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 Nomads. Here 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.