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, December 12, 2011

Storm Cloud Darkens for Homeless Children

Ever since I became aware of homelessness, from the early 1980s, I figured it was, at least in some part, about money. 

I knew people didn’t care much for the homeless men and women being seen more and more on streets of cities across the country. Media depictions of these frightening bedraggled “street people” began the perhaps inadvertent campaign to demonize people without homes. It worked. If you ask people to describe homeless persons, you’ll see what I mean.

My memory goes back to Mitch Snyder, a DC activist who took up the issue, going head-to-head with federal officials and eventually backing President Reagan into a corner as Snyder fasted almost to death on the street across from the White House to get the government to do something. They did, passing the McKinney Act in 1987. I met Mitch. His determination and conviction impressed me. I became involved with advocacy along with running shelters, an essential combination, I believe.

Back then, homeless adults were the visible and predominant manifestation of homelessness. At the human service agency where I worked, we began to see a few families, but they were rare. As time passed, into the 90s, families trickled into our emergency overnight shelter. Looking back, we didn’t do enough for the families, but we tried our best to make sure they had shelter, pathetic as our efforts were.

After the drastic changes to our dysfunctional welfare system, some of us feared the worst for the families too shattered to move into self-sufficiency. But the economy was somewhat functional, and things didn’t appear as dreadful as some of us thought, although signs were brewing like storm clouds.

Throughout the 1990s, we began to notice different—invisible—forms of homelessness. Sure, we were seeing more families in our shelters, but when we (IL Coalition to End Homelessness) examined the issue of homeless families staying in motels in the Chicagoland area, we were shocked. Across the 8 collar counties, families were scattered in no-tell-motels and some of the less-expensive chains.  We released a report on what we found. It was a storm warning. No one heeded it. 

Instead, Congress went about quietly tinkering with programs serving homeless persons. They made it harder to qualify for subsidized housing, and reduced HUD’s budget dramatically and tragically. They funded software to track and count homeless people (only those deemed “chronic”) and reshaped how communities organized to address homelessness into mostly dysfunctional “Continuum of Care” alliances. 

Anti-welfare sentiments contaminated programs designed to serve people in poverty. Bad credit became a good reason to deny people housing or a job. Prisons, overflowing, turned people out to a world where the label “ex con” meant less than human. 

One bright spot…. After considerable advocacy, the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Act passed in 2001, implemented in 2002, guiding schools education for homeless children and youth. It’s been an uphill climb, but progress is being made, despite some recalcitrant educators.
Then the seismic changes of the 21st century hit. And when the economy nose-dived in 2008, the first group to explode on the poverty and homelessness scene was families and young people (without parent/guardians).  No surprise. 

And along the way, the National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH) received sizable funding to provide technical assistance for HUD. Benign as that sounds, it ties NAEH to HUD. So this “advocacy” group becomes, in my opinion, a lapdog to the agency that needs a dog nipping at their heels, not drooling in their lap. In the process, NAEH has become a vehement opponent of expanding the homelessness definition to include families and kids. 

One obvious result of this “partnership,” HUD’s homelessness numbers are astoundingly low, NAEH proudly reported in June. Gee. Not bad for a country in the economic sewer. Not real, but let’s not confuse reality and glee.

The US Department of Education reports almost 1 million identified (likely that many more unidentified) homeless students. It doesn't include younger ones--our Littlest NomadsHere are the stats. Read ‘em and weep for the million kids who have no home. If watching TV is something you’d rather do than read dry, depressing government reports, this link connects you with the recent CBS 60 Minutes account about families living in their cars. Not to be denied—the reality that millions of kids, some in families and some on their own, are homeless in America. If you're so inclined, take in 4 minutes of kids talking on our HEAR US documentary, My Own Four Walls.

Seems to me it’s time for NAEH to resign as voice of homeless persons. Conflict of interest has gotten in their way. The kids at Thursday’s hearing will make that perfectly clear. It remains to be seen who will listen and care.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Disappointing That I'm Not Disappointed

Never a shortage of topics to spew about. I just read the description of looming changes in the way homeless families and youth will be treated by HUD, the agency our federal government charges with overseeing programs to end homelessness.

I have to scream, on behalf of all who will undoubtedly be harmed by these changes,

Having run a shelter for many years, I am painfully aware of the too-little-staff syndrome that causes shortcuts to be taken, some potentially harmful. I'm also painfully aware of things on the other side--those needing help, families and youth, who are in a traumatized crisis mode, hitting brick wall after brick wall. Well, HUD has just thrown up a huge brick wall. For what?

The issue surrounding the definition of homelessness (my previous blog), a benign sounding topic if you've ever heard one, is huge. HUD and some so-called national advocacy groups have belligerently fought to protect their absurdly narrow definition of homelessness that boils down to the individuals who fit the stereotype of homelessness--the bedraggled man or woman with multiple maladies. In reality, that's probably about 10% of the homeless population, but it's the segment that some folks love to hate. Their position boils down to: we don't have enough resources, let's not expand the definition to others  needing a piece of the pie.
Backing away from pushing for more resources and better policies is, in my humble opinion, a chicken-shit way of advocacy. Co-opting your organization's mission to get government money, as at least 1 homeless advocacy group has done, destroys their integrity, but it gives them the money to buy influence.
HUD doesn't get enough money to meet the needs of even a small percentage of homeless people. Since the late 1970s (not mentioning the president who took over then), HUD funding has been brutally slashed (fact sheet). No surprise, as mental hospitals started shutting down in the early 80s, ostensibly to "better serve" these beleaguered adults in local communities, these poor souls got, um, lost on the way. Thus was born modern bulk homelessness.

Predictably, some of these individuals in their dire situations, plus the growing homeless veteran population, didn't endear themselves to elected officials. Their bedraggled appearance and eccentric behavior fed stereotypes of crazy people on the streets. In true "trickle-up" tradition, shop owners complained to mayors, who turned to county officials, to state, and to feds. Well, let's make their lives miserable (and fast-track them into prison), slashing services and housing assistance budgets seems to be their response. And so it went, spiraling to families, teens, and anyone else that might find themselves in the tough spot of poverty.

Seeing the vigor that HUD and its cronies put into fighting those of us who want to expand the definition, I'm not surprised the new regs (spell check shows the correct spelling as "dregs," an apt translation) are so brutal. They impose impossible standards of proof (pdf) upon both homeless persons and the shelters wanting to serve them.

Next week, a determined group of advocates will face members of Congress and ask them why they feel compelled to further harm homeless families and youth. Harm. That's a mild word for those who have been through so much. Those traveling with me to DC will not be soft on their elected officials. I'm going to stand back and let them have the voice and visibility that may convince some lawmakers of the pending disaster.

Seems to me it's time to have a big Occupy camp-out on the lawn of the Capitol. Just don't put HUD in charge of who can stay there. They'll call in the riot police to keep out the moms and kids.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Back-to-School Nightmares Rampant for Homeless Parents

You don't get it until you live it.

The reality of shelter life is...impermanence; where will we end up? Add this to the day after day awareness of their parents preoccupation with seeking employment, overcoming the despair that poverty invites or banging your head daily to live with seriously limited resources, and feeling isolated because as much as we don't want to feel ashamed of our circumstances...we suffer the judgmental slings and arrows from school personnel and all the jabs and jeers of those automated letters and voicemails. [Paula, mom in a homeless situation with her son]
Paula nails it. She and her son have been homeless for a couple years after experiencing brutal and long-lasting abuse from her ex. It's a common tale, I know. But let's not ho-hum it. What they're dealing with is anything but ho-hum.

The simple act of her 12-year-old son (a cool kid!) getting to school is causing massive distress. Trauma in abundance lingers like a storm cloud over their lives. Her ex-spouse sounds like a scary monster in a horror movie. The "protection" system--the courts/law enforcement--appear to be anything but helpful. The danger of the ex returning to wreak havoc is plausible. And the school appears to be dismissing her like a piece of junk mail.

Paula's trying to get her son on the school bus, but the shelter they're in seems to be a tad too close to the school, by .2 miles according to my calculation. Her son, according to what she's shared, gets bullied by kids along the sidewalk and on school property. He's dreading school, certainly the act of walking to/from school, which is contrary to his intelligent, enthusiastic manner that I've seen.

I've talked to a couple lawyers familiar with the rightfully-touted McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act. Although MV isn't as obvious as some of us would like, it does give schools leeway in situations like this--where barriers exist for kids' attendance and success in school. Other creative, legit ways of getting around the obvious school transportation issue also exist.

I spoke with the principal who assured me that they do everything possible for kids--all kids--at their school. I'd like to believe him. But the proof will be evident if this boy can hop a bus.

I'm waiting to speak with the district's homeless liaison. Paula indicates no one's ever connected her (or other families she's spoken to) with the liaison, who is supposed to be the point-person to avert these kind of stumbling blocks. The lack of attention to this issue is quite evident to this astute mom.

The good news is, if districts are willing to invest minimal money and precious time, we have some great tools to help districts better understand and address myriad issues facing students in homeless situations:
I dunno...with all the information available, it seems like schools wouldn't create barriers when it comes to opening school doors and encouraging success of our nation's most promising (and growing class) of scholars--kids in homeless situations.

I'm willing to be the tutor for this district. I'd bring in experts like Paula and scads of other parents that could educate the educators. With the unprecedented growth of homelessness, we better kick into gear how to best cope with it before we see an Occupy Schoolyard movement.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Compassion Call-Out!

Oregon Family Campsite, Photo by Rob Finch, 11-2007

All across America, as weather shifts into the raw winter chill, record numbers of families are turning to the "great outdoors" for their new homes.

This photo, by friend Rob Finch (Oregonian), gives you a peek at what passes for camping for families with no other place to stay. Once they lose their homes--for a variety of reasons--and discover that their town has no shelter, the shelter is full, or the shelter doesn't allow intact families, they get, um, creative, and camp. Rob and I followed this family around for several days during a raw, rainy November. They had "camped" for about 6 months on the wooded edge of a church property.

This camping is far different than state parks or private campgrounds. Families tend to set up their tent (if they're lucky enough to have one) and tarps (a cheap essential to extend their living space and to cover their firewood and belongings) in remote places--thick woods--close enough to sources of food and other essentials but out of public view. They don't want child welfare agents, police officers or nosy do-gooders finding them.

They lack access to any basic hygiene facilities, i.e. bathrooms. They're always being invaded by critters large and small, and camps like this lack any way to be safe and secure from 2-legged predators.

Weather is always an issue. Water--in its many forms--is both a luxury (fresh drinking water and water to bathe with) and a menace, soaking blankets, clothing and food. Cold temperatures become brutal. Hot temps make living miserable. Wind and snow are "bonuses," making life even more miserable.

Food--especially nutritious offerings--tends to be scarce. Storage of food vexes even the most determined camper--rats, raccoons, and chipmunks always get their way. Lack of refrigeration presents logistical challenges. Cooking is an art that Jamie Oliver would learn from. Cooking space sanitation? Forget it. Food supplies are meager because pantries often hesitate to give food to people who have no address. What they give is often impractical for campers.

Health care? Nope. Sickness, yup.

School--if they're lucky the kids will get to/from school. Can't say much for the quality of their attendance or participation. Nutritionally and sleep deprived, hygiene-deficient, and insecure kids don't make the best students.

And in this testy environment, we're finding families with kids of all ages. Homeless camps used to be just for the crusty "hobo" types, those escaping or rejecting life as most people know it. But now, in this day of uber-prosperity for the lucky ones, the unlucky ones fall through the big crack. Emergency shelters are turning away families in record numbers. Families with nowhere to go and nobody to help them turn to the great outdoors.

I don't know how people can sleep knowing that moms, dads and kids are huddled under tarps and tents, lacking heat, lacking civilization, lacking any way to get out of this mess on the outskirts of most communities. Everywhere I go, even in the affluent Atlanta suburbs, homeless families "camping" is epidemic.

Occupy Wall Street (and many other efforts nationwide) could benefit by the numbers of families and single individuals setting up camp. They could bolster the numbers of people on the streets because they live on the streets. And if we don't get things turned around, unrealistically before the brutal cold sets in, we're going to have homeless children and parents dying on the streets.

Pathetically, and embarrassingly, at the same time of this record ravaging homelessness, record numbers of vacant houses sit and rot. Now if someone can't figure 2+2 and decide homeless families and empty houses are in many cases a good combination, well, we're dumber than we look.

If you want to help, check out the HEAR US Compassion Action Guide on our home page (  Plenty of opportunities to make a difference, including a link to vote for the HEAR US CITGO $5000 gas card prize.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

HUD--the Homelessness Creation Agency?

My good faith gets shaken on a regular basis, and when it involves the US Dept. of Housing and Urban Development, aka HUD, it really flaps wildly. What I'm yammering about is a policy that leaves a formerly homeless family damned if they do, damned if they don't.

Tina, the courageous mother I've written about over the past couple years, and her 6 young boys, live in a modest house trailer in Las Cruces, NM. First I blogged about the family's bleak situation after I found them living in a 13' beater-camper-trailer--mom and her 5 baby boys. Stimulus money came about, giving communities funds to help move families like Tina's into housing. Then  I blogged about the difficulties finding a landlord to rent to this large family. She finally found the landlord with the trailer. But...

Her next struggle came transferring into Section 8 (subsidized housing), not because she wasn't in need or qualified (she got through the eye-of-the-needle exam at the HUD-regulated public housing authority), but because...she has bad credit. Yup. Bad credit.

In her previous married life, she incurred a penalty of about $5,200 for unreported income with the public housing authority. She was in the process of getting her then-husband reinstated on the lease (he apparently talked her into it after putting her in the hospital), and Tina's brother moved in before being okayed by the PHA. Tina and her kids left her abusive ex, but now she gets saddled with that past debt--a barrier to keep her and the kids from qualifying for public housing.

Hubby (now ex), 1/2 the gene pool, apparently doesn't have to assume his share of this debt. Mom and kids struggle mightily, comply with copious regulations, scrimp and scrape to keep together and out of the shredded child welfare "system," and she's got to pay the whole $5,200. It gets worse.

HEAR US negotiated a payment plan and found donors to help pay off the debt, Tina and her boys got their Section 8 certificate allowing them to stay in their humble trailer. Then, the Las Cruces housing authority diligently does an income review and finds, gasp, that $180 a month is being paid on the prior debt by HEAR US so Tina and the kids wouldn't be homeless. According to HUD regulations, they need to factor in this money--that Tina never touches--into her income, more than doubling her rent.

Tina protests, attends a hearing and is shot down. I write to the old HA and ha-ha. They shoot me down, claiming HUD regulations. So now, after all this time--mid-2010 till now--Tina, saddled with the care of her 6 little boys (try to get a job under her conditions), has no way to increase her income enough to pay the increased rent that HUD says she needs to pay because she's lucky enough to have someone paying her past debt with the old HA so she and her 6 boys won't be homeless in Las Cruces.

How's that for stupid? Now, without being able to pay the money both housing authorities are demanding, this family teeters on the precipice of homelessness in a city that has no emergency shelter for families. So then, for want of about a $2,000 balance on the past debt and $100 a month on the current housing, this family will get churned up in the same system that found it in its heart to bail out rich bankers, hedge fund traders, and the rest of the sleazy bums.

The ex--father of 4 of her children--may get stuck with half the debt in a pending divorce agreement. But HUD will factor that into Tina's rent, raising it further. This gets dumber and dumber as I type. 
HEAR US will again try to collect money to help Tina and the kids, fighting for a change of policies in the meantime. It feels really sleazy sending money to a housing authority that's making life this hard on her, but she has no option--other than the unacceptable one of homelessness. If you want to donate, here's the secure link. It's tax-deductible. We don't take a penny and it all goes directly to pay that stupid debt.
My delirious hope out of all this...that we get to a point where HUD agrees to "do no harm" for Tina, and for scores of other housing-vulnerable decent human beings in this country--that would be the majority of us. Sigh.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Michigan Tourism Slogan--the Canary in the Coal Mine?

Michigan, with their miles of dunes along miles of Lake Michigan and Chicago area pols hot-footing it down sandy sidewalks in picturesque vacation getaways, spends good money for their catchy new tourism slogans, now Pure Michigan, from Great Lakes, Great Times, and Say Yes to Michigan....

No matter, because the more popular signs in the beleaguered Wolverine State, tarnished by the tanking of the auto business and what was left of commerce, now feature for sale by owner, for rent, and closed signs.  Michigan can teach us something. They've increased their tourism budget to attract people to the once-popular vacation land. (One would wonder who's getting all the money...but that's another topic for another blogger I hope.)

Sadly, the state once known for beaches, tulips and cherries is now close to dying. Because the symptoms are little—as in kids—few pay attention. While nationally the number of kids in poverty (household income $22,000 or less) has reached an alarming (to some of us) 25% according to Kids Count 2011, the number of kids in Michigan living in poverty soared 64%, with 75,000 kids added to the already dismayingly high numbers, which includes over 20,000 homeless children.

Take a look at the years since I've been on the road under the HEAR US banner--since November 2005. Way back then MI had 459,000 kids living in poverty. The number now is 520,000 (for 2009, the latest data reported). That's quite an increase.

I'm not a number cruncher, but the availability of detailed data in this respected report got my attention:

  • 249,000 kids in extreme poverty (that's 1/2 the measly, inadequate poverty rate). 
  • 709,000 kids living in households spending more than the acceptable amount of 30% on housing
  • 735,401 kids getting free or reduced lunch
  • 340,169 babies and toddlers (0-4) receiving WIC (Women, Infants and Children). 

Enough data. Look up your own state. Get locally appalled.

(This is where the rabid nay-sayers chime in and say women shouldn't have babies. We should cut people off the benefit trough and let them fend for themselves. Stick a sock in it.)

Folks up in MI aren't just sitting around pining (bad pun) about these problems. The MI League for Human Services offers suggestions:

Here in Michigan we should focus our attention on:
  • Expanding programs, such job training and postsecondary education for unemployed and low-income parents and the Earned Income Tax Credit to supplement low wages; these programs promote economic success for families.
  • Implementing programs and disbursing funds that help more families negotiate the foreclosure process; Michigan has $498 million in federal funds to help families in foreclosure.
  • Enacting the reforms, such as including part-time workers, to the unemployment system that would recognize the changes in the world of work and bring another $139 million of federal funding into the state.
    – Jane Zehnder-Merrell

Yeah. That's gonna happen with Gov. Snyder whacking away at anything that resembles human services.

For those applauding Guv Ax-Assistance, let me point out the hard truth. Ignore human needs today and pay more tomorrow. It's a lesson that needs to become the new Michigan slogan.

I'm so outraged about this and every other state's skyrocketing poverty I hardly know what to say or do. I can cry for the kids, but that won't help. So the small band of us working hard to make sure kids get an education, even if they don't have homes, will continue our efforts.

Not to get all scriptural, but The poor shall inherit the earth comes to mind. Hmmm. That makes a great slogan for MI tourism. Wonder what they'd be willing to pay me?

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

When Times Get Tough, the Tough Get Tougher

The "Evil Diane" is coming out in me. Expect nothing less after the latest round of budget bamboozlement. I'm plotting our next strategy to help homeless families survive what is bound to be more than the common "hard times."

So, here's my idea: We, the advocates for kids who signed this letter begging our Prez and congressional leaders to have mercy on vulnerable kids, form an ad hoc committee, "Share the Shack," or something like that, to pursue non-traditional housing options in our communities. Texas families give us a perfect prototype, let's call it "Sharing the Bling."

A recent NYT article reports on a trend of building playhouses for the kids. Not just any kids, kids of mega-rich parents, like Ms.Schiller, who's husband is (ahem) an oil company exec. Here's a partial description of their daughter's playhouse: "the two-story 170-square-foot... vaulted ceilings..., hardwood floors and a faux fireplace with a fanciful mosaic mantel. The little stainless-steel sink in the kitchen has running water, and the matching stainless-steel mini fridge and freezer are stocked with juice boxes and Popsicles. Upstairs is a sitting area with a child-size sofa and chairs for watching DVDs on the 32-inch flat-screen TV. The windows, which all open, have screens to keep out mosquitoes, and there are begonias in the window boxes. And, of course, the playhouse is air-conditioned."

To do justice to these playhouses you need to read the article, which adds, “I think of it as bling for the yard,” said Ms. Schiller, 40. Some people might consider it “obnoxious” for a child to have a playhouse that costs more and has more amenities than some real houses, she conceded. Obnoxious? Nah. So far beyond it that I can't come up with a word.

OK, here's the idea. Get maps pointing out bling locations. Give them to local desperate families that have no homes. Provide transportation to the bling-address. Let them move into these nice playhouses. Let the money-endowed families pick up government slack, providing for the families' food, medical, child care, education, and so on. This will end the need for the seemingly endless "Stuff the Bus" projects to provide basic school supplies for income-deprived kids.

For those communities that lack bling, connect with the profit-laden builders constructing these mini-mansions and ask them to find some local trees for homes. I'm sure we'll have enough to go around (trees and families in need).

Best to get hopping on this project because bad weather is just around the corner. We'd hate to have shelter-less families littering the landscape.

Seems to me we have enough to go around. We just need to be creative about prying it from those who have it and sharing it with the growing urchin class.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Who Are the Tough Ones?

Homeless mom and son doing laundry and showering at a campground.
Dueling political parties make the news. Obama, Boehner & Co. standing tough. But that's not where the real toughness lies.

The toughest people in this country are those trying to survive and to help their families survive. I just heard from a young mom that I've known for about 20 years. She, her husband and their son live in a trailer in the south. Modest living by all accounts.

Her husband just got sick and is unable to work. She's fighting a kidney stone, carpel tunnel syndrome, depression, migraines, and probably a bunch of other things. Their little boy (for now) is OK.

She's going for outpatient surgery for the kidney stone and will report back to work the next day. "I've got to. We need the money," she stoically shared with me. "Our furnace needs replacing. Our winter heating bills are $600. My husband's grandparents, on a fixed income, took a loan so I could have this surgery. We can't get food stamps, even though our income is now $100 a month."

Could you cope with that load of tough stuff? I wouldn't trade places with her for anything. Her big fear is rejoining the ranks of homeless families, knowing from her childhood what that was like. That's when I met her--she, her mom and siblings stayed at the shelter I ran.

In another part of the country, a beleaguered mom with 6 young boys is trying to make ends meet. Her meager budget of child support and welfare isn't enough to cover their essentials. Logistically, she can't get a job--child care and transportation alone would break her. And besides...what jobs are out there? She's $1,000 behind on her water/gas bill. She's looking down the road to back-to-school time and knows she'll need money for her boys to be ready for school. Her beater truck guzzles what she can't afford. Electricity. Gas. Water. Kids' shoes. Food. Such choices.

These are 2 families. I'd bet my lunch money millions more like them gallantly struggle to survive. They're tough. Bootstraps long frayed, they have unlikely prospects for escaping their bleak situations. Sure miracles happen...but, really, in today's world?

We have money. The "we" is our country. Not just government either. A Baptist church in Orlando just collected millions to help homeless families. That's just in compassion-challenged Orlando.

On July 4th, in backyards, towns and metro areas across this country, bazillion bucks went up in loud smoke as we celebrated (?) our nation's birthday. We spend billions to pamper pets (as opposed to providing adequately for them). We chug billions worth of beverages that harm us. We devour billions of bad food. You get the point.

And the Dems and Reps duke it out over our nation's fiscal policy. But they don't give a rat's ass about the families struggling to survive, like the households I mentioned and the millions more like them.

If nothing else, we should channel our respect to where it's deserved--the countless invisible s-heroes and heroes who continue to struggle to keep their families' bodies and souls together. Spend 4-minutes listening to young experts on what it's like to be homeless, our My Own Four Walls documentary trailer. You'll understand and be inspired.

Seems to me that we should revise our tax code so Good Samaritans could get tax credits for bolstering the frazzled safety net of families across our country.  Then we'll need to learn a tough new way of living--helping our neighbor without government intervention. It's shutting down. Of course, that will make the tax code irrelevant. Sigh.

Friday, July 1, 2011

It Really Is About the Children

These young children enjoyed the book Sarah gave them.
About 15 years ago, my friend, Pat Van Doren, started a project, It's About the ChildrenPat and her effort are now part of HEAR US Inc., our unconventional effort to prick the nation's conscience about the invisible homeless children and youth population.

Recently I've traveled coast-to-coast, filming for our new Littlest Nomads project. We're trying to sound the alarm about the hundreds of thousands (millions?) of little babies and toddlers growing up without a home during their most important time of development.

Sarah Benjamin, a McKinney-Vento funded homeless early childhood teacher and advocate from Long Island took me around to families in her program willing to let me "invade" with my camera. These kids, whose families had experienced various forms of homelessness (doubled-up, in motels, in shelters), benefited immensely by once a week "home" visits from Sarah and her colleagues. Despite high mobility, families had a strong link and continually received valuable resources, guidance and support to keep them involved in their toddlers' vital development. Witnessing the interaction between Sarah and the families touched my heart!

On an entirely different, disturbing level was the recent report of no increase of homeless persons during this brutal recession. Disturbing? You betcha! The National Alliance to End Homelessness reviewed the Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) that Congress receives from HUD. I dunno. Leading the NAEH press release with No Increase In Homelessness Despite the Recession strikes me as a tad, um, delusional.

I've never had much use for the AHAR-generating Point-in-Time counts, the late-January best-faith effort to enumerate homeless persons in communities receiving HUD funding. One reason--they tend to totally overlook the invisible homeless family and youth population. And they ignore the many communities not receiving HUD funding. Even the Government Accounting Office took issue with these reports and related topics last year, citing rampant confusion in HUD's efforts.

NAEH staff, HUD and the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness,
Congress and our President should be made to listen to this traumatized
baby wailing on this church floor (aka homeless shelter of the night).
Congress gets AHAR and feels "good" about HUD's progress. NAEH touting HUD's success is, in my humble opinion, disingenuous at best.

Homelessness--for adults and children--is traumatic and not acceptable. And the half-ass way this nation has been pretending to address it--the McKinney-Vento Act of 1987 signed into law 24 years ago--the abysmally under-funded, discombobulated, bamboozling "approach" to "ending homelessness," is a travesty at best.

Whatever M-V success--and some has occurred--is commendable. But don't think that these accomplishments have reached coast-to-coast or in any way solved the problem. And for every family or individual who gets the well-intentioned, sincere help returning to a place to call home, or gets an education, countless others fall into the vortex.

Homeless programs are an easy target for the ruthless budget-balancing-bobble-heads wanting to rob from the poor and give to the rich. But it doesn't have to be that way. 
I invite--no, urge--you to join me and tens of thousands of like-minded concerned Americans to urge President Obama to take a stand that will protect our vulnerable infants, children, elders, and others from the otherwise inevitable budget slashing. Co-sign Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) letter.
Seems to me the message Pat Van Doren created years ago is even more essential today. It's About the Children...or we'll all be sorry.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

We've Failed Little Farmers

Plant it and it will grow, at least in places like Eugene, Oregon. But this progressive, verdant community just learned that a valuable asset, the one place little kids can be during the day to escape homelessness and to learn how to be healthy, happy kids is closing. (read the story)

I witnessed the thrill of 3 - 4 year-old toddlers learning the basics of agriculture from Farmer John who every year volunteers to come to First Place Kids Center to give these little ones the all-important lesson of how food gets to our mouths. They attentively knelt at his side near the raised bed plots behind First Place Center and listened, dug, planted and watered their choice of greens. They inspected the blueberry bushes together, excited about the soon-to-emerge succulent berries.

Sadder than a drought or blight, these love-planted crops will have no knee-high farmers to reap the produce of their efforts. Twenty or so little ones are being booted to the streets by cruel budget cuts. Their cutting-edge day care center that focuses so specially on unique needs of highly-mobile and homeless toddlers, an at-risk population growing like weeds in affluent America. will close their doors on June 3rd. (My 1-min. YouTube video)

Few have paid attention to the fact that homeless toddlers are the largest percentage of this nation's homeless population. This bumper-crop is being neglected in their period of vulnerable growth--when experts say vital developmental occurrences will happen or not--the groundwork for productive lives. We've tossed these little kids under the budget bus.

A combination of local funding cuts from a beleaguered United Way and federal/state support was the one-two punch for 1st Place Kids Center. Now Eugene's homeless families--who must cope with the summer closing of their church-based overnight shelter--now have no safe, nurturing place to plant their little ones while these parents go to work, look for jobs, comply with welfare-mandated appointments, seek housing, etc. They'll walk around town, toddler in tow, navigating weather, municipal codes, and societal restrictions and cope somehow with babies with colic and diaper rash, toddlers with flu and fits, and with every parent's need for time away from crying babies.

These "Littlest Nomads" will learn from the streets. They'll ask about their spinach plants, the blueberries and strawberries hanging on their stems, neglected as these little ones. How do you explain that no one is harvesting this hopeful crop? ACTION: Ask Eugene's Mayor Piercy to intervene before these families learn that their precious little children don't count. Sign this petition.

Seems to me someone has some explaining to do. Why do we pretend to care about nutrition and nurturing when we find it so easy to let these resources go to seed and weed? When will these kids matter? When will we care about spending our money on development--of potential and possibilities--instead of punitive poverty penalties that we've gotten so used to distributing?

Monday, May 16, 2011

Homeless Kids of All Ages Thrown Under the Budget-Busting Bus

The longer I stayed to film at First Place Kids Center in Eugene, OR, the more furious I got. Nothing about this center's pending closing makes any sense. But what does nowadays?

If you think budget cut talk is a bunch of hype, think again. I hear and see worthy efforts being stymied or slashed to death, as is this kids' center, everywhere I turn. The carnage hits all age brackets and all on the poverty spectrum. My bias--it's the little kids that have the most to lose. That's certainly the case for Eugene's "littlest nomads" without this first-class daycare program.

The kids lose. They're in the most crucial development stage of their life. Stimuli, learning opportunities, socialization, nutrition, structure, stability...all of this and more are what they need lots of, in a safe, clean environment. Sorry, despite best effort of parents and shelters, those environments usually lack what these kids need.

Parents lose. Ever try to look for a job or housing with a 3-year-old? Do you feel guilty when you can't provide a decent meal, clean diapers, or just some quality time with your little one? Have you ever spent a rainy, chilly day in a beater-car with your little one(s)? I'll stop here. You get the idea.

We lose. When kids show up to school, they should be school-ready. But kids don't become school-ready magically. It takes loving effort--lots of it--like what I saw at the Kids Center (1-min. video I shot). When kids aren't school ready, their chances of success--at school and life--diminish. You can figure what happens then.

I'd like to be an optimist, but these are not the days for Pollyanna. These are days for Diane the Fire-breathing Dragon. The daily litany of drastic cuts on local, state and federal levels targeting these kids, and the rest makes me agree with my friend Pat LaMarche who penned a powerful HuffPo piece about politicians' contempt for the poor. I can't figure another way to take this. You can tell me if Pat/I are wrong.

Seems to me that we should have been paying closer attention to the riots in Egypt. The injustice they were fighting against, the have-lots' contempt for the poor, is the same thing we're seeing here. The difference--we elected these contemptible hypocrites. You can figure out what needs to be done....

Monday, April 25, 2011

Connecting the Dots: How Homelessness Happens to Families

"Nick" and his parents lost it. Their house. They knew it was coming, but teetered on denial  until the sheriff's knock jarred them into reality. Shoving their most precious belongings into a storage unit that advertised $1 for the first month, they left the bulk of their stuff in the house--their home for 2 years.

Where do we go? began a "game" of musical chairs, but instead of chairs, couches and crowded guest rooms. No family lived in the area, but friends offered to help. As with company that stays too long, or rubs the host family wrong, Nick and his parents ended up bouncing around, a lot. Tension abounded. Sleep and normal eating routines crumpled. Resolve shredded. Obviously the $1 deal on the storage unit would require more money--lots.

Nick yearned for the relative peace and routine of his 3rd grade classroom. His parents were too embarrassed to tell the school about their troubles. Nick tried to keep it a secret. It was a tough one, especially with his best friend, Charles. 

The doubling-up got old. Nerves frayed. His parents argued. Their friends resented the intrusion of Nick's family. Nick acted out in school. The teacher knew something was wrong, but Nick never let on about his family's nomadic life.

Getting Nick back and forth to school was a challenge. The car was on the fritz. Nick's mom worked irregular hours at the laundromat. Nick's dad helped a friend on a home improvement project, generating a little cash and perhaps good will. Nick's attendance, normally steady, faltered. Tardy. Absent. Tardy. Sleepy in class. Irritable. 

This is how homelessness seeps into lives that previously seemed impervious to such "social ills." Now these ills are epidemic. Our nation didn't do well before this last 3-4 years of bubbles bursting and Wall Street winning. But's about to get a heap worse, especially if the budget butchers have their way.

Despite rhetoric on both sides of the crocodile-filled aisle in our nation's Capital, whatever ends up being the federal budget priorities, it will be too little too late for Nick and his family and countless others like them.

The "countless" part is important to the big picture. One reason why Congress doesn't get shook up about homeless families is they don't have a clue about the scope of this problem. Nick and his family wouldn't count as "homeless" because they're not in a shelter. No matter that they have no home and their town has no shelter.

When they don't count, they don't add to the numbers that Congress says they need before prioritizing an issue and tossing money at it. Homeless families, youth, and many adults don't count. So we don't have a problem? 

A modest effort is being made to boost Congress' awareness. A bipartisan bill has been introduced that pushes the US Department of Housing and Urban Development to change the way they define homelessness. It's a start...if it passes. A few members of Congress have a clue. You can involve your legislator by signing this petition:
  • Urge your Senator and Representative to co-sponsor the bill to strengthen the definition of homelessness. CLICK HERE to make homeless kids count.
Nick and his family will turn to a shabby motel on the outskirts of town. Their tensions will escalate. Their resources deteriorate. And the family will fall apart. Nick will lose interest in school and will refuse to attend. His parents will be too dysfunctional to get him to do otherwise.

Do you see where this goes? Down the drain. Another family shattered by homelessness. Listen to these kids (4-min. trailer, My Own Four Walls, a HEAR US production). If they can't convince you that we need to help, no one can.

Nick and his family could have been helped with school issues. The federal law, McKinney-Vento, guides schools in assisting families and youth who have lost their homes, at least as far as education. Nick may have been eligible for transportation, school lunches, supplies, etc. (Watch the HEAR US video, REACH, an 11-minute simple explanation of the homeless education law.)

It seems to me that we've got to connect the dots for our lawmakers Sign the petition. Imagine the surprise if Congress started hearing about this--a real issue. DOT-DOT-DOT  DASH-DASH-DASH DOT-DOT-DOT...SOS anyone?

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Beyond A Crisis: U.S. Family Homelessness

I didn't need to watch Sunday’s 60 Minutes piece on homeless families. But I did, along with my 90-year-old mother, my brother and his 14-year-old son, and my brother's significant other. She cried. I raged. Mom shook her head sadly. Mike and his son didn't say much, but were subdued.

CBS did a decent job on the surface issue, letting kids say how hard it is to live this nomadic existence. Their parents rose above the understandable shame and allowed the audience to peer into their erstwhile "normal" lives. And so far, online comments haven't sunk to the sewer-like level of frustrated blame and distorted interpretation of the story. (Though columnist Jay Ambrose seems to be confused, writing that "As virtually any historian can tell you, the average poor family today -- especially as defined under law -- is easily better off than many families considered well off in the Depression years." Huh?)

This wasn't a "feel-good" story. Some points need reiterating:
  • A family of 4 at the poverty level earns less than $22,000. (Joe might want to do a math-reality course to see what less than $22k --gross--buys today as opposed to the Depression days.)
  • The poverty rate for children in our country is nearing 25% by the (understated) government standards.
  • This is the fastest and largest fall from middle class that we've seen since the Depression, an unprecedented jump from 14 million to 16 million, with no signs of abatement.
Those are statistics. But more painfully than the above statistics are these stark realities for the families in Seminole County and invisible families across the country:
  • Often families face the dilemma of homelessness and head for the local shelter (if their area has one)--only to be split up because the shelter only allows (typically) women with kids (boys under the age of 12, which varies).
  • Families not willing to split up, or wanting to keep their pet, or having a parent who works a job outside the shelter's curfew, often bunk with a friend/family member until that becomes untenable then they move into a motel at the steep price of $150+ a week.
  • Families "stuff" often ends up in storage and lost because it's sold when they cannot pay the storage fees. Stuff lost includes important identification and other documents, pictures, and personally valuable items.
  • Areas around these unsupervised, unsanctioned "homeless shelters," a.k.a. motels, frequently deteriorate and become unsafe for the families and others. Drugs and prostitution are common at many motels. So are lice, scabies and bedbugs.
  • Space inside the motel room is inadequate for one. Multiply that by the number in the family and you get the idea that this is not a vacation.
  • Food, especially nutritious meals, becomes a logistical and expensive nightmare. Just think of the steps in buying, storing, cooking, serving, and cleaning up in the average motel room.
  • Hygiene and space become serious detriments for infants and toddlers who require special attention and activities to develop into healthy children.
We ignore the dark, growing cloud of poverty negating well-intentioned and expensive education efforts. We toss a crumbs to low-income housing, far too little to make up for the past 30 years of shortages, during a massive housing crisis that tosses middle-income families to the streets. We slash resources for health care, mental health services, child care, family support. We bought into lies that "welfare queens" are causing our nation’s fiscal woes, not the wealthy robber-barons of corporations and Wall Street. 

Seems to me we need to admit what we’re doing: We toss our kids under the national-budget bus, ostensibly to balance the budget--or more truthfully, to give huge subsidies to oil companies and other wealthy interests. Can we at least admit we have a problem?

HEAR US Inc. has been invited to testify at a congressional briefing on homeless children on Weds. March 30, 11-noon at 1300 Longworth House Office Building, Washington DC.
HEAR US will screen on the edge on Weds. March 30, 6 pm - 7:30, 2325 Rayburn HOB, Washington DC, open to the public, free.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Their Playground--and Home--Gone

The parking lot was their playground. Now it's gone, thanks to an apparent deal between the Congressman, Georgia's majority Senate leader and an assumedly hapless mope.

The Oglethorpe Inn, off the exit ramp in the decimated carpet industry town of Calhoun, GA, is like one of thousands of nondescript motels peeking at our nation's Interstate highway system. Gordon County, sitting in northwest Georgia, where 1 in 10 school children are reported to be homeless, has no shelter for those without. So the 2-story motel became "home" for about 80 people who lost the keys to their own places.

And now the kids and their families are forced to involuntarily check out of their 12' x12' abodes to search for a safe place to sleep, do homework, play, and keep their stuff. Good luck with that.

According to an Atlanta Journal Constitution story, the previous owners of the motel, a partnership between the area's congressman and the state's lead Republican senator, Tich Hospitality, took out a $2.2 mil loan to buy and rehab the motel, but payments apparently stopped and they turned over ownership to Mr. Edens. The local bank is suing the legislators for, ahem, nonpayment.

If Mr. Edens is the same guy we heard about while we were in Calhoun a couple weeks ago, he was trying to help "guests" of his motel according to Shawn, one of the guys staying there. Shawn spoke of kindnesses shown to people who couldn't always pay on time. That was before Mr. Edens disappeared like a Wisconsin Democratic lawmaker.

While Pat and I were parked outside the Oglethorpe, I noticed several kids playing in the parking lot. Hmmm. Not vacation time. Talking to Shawn and Dan, two guys who know homelessness firsthand, they confirmed that several homeless families lived in the motel, along with a bunch of single adults.

Kids can adapt to many circumstances. Resilience is a good thing. Testing that resilience, forcing them to move yet again, to leave their playmates in this inadvertent community, might be pushing it. Worse yet, when the community has no shelter, it can only get very ugly for the kids and adults.

Seems to me the assumedly well-off legislators who may have profited by their seemingly sleazy dealings could step up and put a roof over the heads of their again-displaced constituents. That might assure votes in the next election.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Burning Crisis In America--Ignoring Poverty

Smoldering out of sight and out of mind in this attention-deficit country is a disaster far exceeding the media attention it gets--fatalities due to house fires. Over 1,600 men, women and children died in residential fires during 2010. Most deaths receive a mere blurb in the local paper.

Poverty in America bloggers Rich and Elizabeth Lombino called attention to the ongoing post-Katrina humanitarian disaster in New Orleans, tragically underscored by the recent fiery deaths of 8 homeless youth trying to stay warm in an abandoned building. I've hammered on the 9 lives lost in Starkville, MS attributed to "hard times," the 3 women and 6 little kids crowded together in an apartment to avoid life on the shelter-less streets. For all our hammering and yammering, few will pay attention to this poverty-related loss of life.

If you have the stomach to look at the US Fire Marshal's fire fatality report, you'll notice a pattern: lots of fires in manufactured homes. Trailers. As one who lives in a trailer, an Recreational (ha!) Vehicle, I am frighteningly aware of their vulnerability, and I'm not coping with abject poverty and the multitude of issues accompanying life in the much-maligned trailer parks.

Fire is one issue. Legal and illegal evictions are others. Hopewell, VA is the scene of a massive trailer park eviction leaving residents with few options besides homelessness. The substandard condition of these tin can homes is yet another story. Trailer residents struggling with poverty can't afford upkeep, much less home heating oil.

We've long given up on the idea people in this country are entitled to a decent, affordable place to live. We let people struggle to survive in substandard conditions--crappy trailers, abandoned buildings, tents, the great outdoors. We stereotype and disparage "street people" and ignore the house-less reality of human beings --including homeless families with young children--as told by 3 parents in a Christmas day NPR story.

If a 1,600 passenger plane crashed, I'd like to think we'd pay attention for a short time anyhow. Is it the lack of value we put on some people's lives?

When possible unsafe conditions led to deaths of 32 infants since 2000, we recall cribs. That's the right thing to do.  I'd suspect not many wealthy families live in trailers or abandoned buildings. So we (as a nation) don't give a rat's ass about those who die trying to keep warm because they're not wealthy. Congress won't get involved. We have too many other "priorities."

Home heating prices are soaring. Rents skyrocketing. Evictions and foreclosures spiraling. Fire and carbon monoxide fatalities surging. (I'm running out of verbs before I'm running out of reasons that people are losing housing.)

While Congress is poised to slash programs serving those most vulnerable in our country, most of us feel powerless. One way to have a slight, though important, impact on poverty policies is to rattle the cage of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the body that issues an annual "report" on homelessness. I've decried this document as a bogus waste of time and money. It bamboozles the mayors, media, and mainstream public by distorting homelessness statistics. It's inaccurate, but since media look for a homelessness story around the holidays, this drivel fills the gap. Even the astute Maria Foscarinas of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty got pulled into seeming to validate the report.

Will you sign my petition to urge mayors to either strengthen their reporting or skip it?

Seems to me that our national strategy of ignoring poverty hasn't worked. Maybe it's time we all sit around the campfire outside the U.S. Capitol and roast marshmallows over campfires fueled by burning bogus reports.