Monday, November 22, 2010
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
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.