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....

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.  

Monday, January 11, 2010

Poverty and Homelessness: Call It What It Is!

A family having "hard times" (translation, homeless because they lost their housing due to hardship) in Starkville, MS was taken in by a mother who understood what "hard times" does to a family, as she was not far from that pernicious condition. On Monday, Dec. 28, in Starkville, a fire rooted in poverty and overcrowded living space took their lives, 3 women and 6 small children.

Having known "hard times," India Williams, the 25-year-old mother of 3 small children, squeezed the other 2 women and 3 children into her humble apartment because they needed a place to stay. I'm not sure of the exact circumstances, but having seen this tragic story unfold countless times, I would guess that a domestic disturbance, money problems,
and/or neighborhood violence caused the loss of housing.

The fire that took their lives, sadly, is not unlike a mostly unnoticed nationwide house fire epidemic (certainly getting less attention than H1N1), as winter's wrath has frozen even Florida. The Red Cross reports a 200% increase in house fires in this country, and utility shut-offs cause a good number of those fires as impoverished and desperately cold households turn to unsafe methods to stay warm. (Does your Red Cross do more than put house fire survivors in a motel for just a few days? Enlighten me.)

I've noticed an interesting, and revealing, phenomenon when it comes to news stories about
these tragedies. "Hard times" is a common term. The Tulsa World just ran a story with the headline "Tough Times" that described poverty among families in the OK state. The Denver Post just ran a superb feature on CO childhood poverty, people "trying to get by."

"Hard times," "tough times," "trying to get by," are euphemisms for abject poverty and homelessness. I want to call it what it is so thick-headed legislators and policymakers get a clue. Poverty causes a dreadful ripple effect through all communities. It costs more to maintain poverty than it does to holistically address it.

So HEAR US is launching a campaign, "Up the Food Chain," to challenge mayors to look at hard times for what it is--poverty. We're setting up a simple way for people to petition mayors to go up the "food chain" to urge legislators on state and national levels to seriously address poverty. We're targeting communities where poverty-related house fires occur, hoping to in some small way make sense out of these tragedies.

Why mayors? Well, the US Conference of Mayors is an influential body, and they have ties--formal and not--to other politicians. Petitions get mayors' attention, as demonstrated with the successful campaign HEAR US launched in Grand Junction, CO that improved daytime options for homeless families otherwise left out in the cold.

Seems to me that it's time to put significant energy--or at least a few keyboard clicks--into something worthwhile, reducing hard times, before we all get to know first-hand what it means to experience hard times. I urge you to join our effort, share this campaign, and do what you can in your community to make lives of homeless children, families living in poverty, and those having hard times just a little easier. We'll all be better for it.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Stepping Up: Stephanie, Courageous Champion

I love starting a new year with a new s-hero. Stephanie Burmudez, 13, started my year off right (It's not her fault my bliss will likely not last long.)

She was asked to write about her experience of being homeless for her North Philadelphia shelter's newspaper--one written by homeless children and adults to benefit homeless persons--and she first said no.

But the newspaper account of how she came around is worth reading. She closed her column with some profound observations:

You could be us. We could be you. It's just One Step Away . . .

We are all one step away . . . to getting a home. To losing a home. To rebuilding our lives. To destroying our lives. To retrieving our families. To losing our families.

I can't say anything to top that. If a 13-year-old girl with pretty much nothing to her name can figure this out, I'd like to think our political leaders can grasp what this really means.

Seems to me this new decade has a fresh slate. And it's up to us to let kids like Stephanie lead us on the path we should be on, one where kids count. Yeah, even kids without homes. Especially the more than 1.5 mil kids without homes. I hope to meet up with her some day. I hope to meet her expectations of us each and every day.