

Earth to HUD: Homelessness looks like this, and worse, for a horrible number of families. These are the people we should be bailing out with our billions, not those engaged in Wall Street "shenanigans." I could (and have) spew volumes about the history of HUD's fighting to limit the definition of homelessness, but things are supposed to be changing. My a**.

What we have--just looking at this one family--is a (regretfully, for my thinking anyhow) pregnant mother (and please don't start railing about why/how she got PG), 5 little boys under the age of 7 in a city that has no homeless shelter for families, and the long hot summer weather is already moving in. And this family lives in a tin can the size of a car. AND HUD DOESN'T CALL THAT HOMELESS???

Just what do they think is going to happen? I can predict--based on decades of experience:
  • The children are going to get taken away from her, split up and farmed out to strangers (my knowledge of this family is that options for family help are quite limited); or,
  • Some tragic event will happen, of a scope I don't even want to speculate, prompting all involved to go "Tsk, tsk, what a tragedy. She should have gotten help." or,
  • Mom will turn to the first guy that appears to be nice/interested in her. Odds are this is someone with less than altruistic motives. Bad things usually follow, or
  • Mom will absolutely lose her tenuous grip, and do something hurtful to the children. 
Before criticizing either my predictions or Tina's situation, think of how you might react in a similar predicament.  Imagine if you can being totally without options, having the last 2 doors slammed in your face--the 2 places you were told should be able to put an end to living in this bucket-of-bolts camper. Add  a heavy dose of insecurity and lack of self-esteem. And top with the reality of looking at your little boys, whom you love dearly, and knowing you cannot make things better. And you'll seemingly never be able to because the only help possible is not available.

If you are the least bit outraged, and if not, get off my blog, then sign this petition and circulate it furiously in whatever way you can. Tina's asked for help. I said I'd do whatever I can. 

Seems to me things can't get worse for desperate families and individuals in our country.  This is my last-ditch gasp to help Tina and her family, and those in similar or worse situations. If we don't draw a line in the oil-coated sand soon, the rest of us will be next.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The 'Old' Days vs. the New Days of Homelessness

I'm a diane-a-saur when it comes to homelessness. I've been around this "field" for a long time--since the mid '80s. My current effort, HEAR US Inc., is a pretty unique little endeavor that's making an impact, but I digress. When I think I've seen it all, I get surprised. Like this week....

One of my favorite journalists, Kathy Millen, did a great piece on our new documentary, "on the edge," an intense look at lives of 7 women who experienced homelessness. Kathy came to one of our screenings, basing her story on what she saw. To no surprise, she did a fantastic job, and this chain of local papers ran the story in different areas.

Kathy forwarded me a message she received from a woman who, with husband and 2 young babies, is homeless. I found myself wanting to go talk with her. Then I discovered they're staying outside NYC. She picked up Kathy's story on the Web, something we didn't have back in the old days. The mom and I have been exchanging emails, and I've been able to give her info about her son's rights to register in school, ala the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Act.

Facebook also factors into my different world. More than once I'm surprised at who finds me. Yesterday, a woman asked to "friend" me. Her name sounded familiar, from my days of working in Joliet where I got my feet wet in this world of homelessness. I asked, and yup, it was the same family. The girl, 20+ years later, is a mom, studying to be an addictions counselor. Cool! 

Good ol' Facebook, the intrusion into my life I often grumble about, also connected me with a mom with 5 little boys that I met out west. Mom is struggling mightily, not doing as well as she/I'd like, but still trying. Her cell phone's died from lack of money. So she gets on the computer at the library, and I heard from her. A flurry of FB messages between us makes me feel like she's going to get reconnected with the school. A good thing....

And the woman who contacted Kathy, then communicated with me via email, shared her story. I've written my weekly post on, Poverty in America about her situation. It's scheduled to run Friday. Check out my post from last Friday and share it.

I've heard from a grandmother in Houston who found the HEAR US website as she searched for a way to help her 8-year old granddaughter who had been wrongly kicked out of school. We emailed, talked, and she watched our amazing REACH video that explains the homeless education law. That empowered her to get the little girl back in school the next day. Oh yeah!!

Then we have the HEAR US Compassion Epidemic. Never would I believe that I'd be a regular website editor, changing pages as information changes. I don't do the greatest job keeping up, but you'll always find something of interest on our CE page, as well as the rest of the HEAR US website. 

Seems to me the world of homelessness services and resources needs to do a major upgrade. The same-old-same-old ain't cutting it. Just check the HEAR US "Homelessness in the News" page (that needs some updating). And I know some people are really keeping up with things changing even better than I am--my almost 90-year old Mom will surely comment on my diane-a-saur status. What's older than a dinosaur?!

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Homeless Kids...As Ignored as Dead Birds...

Step over. Walk around. Don't look. Forget about. 

Dead birds don't merit much attention except by bird-lovers. That's kinda the same way homeless kids tend to be treated. I'm a homeless-kid-lover. And stepping over, walking around, not looking or forgetting about homeless children in Las Cruces, NM, or elsewhere, is not an option. I've long written about this tragic travesty.

My ire got raised as I read this Las Cruces Bulletin article about the long-vacated Las Cruces family shelter now being converted into a children crisis center. Let me say straight up that I think every community should have a safe place for young (and older) children to go when they are in danger. But...

...the vacant building that for 4 years sat vacant on the campus of the Community of Hope used to house homeless families. My first visit to Las Cruces, a pleasant community of about 80,000 on the south end of New Mexico, had me tethered to their shelter by way of extension cord. I spent time inside, talking with families, interviewing kids for "My Own Four Walls," the now-popular HEAR US series of documentaries (DVD, $40).

Las Cruces has no other family shelter. Families in crisis can go to the Rescue Mission across the street, but it's a tough choice, for too many reasons to discuss in limited space. As a parent of homeless kids, you have to decide if this risk is worth it. And often parents in crisis don't make the best choices. Neither do I. And sometimes we fail to make sure people in crisis have adequate options. Then we're disappointed at their decisions.

When I first met LC Mayor Ken last year, he didn't know that his community's only shelter for families was shuttered. He was pretty upset about not being told. We've talked since then and he seems genuinely concerned. 

Which gets me back to the dead bird analogy. Do we step over, walk around, not look or forget about homeless kids in Las Cruces and across the country? They're not birds, worthy creatures that birds are. These are kids, and parents (some flawed, some not), that seem to get less attention than dead birds.

Seems to me we should put some of our country's misguided passions into something that counts. Making sure families in crisis have a safe place to go, and adequate supports to get them back on their feet, would be a good place to start. With over 1.5 million kids, including hundreds of thousands under the age of 5, we've got our work cut out for us, unless we want to wait and do the human version of scraping these kids off our streets.   

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

First Step to Help--Learn About Homeless Families

Everywhere I go, after watching our powerful documentary, My Own Four Walls, most people want to know how to help. My suggestion may seem overly simplistic, but it's critical: Learn about homeless families/youth.

How many of us carry our own prejudices? My hand is up. Even today, when I see an obese person, my family's old tapes play--the kind that make cruel remarks about people being fat. My more enlightened (and slightly chunky) self knows people have many reasons for their obesity. Some may be within their power to address, some far beyond it, and most land somewhere in the middle. Even that's an overly simplistic description. 
Our country suffers no shortage of issues, valid and distorted, with family and youth homelessness continuing to get the short edge of the stick in media coverage and resources. Poverty and economic hardship are spreading like kudzu (a southern thing, look it up!). The estimated 3 million households predicted to lose their abodes this year will join over 2.5 million from last year. Poverty rates soar as the economy swoons. It's ugly, and it's everywhere.

Families and individuals swirl in the brutal vortex of survival. Nowadays it's far easier to become homeless and much harder to escape this shackled existence. Although solid data doesn't exist, estimates of homeless families and teens shoot upward to 10 million when you count those who lost housing due to hardship who now bounce between family, friends, acquaintances, and no-tell motels.

When I ran a shelter, which I did in Aurora at Hesed House for 13 years and before that in Joliet, I'd never describe the process as "pretty," or even humane. We tried to be hospitable and kind. But reality, and our prejudices, often interfered; and children, teens, women and men ripped raw by their experience of serious trauma often were inadvertently grossly neglected. I'd suspect that is true in just about every shelter. 

For the past 5 years I've traveled 90,000 miles on the backroads of this great nation, living in a modest RV that I've dubbed "Tillie."  I've filmed interviews with some amazing people--courageous children, teens and women who shared what it was like to experience homelessness. "My Own Four Walls" was my first documentary--I filmed it and Northern Illinois University's Professor Laura Vazquez and her talented students worked with me to produce it. Thousands have seen, and have been deeply touched by this 20-minute film.

Four years ago, Laura  invited me to work with her on an ambitious documentary about families' experience of homelessness. With the blessing of HEAR US, my nonprofit organization's board of directors, and generous support from a plethora of supporters I accepted the challenging invitation.

It's been an incredible process, touching me at my core. Seven women ripped off the shrouds of secrecy common to those embarrassed about their stumbles into homelessness. They shared intimate details. They described, comprehensively and painfully, their nomadic lives. They erased stereotypes--the kind swirling about "welfare moms," women who bear "too many" children, drug and alcohol abusers, foster care, domestic violence, the agony of not being able to provide for their families, and the fear of life on the edge, with its ever-present danger of returning to homelessness.

All of that and more is contained in our new documentary, "on the edge."  It's a tough film to watch, but it's the best place to start if you really want to understand the far reaching devastation of homelessness that touches millions in our wealth-distorted nation.
On Wednesday, April 21st, we're holding a preview screening of "on the edge" in Aurora (Annunciation Parish gym, 1840 Church Road, 7:00 p.m.) in conjunction with Mutual Ground. We're asking for free will donations so the economy won't be a barrier.
For my part, I hope families and kids I knew at Hesed House will come. I want to listen to them, to see if this film validates their experiences. I want to offer my apologies for not hearing what they were saying, and for inadequately helping them cope with their traumas. And I want to hear what they have to say.

We all have a lot to learn. Then we need to act upon it. This is my humble effort. Please join me, if you dare.


Friday, March 19, 2010

So Glad Obama is Staying Home!

Here I thought my trip to the DC area would be somewhat limited in effectiveness, but I just read that President Obama is sticking around, foregoing his Asian trip, because I'm going to be in the area! Well, that, and perhaps the health care saga....

I hope our time together will include time to watch a movie. I have the perfect one, "on the edge," our latest feature-length documentary about women, and their families -- riveting accounts of their homelessness. Homeless families and teens is not an issue getting much attention by our nation's leaders.

Nothing would make me happier than to sit down with Barack and Michelle, maybe Shaun (HUD), Kathleen (HHS), and ideally House and Senate leadership, and let them hear from 7 courageous women who shared the brutal realities of their homelessness experiences. 

Audiences that have seen our rough cut of this unique film agree--the women tell their stories like no policywonks could. They point to the causes, effects, and danger of return in such a compelling manner that even so-called conservatives call for a huge paradigm shift in how our country approaches this issue. We have much room for improvement.

And, I'd like to point out, it's not just about housing, but that's an essential ingredient. Families, teens, and adults that have experienced homelessness likely have some trauma issues--hurdles to success and independence--much like PTSD. When effects of trauma arise, it can sabotage best efforts to move in the right direction. The on the edge "7" explain this in ways a 6th grader can understand.

Seems to me it's time to sit down in comfy chairs, pop in this DVD and listen. If not, countless kids and adults will be the worse for it. And we only have ourselves to blame. Just make sure someone besides me will work the remote control. That's one thing I'm not too good at!  

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Help Wanted: Powerful Lobbyists Needed

I know I'm getting desperate when I start thinking about hiring powerful lobbyists to help homeless children and youth. I'm just lacking a few hundred thou to pay them. And I'm a little short on cash for campaign donations too.

Not that the current intrepid team of homeless children advocates isn't working tremendously hard, but they just don't have the clout to turn this country's "Titanic-like" approach to homelessness around in time to save the kids, including a horrendous number of babies and toddlers, who are getting brutalized by homelessness and poverty. Yes, this current administration is a tad bit better when it comes to at least acknowledging this issue, but they're too busy on other efforts. In the meantime, homeless kids slip through Grand Canyon-sized cracks in our all but shredded safety network.

What motivates me? I've talked to so many amazing kids and parents on my journeys across this country. I carry their faces with me, hearing their voices pleading for help, wanting a chance to succeed.

Picture a big mob scene, with determined, passionate, desperate people crowded together. Then put a bunch of little kids into the mix. When the crowd panics and scatters, the kids get crushed. That's sort of what's happening.

In true DC fashion, I've seen a turn-around, with former "anti-homeless kids" advocacy organizations now proclaiming the urgent need to do something about this tragic issue. Yes, more money is being allocated to homelessness, but it's way too little, way too late, and way too slow getting disbursed. Everywhere I go I hear about the HPRP (Homelessness Prevention Rapid Re-housing) funds that are not beginning to make a dent, or the frustrations of a weak distribution network that makes it hard to get the money on the streets in a timely manner.

Tillie, my turtle-like RV, and I will be heading to DC next week. We're going to screen our new documentary on homeless families, "on the edge," with a few select audiences. And I'll sit down with key legislators to talk about the need to pass an even stronger, better funded, homeless education bill. 

You can join the "fun" by signing our petition to asking for increased funding for homeless students' education. Rest assured that this issue gets almost no attention by beleaguered lawmakers for reasons we can all figure out. That's where you come in. Sign and share this simple petition--the current way to communicate with elected officials. (WE WANT 1,000 SIGNATURES. We have almost 200. LET'S GET GOING!!!)
Seems to me that it's far too easy to dismiss the lobbyist-less homeless kids and families that need attention. I guess that's why I feel the need to go to tell lawmakers that homeless kids count, and their count is soaring. I'd love to have you with me, with your petitions paving the way like a plow on a muddy field.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Fiddle Dee Dumb!

I don't remember much of the ancient history I was exposed to in high school, but I do remember something about politicians fiddling while Rome burned.... No road map needed to see where I'm going with this one....

Amazed that where I'm parked--in the deep woods outside Pensacola--that I got a signal at all, much less one that streamed video, I watched quite a bit of the health care summit today.  I shook my head in befuddlement. Sure, a few bright spots emerged, and I was impressed with Obama's ability to try to diplomatically but firmly herd cats, but my worries on behalf of our country, specifically about how homeless families and teens will fare under the 111th Congress, well, they grew.

I've been posting news stories about homelessness from across the nation on the HEAR US "Homelessness in the News" page. I know it's hard to keep track of these issues, and I figure it's a service HEAR US can do, knowing students, educators, interested individuals, etc., are always wanting information.

I also monitor the homelessness blog, in addition to writing a weekly post for their Poverty in America section. This morning I almost choked on my yogurt as I read the Homelessness blog and saw the expressed concern from the National Alliance to end Homelessness about the growing number of homeless families staying in motels.

Not long ago, NAEH was instrumental in brutally obstructing and killing a bill that would have increased the definition of homelessness to actually include families doubled-up with others or staying in motels. They weren't really homeless, or so they said. I even made a 3-minute video, "So They Say" to depict this issue. 

Now this national advocacy group has become enlightened. I suppose it's because the new HUD leadership and the new president have shifted direction. That's good. I wonder about their dedication to an issue that didn't seem worthy just a few short months ago. It's about the children, the teens, the families in the family living in a tent for 6 months that I met in blustery Oregon (in pix).

If you'd like to do something to help--HEAR US has a petition to urge the Senate to strengthen laws to make sure homeless kids can get an education. Sign it and share it, and do whatever else you can for the skyrocketing numbers of invisible homeless kids in our country.

Seems to me that Congress would get a lot more done if politics (money) didn't interfere. Lobbyists and special interest groups that likely have something to gain from massaging the issues contribute to a heap of suffering in this country. Which brings me back to that ancient, ancient history lesson....

Sunday, February 14, 2010

USA--A Nation in Love with Homelessness?

I I peruse news about homelessness from across the land some things jump out at me. We seem to grasp symbolic solutions, like donating jeans for teens, a good deed as far as it goes, but I wonder if it becomes a band-aid that covers a larger wound? 

In my quarter century of working with homeless persons, coming at it from a non-social work perspective, I've been dismayed at our nation's ability to bandage problems instead of address root causes. Homelessness is a perfect example. We just "love" to do charity, volunteering to make brownies for the homeless shelter, but when asked to contact Congress to urge passage of legislation to ease a greater need--e.g. helping homeless kids get an education--well, we scoot off to take the brownies out of the oven.

Now, as a former shelter director, I was always happy for brownies, chocolate chip cookies, and the volunteers to staff our shelter. Unfortunately we need such temporary solutions because we as a nation seem stuck in the mud when it comes to addressing homelessness and poverty issues.

One area of blatant unjust "patience" that seems intractable is child support payments. I blogged about this issue a few months ago on my Poverty in America blog, generating what for me was a firestorm of responses, from women and men.  Last night, visiting with my friend Angela in Opelousas, LA, we were talking about our latest documentary, "It's All About the Children" (working title), and how a common theme among homeless mothers was the lack of support from fathers of the children.

"Oh yeah, let me show you something," exclaimed Angela, a spunky mother of 9 whose poignant story unfolds in our film. She reached over to her computer, clicked a few times, and showed me her ex-husband's child support (lack of) payment record. Although I was impressed with Louisiana's technology, I was far less impressed with the state's ability to get the father to pay. 

Seems to me that our nation suffers from attention deficit disorder. We tend to lose sight of important issues, vigorously substituting frivolity, like making sure homeless teens have jeans or developing fancy technology that tells us what we know. You can prove me wrong-- petition your Senators to increase essential resources for homeless students' education. Share this blog with your network. It's a small act, like a snowflake. But as this snow-battered country should know, a bunch of snowflakes make a huge impact. Time for a blizzard....

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Ugly Reality...Homelessness Never Far Away

One of the most difficult things I can imagine for the people I've known who experienced homelessness, especially families, is when they face returning to it. And this week I found out about a family that did.

Charlie, our HEAR US "poster child," the cute boy whose image was captured by photojournalist Pat Van Doren, a longtime friend and conspirator, and his mother, "Cookie," recently lost their home, for reasons that I'll keep private, but not unlike reasons of other vulnerable people. 20-year-old Charlie had been working, but got laid off and is now just trying to make ends meet by temp work, staying with a friend. His mom is staying with people she knows.

In our latest documentary, "It's All About the Children," each of the 7 women expresses some form of "I'd never want to be homeless again." It reminds me of Scarlett's quote from Gone With the Wind,
As God is my witness, as God is my witness they're not going to lick me. I'm going to live through this and when it's all over, I'll never be hungry again. No, nor any of my folk. If I have to lie, steal, cheat or kill. As God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again.  
I certainly don't mean to imply that Cookie or Charlie would ever "lie, steal, cheat or kill," but I could understand the sentiment. 

When I visited them in summer 2008 I was touched by Cookie's pride in showing me her blue glass collection. She beamed as she spoke about her "clowning" as Cookie the Clown, brightening kids and old folks' days with her routine. Charlie was finishing courses for his high school diploma and was working had his sights on getting in at Caterpillar, a great paying job.

Formerly homeless families face repeat bouts for any number of reasons. It's easy to slide down the slippery slope. It's much harder to get back up, and the thought of being homeless hangs like a dark cloud over your shoulder, even for those far removed, as this family was. Stigma, lack of resources, feelings of failure--all contribute to the trauma of the return trip.

Today as I drove across Texas' backroads, I saw lots of roadkill, including a wild boar. It got me to thinking about people in poverty--they are the roadkill on the Capitalism superhighway. 

Seems to me our way of dealing with poverty and homelessness needs drastic changes. It's bad enough to experience homelessness once, but you should be granted a "get out of jail (homelessness) free" card if facing it again, sort of like we gave those rich bankers and Wall Street scoundrels. 

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Home Sweet Home, but Really...

For reasons far beyond my understanding, my path crosses with some very interesting people. I'm in Las Cruces, NM now, having shown our new documentary, "It's All About the Children," to one of the women in it and to a small group of educators. I'm also filming interviews with "non-homeless" homeless families/youth, those staying in motels or doubled up with others for the HEAR US Learning Curve Express project.

One of the outreach team put me in contact with a young mother with 5 little boys under the age of 7 staying in a local motel. Tina was more than willing and able to talk about her predicament.So I went to interview her imagining what a motel room with 5 young boys would be like.

This young mom with "deer-in-the-headlights" eyes and a soft voice let me in. As we introduced ourselves I saw 2 of her 5 asleep on the double beds. The other 3 were with her mother. She assured me the little guys would sleep through more noise than we'd make, so I set up and began the interview.

Domestic violence, no stranger to any income bracket, ethnicity, religion, education level, or part of the country, was the initial cause of homelessness. Last weekend she got tossed from the DV shelter, for reasons not relevant to this discussion. Tina's mother had packed up her life and moved here to be a support for her daughter. Something tells me she has some firsthand knowledge of these too-common struggles.

When Tina and the boys were ousted from the shelter, they had nowhere to go. Tina's mom was living in a 13' travel trailer, a humble abode if I ever saw one. So she bought another cheap one for herself and let Tina and the kids stay in the tiny one. All chilly weekend, no electricity or water. Propane-powered oven (DANGEROUS) providing some warmth, augmented by body heat. Someone from the school got wind of it, and the school put them in a motel for3 nights until a better plan materialized.

Friday noon was checkout time, and things got pretty dicey. Help for this family was slow to develop. Eventually donors came up with enough money to put the little trailer on a RV pad, with electric, water and sewer. Her mom lives nearby in the same park, close enough to help out with childcare, transportation and moral support. 

When faced with sleeping on the streets with her children, Tina scrounged for help. I verified, it was not available. The stimulus money for Rapid Rehousing--she was #90 on the list, a wait of between 3-9 months. The only other place was the mission, and I understand a shelter-shy Tina, especially because the mission, with mostly men, has had its share of troubles, including a murder of one woman resident by another last year.

Tina has plans to finish her GED, and get further training to get a good job. I don't want to discourage her. But according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, to afford fair market rent for a 3-bedroom apartment in Las Cruces she'll need an income of $30k+. 

Now, I know that's the theory, and the reality is different, and she'll probably be able to find something cheaper. But with the economy, the job market, the lack of child care, and what is likely her need for counseling, that's a pretty steep mountain to climb with 5 pairs of hands holding onto you. 

Seems to me a woman who tumbles from a horrible violent marriage should have it better than landing in a pile of rubble that makes her think going back to her abuser is a better option. She and the kids deserve a helping hand. I'm not begrudging the outpouring of compassion the long-suffering people of Haiti are receiving. I just think that ignoring the growing number of poor families in this country might be a disaster too big for us to dig out from under.