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....

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.