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....

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.