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.