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....

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Time 4 Compassion Epidemic In Your Community

The swirl of concern inspired by the latest shooting tragedy, snuffing the lives of 20 innocent little kids and 7 adults in the path of senseless bullets, will likely dwindle in our ADD/ADHD collective psyche. In the dust, if anyone cares to look, are millions of kids clamoring for adult attention and action.
Look in the eyes of this child and make a silent promise to do SOMETHING to make life better for kids in your community. 
HEAR US Inc.  strives to create a compassion epidemic for homeless children/youth in every community. You are cordially invited to learn more and do more.

As we near the end of 2012, and I'm rolling in my 8th year of a challenging but rewarding cross-country sojourn, here are some important observations from my travels....

  • Homelessness among families/youth is soaring. Despite the hugely questionable data being touted by HUD and a national homelessness group, showing homelessness going down (based on dubious survey methods and an even worse definition of homelessness), every indication shows millions of invisible families and youth bearing the brunt of this brutally unequal economy.
  • Efforts to help homeless families and youth are severely strained. I've yet to hear one organization say anything like--we've got it under control, we have lots of resources, our numbers are dropping, our donations are soaring.
  • The safety net does not exist in any meaningful way in any community. That's right. The myth that we have a safety net is a myth. 
  • Babies and toddlers are the upcoming homeless student population. By the hundreds of thousands (I fear even more), the Littlest Nomads are being neglect in the prime of their development cycle. They'll show up at school doors unprepared and unable to succeed. 
  • Record numbers of homeless kids are moving into adulthood. Sure, some kids will succeed and be independent and productive, but the odds are perilously stacked against them
  • A different paradigm is needed. Communities are dutifully dusting off the old tried and failed version of HUD's 10 year plan to end homelessness for round 2. They have to, in order to get HUD funding, but it's far past time for a new approach that doesn't ignore/discount/dismiss the needs of the majority of the homeless population--families and youth.
  • Thinking that homeless families and youth can make it on their own is hogwash. Not to dismiss the gallant efforts and stellar abilities of an untold number of house-less parents and kids, but the deck is so significantly stacked against them that it's an unfair fight. Housing assistance wait lists, debt and police record barriers, skyrocketing unemployment, shrinking health services, and diminishing child care are just a few obstacles to success.
Most important (ACTION!), third

This is no time to wimp out. The old adage, "When the going gets tough, the tough get going" needs to kick into gear big time. 
  • Newly (re)elected members of Congress need serious work to do. These homeless families and youth are their constituents, albeit a tad powerless. Local efforts can change that. Involve their local office in this unaddressed issue.
  • Legislators are clueless as to the scope of homelessness in their communities. 
    • Give them a copy of My Own Four Walls (dvd), on the edge: Family Homelessness in America (dvd), or host a screening in your community and make sure they're in the audience. (preview short trailers on our website, Anyone in the audience--from parents without homes to parents with more than adequate homes-- can benefit.
    • Let them know you think this issue is vital. Invite them to visit and volunteer at local shelters, if your community has them.
  • We can all do something to help. See above. 
It's time for a compassion epidemic in every community across this great land. The only thing stopping us is us.
  • Check the discussion guides on the HEAR US website. All designed to inform and inspire. 
  • Kids experience trauma all the time. It's up to the rest of us to help them cope with the hand they've been dealt. Here's one resource. But remember, it's how we treat the kids around us that can create a ripple effect of compassion.
Whatever fuels your determination to make a difference in your community, thereby creating a ripple of compassion, joining with like-minded persons across the land...well, it's time. Compassion epidemic, catch it!

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Clash of the Egg-Heads and the Enlightened

I can't resist a fight. Especially when it comes to underdogs, or under-people, in this case, homeless families.

The US Interagency Council on Homelessness , the federal agency charged with spearheading our nation's efforts to alleviate homelessness, just posted a blog, astonishingly called "Taking Risks..." when addressing family homelessness. Read it, or at least skim it. You'll see what I mean, even if you're not from this wonky world of bureaucratic bullshit.

I picture these securely-housed, well-dressed women and men standing on the ledge of the U.S. Capitol, peering down, realizing how dangerous their position is. Then I picture the families I've known over the years, and the compounded risks they encounter every day. Who's in a riskier situation? Those who risk a "mistake" by thinking outside the tattered boxes that we've used as a pathetic national response to homelessness, or the families contemplating how to get a box to live in because their community lacks any kind of help for those without a place to live?

Ironically, or maybe not, my friend Ralph da Costa Nunez has a HufPo column today (11/7/12) too. He talks about a riskier solution, based on the abysmal reality of a dearth of affordable housing in this country. He thinks some families might be better off if they could stay in some sort of shelter environment--admittedly not the stark, in-at-night out-in-the-morning shelters in many communities. I agree with him, for reasons too numerous to list here and now.

Another friend of mine, Mattie Lord, with years of experience working with systems and shelters, recently shared with me a powerful testament to the absurdity, in some cases, of the federal approach to homelessness--something developed and promoted by the likes of the USICH. The staff at UMOM, a respected shelter/service provider in Phoenix, looked at the barriers that the hardest to serve families faced.

Let me tell you, the USICH approach to their theoretical path to end homelessness would be a big FAIL when it comes to the reality of many homeless families. USICH and friends are the same folks who have vigorously fought to restrict the definition of homelessness, eliminating the scores of families in motels and/or staying with others in precarious situations. I dunno, it's hard to trust their judgment when it comes to families/youth.

For me, the most powerful reality check when it comes to homelessness are the people experiencing it.
(Watch the 4-minute clip of My Own Four Walls, our acclaimed documentary. Purchase this $40 DVD and share it in your community.) 
They'll tell you that one-size-fits-all solutions don't fit. They'll put the URGENT in your thinking. They'll move you to take risks, because every day we diddle around and debate approaches means a baby sleeps in the cold, a toddler goes without cuddling, a student sits outside school doors, a youth contemplates grim possibilities, a parent fears failure, and we as a nation lose. What's risky?

HEAR US is willing to fight for those kids and families who've been ignored. Reality trumps ivory-tower-theories every time.
Join us on Facebook to keep up with our efforts and to offer encouragement! We need you!

Friday, October 26, 2012

Technicalities and Torn Carpet--Causes of Family Homelessness

Sitting in the parking lot outside Staples, waiting for a last minute printing job before the start of the much anticipated National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth Conference, I think I'm going stark raving mad. Foaming at the mouth....

Simultaneous messages--on FB and text messages, 2 disasters brewing for 2 families I know who will both be homeless unless sanity returns to the bureaucracy known as HUD, the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development, and their local housing authorities.

One situation involves a 2-parent family now crammed with 3 high-maintenance boys in 2 tiny rooms, sharing a home owned and lived in by Granny. Their circumstances are unbelievably hellish on the surface, and beyond description as you look deeper. All 3 boys have medical/behavioral issues that make the idea of living in this small space unfathomable. Parents love each other and the boys. One boy has severe medical issues that require a bunch of trips to hospitals and doctors. Gas prices be damned.

The family is trying to apply for housing assistance--subsidized--to get them out from under Granny's roof. Blam! They hit a brick wall because Dad has a felony, the kind that if I told you the circumstances you'd shake your head. Not drugs, not sex, not murder...just a turn of events that turned bad for him.

Right now, that's the barrier keeping them from a subsidized house or apartment. And absent this solution, they're going to be on the streets. Now they're aiming to get a motel room, the expensive "solution" to homelessness that is still homelessness and keeps them from moving forward.

It's up to the local housing authority to use their heads and evaluate at this situation. But they have more than enough "customers" and little time/motivation to look at extenuating circumstances. The local congressman's staff is trying to help. But this family needs high-powered help, STAT. Parents are looking at the option of divorcing, a totally unacceptable--and absurd--step, but they're thinking of the boys.

My text message signaled crisis #2 simultaneously with the above drama. A mom, with her 7 kids, including a newborn, was told by the public housing authority that she has to move because their humble little house trailer didn't pass inspection. According to the mom, whom I've known for about 3 years, the carpet is stained and got torn when she vacuumed it and threads got caught in the vacuum. Been there, done that with a vacuum cleaner. I was at this house just weeks ago, and nothing seemed uninhabitable to me.
Most people don't know that the larger families have a horrible time finding places to rent--a lot of issues here...too many kids cause too much trouble, HUD regs require certain square footage per person with a formula for how many bedrooms for how many people. 
In most households, we would toss a throw rug over the blight and figure it good. But when the housing authority does their annual inspection, they looked at that and gave a detention. Landlord doesn't want to fix it? Then the family has to move. Easier said than done.

Most people don't know that the larger families have a horrible time finding places to rent--a lot of issues here...too many kids cause too much trouble, HUD regs require certain square footage per person with a formula for how many bedrooms for how many people. Yeah, those are good standards, but does it makes sense for a family to super-stress and possibly become homeless? Is there not middle ground?

So I'm sitting here in a parking lot, sucking down a wifi signal from Staples, hoping that the universe smiles (instead of shits) on these 2 families. And I know countless more families are enduring the same insanity. A good beginning would be having HUD and local housing authorities reduce dysfunction.

The only other suggestion is to stimulate the RV industry and give homeless families motorhomes (and a huge gas allowance) so they can do like I do, sit in parking lots and do their family stuff. But, alas, I remember the formaldehyde-laced campers they tossed at Hurricane Katrina victims. No wonder I'm crazy.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Who Pays?

Within the past few days, I’ve been asked for money 3 times by deserving people who are "economically-challenged." Generous as I like to think I am, I’m coming up short. And I'm getting annoyed...not at the askers.

The first was easy to help. A slight, bearded man politely asked if I had any change. I used to agonize about people on the streets asking me for money, but that was before the economy tanked (one might be tempted to ask how it tanked, who was responsible?) and I had to acknowledge that some folks weren’t going to make it through the day without us sharing. And I can do it without judgment, a personal accomplishment.

Second, a reasonable request on one hand, but it could be seen as frivolous by those with a discerning eye toward self-sufficiency: a mother of 3 small boys wants help getting them Halloween costumes. The family is in an undefined/unsanctioned state of homelessness, bad enough, but they are also grappling with horrendous health issues with all of the boys, who apparently have been exiled by the local public school system—deeming these little guys too tough to handle. So much for free, appropriate education....

Third, a young woman I’ve known for about 20 years asked if I’d help raise funds for essential back surgery following an accident; she had a seizure and totaled her truck. She has no insurance and no income. She just started nursing school, which may be on hold unless things come together fast, leaving her income-less, and pretty well screwed. I just can’t fathom how this country, with money to spare for the things it wants to spend it on, can’t figure out how to make sure people can get quality health care. And holding bake sales seems a tad ineffective in light of the 100s of thousands in medical bills. 
Now, those, ahem, more conservative readers are stirring in their seats thinking, “If people would just be more self-sufficient, and better use their money, they’d have what they need.” And, let’s assume for a moment that it is true (far from my belief).... 
That kind of thinking assumes that at the count of 3 that everyone will jump up and become productive enough to afford the basics of food, health care, housing, etc. What about those who, for any number of valid reasons, are not able to jump up and pull it all together? What about those mired so deeply in the pit of poverty that they’d need a crane to lift them out? What about those who couldn’t succeed in this crazy and cruel world despite their best, albeit flawed, effort? What about those working for corporations like Walmart, whose wages are so low they qualify for welfare (my tax dollars and yours)?

Do we just toss people into the dump? We already toss “dead-beats” into jail, further impeding their self-sufficiency and self-esteem. Who pays for this punitive and fruitless approach?

What’s wrong with bolstering a safety net for those who need help temporarily, with dignity, letting them move forward, while ensuring those who need more substantial assistance to receive it?

It’s not just Congress’ fault, though they bear a significant responsibility, as do our President and elected officials. Each person, according to their abilities, must be responsible for living a productive life. And to those who have been given much, much is asked, but to those who've been slammed with daunting challenges, they need help. Continuing on the path of our mutually destructive ways, the weakest will crumble and fall. 

Do we think that the wealthy/healthy among us deserve to enjoy the fruits of their—and other—labors while the lowly crumble and fall? Who pays? still demands an answer. I'm not holding my breath.

NOTE: "Garbage" photo, (c)Pat Van Doren, used with permission

Monday, October 1, 2012

This. Is. Tough.

Tough. Tough luck. Tough break. Tough life.

“Amanda” has it tough. And she knows it. Her 3 little boys struggle with a long list of troubles—ADHD, seizures, bipolar, and more. Her single-parent status changed last year with marriage to “Jake,” by all accounts a good husband and father. But he’s out of work. So is she, and the practical considerations of getting a job are as remote as walking to the Antarctic.

They’ve been homeless a while—and are now by my standards and that of the US Department of Education still homeless. 3 boys and 2 adults living in 2 small rooms isn’t anything but homelessness. They’re swirling in the desperate storm of medical issues, mental health crises, and abject cramped poverty. And they have a lot to lose if things get worse.

Stress begets stress. The family’s dire day-to-day reality has caused their resolve to crumble. The boys acted out in school, so now they are “home” schooled. If you can imagine home-schooling 3 little guys filled with anxiety squeezed into a closet-sized space…not ideal, but the school district has tossed the job to these parents.

They have no choice but to fall behind on rent, utilities, and other bills because they have to take their youngest to multitudes of doctors, making gas companies rich and this family, if possible, poorer. Mom astutely observes, “No one’s gonna hire either of us because we’d always have to take off work to take ‘Joey’ to the doctor.” And she’s right. They’ve made the right choice, and pay the price.

These stalwart parents are trying their best to hang on as the slope gets unimaginably steeper. I wouldn’t be able to handle their job for 5 minutes. Nor would Mitt, Paul, or I suspect Barrack and Joe. Even Santa would struggle. I’m seldom at a loss of words, but this family—not, sadly, an anomaly—has me stymied.

Without subsidized housing, they’ll not be able to afford an adequately sized place. But waiting lists tend to run in the 3+-year mode. Not good. Child support, bolstering this family’s below poverty level income, is sparse and skimpy. Gas prices shatter their fragile “budget” as they bounce from doctor to doctor in search of answers to their youngest guy’s wasting away. Employment? Out of the question until the big issues are solved. Disability income, meager, has only been granted for one boy, with a long approval process ahead for the others.

So what would our leader and leader-wanna-be propose? Since it appears we’ve discarded our moral responsibility for those who struggle, they’re not our problem. But they are. Letting families like this collapse—they love each other and are willing to fight to survive—will cost us all in the long run.  Absent a mammoth miracle, they’re screwed.

In my dreams I see a presidential candidate debate solely on the issue of poverty. Amanda will ask the tough questions. Jill and Cheri will have the edge. Mitt and Paul will stumble and fall. Barrack and Joe will admit their shortcomings. We can only hope the winners don’t make it even tougher on families like Amanda and Jake’s. But I’m not holding my breath. It’s tough.

"Amanda" reads my Facebook page. Go ahead, comment on this to her. Let her know that people care. 

Monday, August 6, 2012

We Proved It. Now What?

"Prove it," my boss demanded before she would agree to my request for a raise. "Prove you really deserve more money." I scrambled off, determined...sometimes I won, sometimes not.

I've been around the world of homelessness since before the government hid behind the McKinney-Vento Homelessness Assistance Act which passed in 1987. I say "hid behind" because it's been mostly a progression of lackluster efforts, especially from the standpoint of anyone who's been homeless.

I figured it for a smoke screen, but we all pursued the counting angels on the head of a pin nature of documenting how many homeless kids are out here with hope that the huge numbers would bring about a change of the bureaucratic stone-heart and loosen resources to help these kids.

I'm not a numbers person, but I have to say the efforts and results have been impressive. The Huffington Post article that highlighted that issue pointed out:
The government report said 1,065,794 homeless kids were enrolled in schools in the 2010-2011 school year, an increase of 13 percent from the previous year and 57 percent since the start of the recession in 2007.
Consider the daunting challenge of counting homeless children and youth: Families/youth are ashamed, therefore don't volunteer the information to schools about their plight. Parents fear the kids will be removed from their care because of homelessness. Kids don't want to be made to change schools, and despite a 10-year-old federal law that says that won't happen (McKinney-Vento Education for Homeless Children Act), it occasionally does (not if we can help it).

Important clarification about the 1 million number. It represents probably half the kids in school who are homeless. It doesn't include their younger siblings--Littlest Nomads--the babies and toddlers not in school, or the teens and young adults out of school and homeless. Some of us believe those numbers, plus the parents of kids in this dire situation, would add at least 3-4 million to the count.

And what do those numbers mean? Nothing.
The resources to help homeless students, under our favorite federal law, the McKinney-Vento Education for Homeless Children Act, are less than what it costs to maintain 70 soldiers in Afghanistan, about $70 mil. Less than 10% of the 16k school districts nationwide get any of that money that Congress still needs to appropriate.
If you need a textbook example of how bad this gross negligence of homeless kids is, take the example of Albuquerque, NM, a decent city of about 500k. They recently reported over 4,000 homeless kids UNDER THE AGE OF 6!! Those do-nothing Littlest Nomads freeloaders....

Think how it could have been different--if all the money tossed at bean-counters, software, and meaningless reports to Congress could have been used to, um, house and help families and youth who  desperately cling to hope that we'll stop dinking around and start using what we have to actually address homelessness instead of dither.

So, as HEAR US Inc. enters our 8th (yup, that's right!) year, I'm vowing to pull out all the stops in throwing these astonishing and dismaying numbers in the faces of policymakers, no matter what or how.

Stay tuned! (Follow my travels on Facebook. Keep up with HEAR US on Facebook too.) I can promise it's gonna get, um, interesting, way more than the bean-counters expect.

Friday, June 29, 2012

The Numbers Game

Former Boone, NC mansion sitting empty
I hate numbers. Well, not all numbers, just the kind that people chase when trying to make a point. Well, not even those numbers. I guess it boils down to disliking when people make you chase numbers for N O T H I N G.

Take, for example, the recent U.S. Dept. of Education report showing homelessness among school students has soared over the 1 million mark. These numbers have been gathered each year since the latest version of the McKinney-Vento homeless education act passed in 2002. Districts have been improving at their identifying homeless kids, I'd like to think in part because of efforts of HEAR US Inc. and our amazing documentary (My Own Four Walls) and other efforts. (Check out this latest HufPo article that mentions the work of HEAR US!)

Each year, as Congress contemplates budgetary decisions, do they actually consider the numbers of homeless students? Um, nope. The chump change tossed at this issue to help schools help homeless kids has remained pretty static and severely inadequate, about $70 million. About 3,500 school districts (out of approximately 10,000 nationally) receive funding, a mere dusting. And many have been cut out of this funding dribble.

Ever since the beginning of the federal involvement in homelessness (solution-wise), back in 1987 under the guise of the McKinney Act, advocates have tried to squeeze money for the issue of homelessness. The response has always been "show us the numbers; document the need." So good lil' doo-bees that we are, we'd go out and gather numbers, dutifully turning them in at the end of the year. For what? We're about to commemorate the McKinney-Vento Act anniversary. Has our nation made progress on homelessness? Not from the perspective of homeless people, with their numbers soaring upwards.

Some would argue that these numbers have helped generate resources. Pardon my scoffing. Have they helped to the extent that homelessness has been significantly reduced? No!

We're playing a game with feds who have no intention of providing real solutions to address homelessness. These same policymakers deftly toss billions to banks, the institutions who hang onto a bunch of housing stock that sits empty while families and youth (and single men and women) stumble about on our streets seeking shelter.

School districts decry the money they have to spend on busing and other services for homeless kids. I say, smarten up! Get some leaders in your community to figure out how to utilize abandoned housing to reduce family and youth homelessness, thus making transportation costs moot.

It's cheaper. Do the math. Let me show you the numbers.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Florida Hospitality: Palm Trees and Homelessness

Try as they may, Clearwater, FL officials can't hide homeless families behind--or under--palm trees.

In a Tampa Bay Times article on 6/24/12, City Manager Bill Horne claims, "We believe there is adequate space in the various facilities to offer beds...If somebody really wants to be there, there's a space for them," but others point out dire shortfalls, like the fact that this city of over 100,000 residents has only one shelter for homeless families, and "last year the Homeless Emergency Project, a longtime shelter and homeless services center in north Clearwater, was able to house only 51 of the 1,473 families who sought shelter there."

Of course, that doesn't surprise me. Many communities lack family shelters altogether, not just in FL, but certainly FL is a negative poster child for this dismaying reality.

Imagine if you will, you and your family or a family you care about becomes homeless. Disaster (like the torrential rains now trying to cleanse the Sunshine State of its sins), domestic violence, job loss (as featured on the recent Dateline look at lives of formerly middle income households in upscale Boulder, CO being shattered by this nation's distorted Wall Street-friendly priorities), financial disasters (most often brought about by medical crises), and many other all-too-common life-changing disasters.

Where would you turn? Family? Friends? What happens after your welcome wears thin? What happens if they, for any number of legitimate reasons, can't help? 

You'd do like millions do--like thousands of families in the Disney World area do--turn to motels, as reported a few months ago in a HEAR US instigated story. Motels are not just for tourists, a good thing since tourism seems to, um, decline in this economy, much like casinos. Many motels serve as expensive, profit-making, homeless shelters. Or live in your car. Or with family, friends and acquaintances. Or all of the above.

Florida, famous for letting families live in cars in lieu of providing any homeless prevention/remediation services, seems unfazed when TV tabloid 60 Minutes did a gripping story on this very issue.

Unemployment, slashed public assistance, record evictions and foreclosures...and all the family-destroying stress that goes with it, creates record homelessness among families. But what does family vacation spot Clearwater do? Tampa Times reports Mayor George Cretekos said, "It's not a Clearwater problem. It's a Pinellas County problem."  Pass the buck? Yup. It gets worse:
"Neither shelter (the city's preferred--inadequate--shelters) accepts children, who make up about 40 percent of the county's homeless population of 6,000, yet both shelters have been designated the city's primary resources for housing the homeless by Clearwater's homelessness consultant, Robert Marbut. Families, he said, would be given access to a county hotline of 'virtual case managers' who could direct them on where to stay."
Great. The family swirling in crisis, without housing, gets to rely on a non-existent computer connection to a case manager for help. Neat. Clean. Bullshit.

For my part, I'd love Clearwater, with its neighbor Tampa's big media circus building around the Republican convention coming up at the end of steamy August, to be cast into the public limelight. Ask Mr. Robert Marbut, the city-hired con$ultant, where his family would turn if he lost his job and everything went, um, South. Take these clueless officials on a tour of the real world of thousands of their residents.

It makes me want to take a Florida vacation, sit under a palm tree with the 2600 homeless kids, and throw coconuts.

For the rightfully-infuriated, get your Congressperson to co-sponsor HR 32, the Homeless Children and Youth Act. It's the one bill that could shift our nation's distorted homelessness policies to, um, help homeless kids. It's easy to generate the message to your Representative. At least it's worth a try.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Sigh...Homeless Families: They're Everywhere.

Picture a nondescript New England town on a raw, dreary early June day. I stopped at a gas station to get much-needed propane.

As the very clean-cut man read the impossible-to-ignore signage as he filled Tillie's tank he asked me about what I do. I gave him my standard spiel, I used to run a homeless shelter (actually 2). 7 years ago I went on the road to give homeless kids a chance to tell what it was like to be homeless. (Here's a spread in UNCENSORED magazine that I did which gives you a better idea what I'm up to...worth checking out!)

Do you have a brochure? Well, I do, but not something easy to find. (Memo to self, work on that one.)

As I went inside to pay, I handed the guy a Littlest Nomads card, the best I could do without digging deep into Tillie's bowels.

He sighed and told me about a young woman he knows, a single mom with 2 kids, one 10, the other 4. She had been living with her mother but was just kicked out and now she was homeless. She's not a bad kid, he offered as if I needed convincing.

Does the federal government have any help for someone like this family? I sighed. Not an easy answer. He sure didn't want to hear about our campaign to get HUD to improve their definition of homelessness so at least this family would be counted in the annual homeless census that gets reported to Congress.

I opted to tell him the harsh truth: the feds partially fund some shelters, if a community even has them. But most of the time the shelters are full and turn families away. Then parents face tough "choices," aka survival. She might be able to get some help at the local welfare office, I lamely suggested.

He sighed. He said he gave the mom $60 yesterday so she could get a motel room. I sighed when I pictured her dilemma. Where will she get $60 a night for a motel room?

He sighed and thanked me for the info. I sighed and drove away. Then I fumed.

It's bad enough families go through whatever leads up to their homelessness. But shit happens. To "good" families as well as "bad." The real shit happens when families go looking for help.

I have seen and heard what happens, countless times. It's ugly. And it's frustrating because it's happening to more and more families (as well as single adults and unaccompanied youth). The economy stinks. That means while the government piles on the money for bankers and corporations it piles on the misery for those on the bottom of the ever-growing heap.

And presidential candidates pile up the campaign funds, sucking the wind out of media, as stories of suffering and injustice go untold.

Truth be told, it's likely that this family is screwed without some unimaginable intervention. I'd bet that this little town has no shelter. The mom will likely have nowhere to turn. These kids will learn the hard way that they don't count. Sigh.
The one thing you can do to help (besides supporting HEAR US Inc.) is to go to our campaign to get HUD to change their definition of homelessness. It sounds like a strange campaign, but this web site will explain all about it: It also gives you a simple thing to do--to urge your member of Congress to co-sponsor HR 32, the Homeless Children and Youth Act.
Think of this mom and her kids. And millions more like them here in the good ol' US of A. At least this gas station guy did something to help a little bit. I guess that's what it's going to take. Sigh. Growl.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Mother's Day PBS Attention to Homeless Moms

Another long shot, even more challenging than our CITGO Fueling Good win last November: to get our documentary on the edge: Family Homelessness in America shown on PBS affiliates across the country for Mother's Day. Another long shot, another success for HEAR US supporters!

By surprise (OK, I confess to being slightly skeptical of our PBS chances), I saw a Facebook message on our on the edge page saying "I caught the documentary on PBS tonight - thank you. Thank you for bringing awareness to the plight of women and their families as they face the reality of homelessness. I'll be sure to share!" from Cynthia.

What?!! Really? So I did a quick Google search of "on the edge: Family Homelessness in America, PBS" and wahoo! Lots of stations are running it, from Alaska to New Hampshire and points in-between. 

Should I be surprised? Nope, but I was. I keep forgetting the power of social media and how dedicated the supportive band of HEAR US believers are. Besides winning several prestigious film festivals, OTE received a great review from the American Library Association.

If your station, as did WTTW-11 in Chicago, says they're not members of NETA (the PBS-pipeline for this film) but they're willing to review the film, let me know and I'll send one out right away! 

Getting these stories out to as many people as possible will be one significant way to change stereotypes about homelessness. My friend and film-guru director, Laura Vazquez, professor at Northern Illinois University, and I know these 7 women's stories have unlimited power to open minds and hearts. It's just a matter of getting in front of eyeballs. That's where you can help! 

The DVD, a slightly re-formatted version of our original 2010 release, includes the 58-min. closed-captioned feature,  a 15-min. segment where Columbia University MSW students and their professor Markus Redding discuss the film. A 4-min. and 8-min. trailer are included for those shorter screen times, plus the 4-min. trailer from the first HEAR US hit, My Own Four Walls. All of this for a modest $30+s/h (order form). As a bonus, all proceeds from the film benefit HEAR US.

Laura often chides me for the "spaghetti sticking on the wall" approach to homelessness awareness raising. Whatever. Getting these seven women's inspiring and courageous stories in front of as many audiences as possible does a real tribute to the invisible mothers across the land who teeter on the edge of homelessness. If flinging spaghetti onto the wall will help open eyes, then start the water boiling!

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Homelessness Sucks 4 Kids

In my wildest dreams, I can't imagine what it would be like to be a homeless teen. I met "Mandy" yesterday who is homeless with her mom. They seem very close and say they're coping but, I dunno, really, spending any part of your early teen years homeless? Sucks doesn't begin to describe it.

They stay in a rotating-site shelter program that relies on volunteers from local faith communities, sleeping on floors of basements, halls, gyms and other religious facilities once a week at each location. It's far from perfect, but it's been the emergency housing model for dozens of communities for dozens of years (so much for "emergency"). 

Despite their best efforts to remain positive, moving forward from their situation will be more than challenging. Mom works, apparently a valuable employee, in a fast-food place not known for fat pay checks. Therein lies the rub....

Problem #1, mom earns about $1000 a month. DuPage County (IL) is one of the most affluent counties in the country. The National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates Illinois renters need to earn about $2900 a month to afford a 2-br unit at 30% of the household's monthly budget, an affordable rent.

Even fudging on affordability and squeezing into an efficiency unit (if she can find one), their income is far short of what's needed to get and maintain housing (the most basic part of escaping homelessness).

Problem #2, no car. DuPage happens to be a public transportation desert. Yeah, they have a few bus routes, but the routes are not geared for the 24/7 workday. And it means this family needs to be up and getting ready to leave their cozy single-pad-on-the-floor accommodations about 3:30 to get to work and school on time.

They have deliberately avoided owning a car which they rightly deem a huge budget-buster. One housing-assistance program they'd like to apply to almost requires a car because of the need to get to work, school and appointments.

Problem #3, they're a non-disabled family. That seems like a good thing. But it's not because hardly any post-homelessness subsidized housing is available for this segment of the population.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, HUD, is asinine about how they define homelessness--not considering as "homeless" families/youth who've lost housing and are living temporarily with others and/or staying in motels--so Congress has been tight-fisted about resources. Ergo, DuPage County organizations lack subsidized housing options for non-disabled homeless families. It's one reason why so many motels are now the housing of (non)choice for working low-income families. Decent motels in this county are $300+ a week, exceeding this family's total monthly income.

Problem #4, the shelter season winds down May 1-October, cutting the available "interim" beds from an inadequate 140 (3 sites) to a super-inadequate 65 (1 site).

This is going to complicate their lives enormously. I've been at the summer shelter sites. They turn away women, families, and men. When they're full, that's it. And the large, transportation-challenged county makes it nigh unto impossible to get to the very scattered sites. Yikes. One site is so far from mom's work that they're just not going to be able to go that night.

Problem # 5, it's not getting better anytime soon. I'm a great believer in miracles. But this is a stretch. Mom and Mandy are hopeful, willing to work hard and to take something less than ideal.

But at this income, without subsidized housing, they simply can't afford to live in DuPage County. Or most other suburban areas, or just about anywhere.

Sad Sub-Story
One of the sad sub-stories here is that the shelter, a respected organization that really tries to do the best they can with the resources available, does not support the need to pass HR 32, the Homeless Children and Youth Act. 

Maybe they've bought the argument that HUD's resources are inadequate for an expanded homeless census. Well, yeah, because HUD continues downplaying the numbers of people experiencing  homelessness. Congress hears that 630,000 or so people were tallied during the "point-in-time" count. That number is probably closer to 10% of the actual homeless population. But instead of fighting for more resources by aligning the definition of homeless to other federal definitions that better reflect homelessness, HUD sticks their collective head in the sand.

So kids like Mandy, and her mom, and hundreds of thousands of kids and adults get strangled in red tape because HUD doesn't count homelessness as it's happening. They're using old-fashioned definitions based on stereotypes which totally ignore the reality of homeless families and youth. I filmed this interview (4-min) of a family in a motel that gives a pretty good idea that staying in a motel is not a vacation.

Ironically, Republican Congresswoman Judy Biggert (13, IL) represents DuPage County. She introduced HR 32, a simple and sensible 2-page bill, that would make HUD improve their definition of homelessness. Biggert's been in Congress long enough to know how things work. She's championed several significant bills to help homeless kids. Sure, Congress will need to find more money to meet a 10-fold increase in numbers of homeless people. But what's the option? Ignoring it?

Seems to me that families like Mandy and her mom will either move forward or backwards. Forward means Mandy might get to worry about things like homework instead of homelessness. Backwards sucks.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Chicks, Children and Chump Change

Standing on the edge of the pond, I fell in and got stuck. 

Not into the water, but into a conversation with a bright 8-year-old girl, and I was really perplexed as to what to say next. Falling into the slimy water would have been easier.

We had been bird watching, respectfully "stalking" a sand hill crane couple and their 2 newborns. They were pecking their way from this scenic pond on the edge of the motel--the unofficial homeless shelter not far from the land of Mickey Mouse and friends. Since the area has no shelter, homeless families, if they can scrape together $200 or so a week, will shove their stuff in storage and squeeze into these boxy ill-equipped rooms, or into the even scuzzier and smaller rooms in the scads of struggling motels lining the highway.

"Mandy" and her mom and dad (note: 2 parents) have a tiny room on the first floor. Not a suite. A room. And to make ends meet, they've creatively and desperately decided to rent to "Chad," a disabled Viet Nam Navy vet who is happy for the "cheap" place to stay. Yeah, renting a room to a stranger when you've lost your place to live (Hurricane Katrina, Nashville floods, and foreclosure, the trifecta) is desperate.

So Mandy and I were gazing at the ducks, otter, turtles, and other critters and talking about the 2 little crane chicks. The conversation went something like this:

"Where do the birds live?"

Somewhere along the edge of the pond (I'm assuming loons and cranes might be similar, but I'm sure they're not, beside the point to an 8-year-old who's fortunately not a loon/crane expert.)

"What do they eat?"

They peck at little bugs in the grass, on the shore, and in the water near the edge.

"What if an alligator came along?" (in that inimitable tone of an 8-yo)

The parents would protect them. (me slipping, teetering...)

"How would they fight a big alligator?" (She astutely figured no way, Jose.) Splash.

Other birds would help. (Right.) Then I did the adult thing and changed the subject.
I pictured Mandy's stressed-out mom and dad fighting the alligator (predators abound in their lives, today it was the IRS that absconded with dad's tax refund to pay a student loan debt). I sure as hell knew that other than some of the ill-equipped families staying at the motel who would come out swinging flimsy sticks, no help was going to fight off the gator and rescue the chicks and the parents.
Mandy's family must come up with $200 a week to stay here. They've decided Chad is a mistake, but for now he's part of the equation. Both parents work in food service, a flagging industry at best, with irregular hours and skimpy tips. They pass the care of Mandy off like a baton in a race for survival, trying to maintain the confidence of parents that have it all under control. They snatch extra work hours if asked, to the point of exhaustion.

But the gators are circling. Their car needs expensive brake repairs. The IRS has honed into their bank accounts, squeezing blood from the turnips. Mandy wonders why they never have gone to Disney World, giving both parents guilt complexes that have them figuring out how to compensate their daughter for her lost childhood. Tensions abound--between the family and the interloper and between parents deprived of intimacy and peace of mind, however fleeting. Insurance? Nope. Safety net of family or friends? Nope.

Because this family has paid for the room themselves, they're not considered "homeless" by the bureaucracy that could offer (theoretically at least) housing assistance through HUD. This seemingly insignificant glitch is huge on several levels. Congress begrudgingly allocates chump change to what they think is the "manageable" homeless problem as reported by HUD--a "mere" 630,000 bedraggled men and women. Imagine them calling their congressman (something I encourage desperate homeless persons to do) and trying to explain they're homeless but not really homeless by HUD's standard. Confusing at the least. Damning is more like it.

Families in motels like Mandy's abound, not just in Mouseland but nationwide. They're gator bait. Nobody knows they're there. They're not counted by HUD as homeless. Congress is clueless. And those "advocacy" groups working against us are, well, gators hiding in the weeds.

We're trying to help. HR 32, the Homeless Children and Youth Act, would change the way HUD defines (and eventually helps) homeless families and youth. But it's gotta pass first. Here's more about it and a simple way to get your congressperson on board.

In the meantime, come down with me and grab a big stick. This is a fight worth fighting even if our opponents have sharp teeth and lethal tails.

Picture telling Mandy that she, her parents, and scores like them are doomed.

In a adaptation of Mollie Ivins, one of my favorite hell-raising s-heroes' techniques,  banging on pots and pans, let's grab pitchforks, baseball bats and brooms and beat these alligators in every way we can to save the vulnerable chicks.Then fish me out of the pond, will ya?

Monday, March 19, 2012

Immediate Concerns: All Relative

They said nothing about being on vacation in this land of Disney. The couple with 2 young girls asked to see the room that rents for $179 a week (and $100 deposit), and when they returned the key they asked about Florida's perennial unwanted visitor, roaches. 

The desk clerk assured them these little varmints have no room in this inn. That seemed to assuage the couple and they took the room for a week, maybe more, starting the next day when their time is up in their current long-term-suite abode.

I wanted to stop them and ask them their story--why are they living in a motel--but it's too early for that kind of boldness, even for me. Besides, they seemed stressed. 

Sitting in the otherwise pleasant, but worn, motel lobby, I was mentally picking out the real tourists from the hard-time customers. I watched as groceries were toted in--not the snack food of vacationers but rather the microwavable and hot-plate-able versions to feed a family. Expensive, especially if they had to shop at the nearby 7-11 or Walgreen's. Nutrition goes out the window. Ramen noodles and cereal, not fresh fruits and veggies.

To dispel the myth about "vacationing" families not deserving to be acknowledged as "homeless," let me describe the living conditions of one family that lived here 4 brutally long years. They started out in a room with a king bed, mom, dad and their 9-month old boy. Having lost their place to live when the real estate and job bubble splattered, a friend told them about this extended stay place that cut you a deal on the rent, a mere $179 a week, including (limited) housekeeping and utilities.

With no option besides the streets, the family put their stuff in storage, believing that the day would soon come when they could reclaim their lives and their belongings. The $180 a month storage fee made sense in the beginning of their homeless-honeymoon, but soon this budget-busting expense was axed in lieu of weekly rent. Management padlocked their unit and eventually sold and/or tossed their stuff...important documents, pictures, baby mementos, wedding gifts...gone.

Their room at first was just a room, with the king-sized bed hogging most of the space. With just the 2 of them, and other than not having room for their baby to move around, they managed. He worked off-and-on, she cared for the baby. But the relative peace of this arrangement was shattered about one year into their stay.

His mother, sister and her 2 girls lost their place to live. No help available from family or friends, no Plan B, and the additional complication--one of the girls has cerebral palsy and epilepsy. So the couple asked for a slightly larger room and invited their family to join them.

1960s vintage hot plate
Lest anyone think their new room was one of those fairly spacious suites--2-bedroom, small living room, with a kitchen, wrong. It was the size of an average decent motel room with a half-wall divider making an imaginary 2nd room. No kitchen. The dresser held the hot plate and coffee maker. A tiny microwave sat nearby. They requested and received a slightly larger than dorm-sized refrigerator. 

Their space was ever-so-slightly larger than my modest 27' motorhome--a space for one. They had 8, including 4 adults, which bathroom logistics alone would be a nightmare. Three years. 

No amount of imagination on my part could perceive the stress. When I asked the beleaguered mother what was the worst part, she spewed a list of understandable realities:
  • no privacy, 
  • no room to move around, being afraid to wander outside because of drug/prostitution trade using the motel, 
  • no neighborly socializing because she didn't know who was in on the nefarious activities, 
  • not being able to have her toddler play in the sand-filled playground because feral cats used it for a litter box, 
  • no place to cook a decent meal except for an extremely limited menu routine that could be prepared in their cramped quarters, 
  • worrying about her toddler reaching up and grabbing the hot plate,
  • washing dishes in the same place they washed their bodies, and 
  • fearing that one of the fairly regular drug raids would turn ugly and inadvertently involve their extended family. 
She was beyond shame, and she knew the overwhelmed authorities would overlook their conditions because they were at least trying to care for themselves.

I asked her what was good. She just as quickly responded: 
  • we were together (an understatement!), 
  • we weren't on the streets (in a resort town that cares more about their famous mouse than the needs of people), 
  • we were able to help our family, and the school was wonderful for her sister-in-law's two girls. She gushed about how special the school staff made the girls feel. They had everything they needed to be like the housed-kids. Christmas brought an avalanche of gifts. 
She also pointed out that the unusually kind motel manager works with his customers (those who abide by the basic standard of respect for people and property). He cuts a little slack on late rent when times are rough, though expecting payback eventually. He's worked with local compassionate church-goers to set up a small food pantry and he's reached into his pocket to help when nothing else is available, as he recently did for the woman released from the hospital with wounds but no clean bandages. 

From all accounts, these families are among...well, an unknown number experiencing some version of this nomadic life. Amazingly, we have no idea how many families and single adults are in this motel-bound plight. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, HUD, doesn't consider  people in motels unless their money was used to house them. In most cases it's not. HUD doesn't report these people as homeless to Congress who set a meager dollar amount based on HUD's numbers. HUD's thinking--they're not as bad off as those on the streets or those in shelters.

I challenge that urban-based, clueless Beltway thinking. 

Being a highly mobile, inadequately sheltered, resource-challenged, largely invisible "household" is as vulnerable as many other homeless persons/families. Making no attempt to quantify this number, in fact vehemently fighting against aligning the HUD definition of homelessness with other federal agencies (that rightfully include households in motels as "homeless"), HUD does a huge disservice, especially when reporting the homeless census for Congress. Their paltry 600,000 tallied in the point-in-time count has no sense of urgency. Nor does it hold any sense of reality.

A serious move is afoot to align HUD's definition of homelessness with reality. A bipartisan bill, HR 32, The Homeless Children and Youth Act, in 2 very simple pages, does away with scads of complications surrounding HUD's confusing requirements. Yes, this will mean more people will be counted as homeless. No, communities will not be forced to serve families and youth. It will be their choice.

I firmly believe that if Congress doesn't get a clue about the alarming sense of homelessness, particularly for families and youth on their own, they will never ante up resources to meet the need. Eventually, the young ones, like the little girl on the left, will grow up, some to become homeless adults, and maybe then they'll count. Better late than never....

If you're interested in helping get this legislation passed, check our campaign's website,, for more info.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

HUD Homeless Policies = Child Abuse and Neglect

Maybe I've stared at too many faces of little ones through the eyes of my cameras.

Maybe I've sat on the edge of lumpy mattresses in crappy motel rooms, surrounded by the squalor that comes from too many people crammed into too small space for too many desperate nights listening to heartbreaking sagas.

Maybe I've shared too many WalMart parking lots with too many families who find safety in the security cameras as they cuddle together for warmth in their cars.

Maybe I've talked to too many youth, some with another generation in tow, who ask me what should they do, where can they find a safe way to escape life on the streets.

Maybe I've grown impatient with waiting...for lawmakers and bureaucrats to wake up--or quit denying--the abysmal dearth of housing assistance (much less affordable and safe options) and other vital safety net programs. (Reminder, the US offers about $144 Billion in home-owner housing subsidies compared to a measly $34 billion housing assistance.)

Maybe I'm carrying around guilt knowing that I was complicit in this homeless family and youth debacle, not intentionally, but by default, for my years running shelters that pretty well ignored the needs of our future--the children and youth, unwitting products of their pathetic upbringing, who become adults, productive or not.

Maybe...but I can no longer be part of the silent--or not-loud-enough--conspiracy.
For years, this nation has blatantly ignored the dire peril that millions of families and youth find themselves in year after year. We had to fight to remove barriers to school for kids without homes (kids now numbering 1 million). We have, for years, been fighting with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the often-hapless agency charged with providing decent affordable housing and homelessness assistance, about including children and youth in their focus (as inadequate as it is).
HUD's newest regulations forcing homeless families/youth to PROVE their homelessness (as if people are clamoring to get into shelters??!) are a horrendous burden to families/youth and shelter staff. Check out this 3-min. video explaining the latest absurdity.
The few groups that continually side with HUD, likely out of fear that the slice of the tiny pie that funds their worthy efforts will get decimated, sadly spread fear and deception like Homeland Security--painting the scene of evil resource depleters coming after what amounts the crumbs from the federal budget table. (Here's a rebuttal to their argument. pdf)

And my friend Barbara Duffield offers these reminders:
a) HR 32 does not mandate that kids identified through four programs are served; it simply makes them eligible and allows communities to make assessments of who is most in need at the moment; b) doubled-up and motel kids are among the most vulnerable, and HUD’s regulations make it impossible for them to be served; today’s homeless kids are tomorrow’s homeless adults
Someone explain to me: when have the feds ever given money to a legitimate cause when advocates haven't fought for it? It sure hasn't been HUD's homelessness assistance programs. I know. I've been in this work too long. Programs serving families--and even worse for youth-- are few and too far between. And HUD makes it seem like families and youth either don't exist or they don't count, I'm not sure.
Where is the outcry about the slash-and-burn of our nation's housing budget (read this illuminating and easy-to-comprehend report, pdf)? 
Having otherwise decent human beings arguing against pulling out all stops to help this most vulnerable and ignored segment of the homeless population--a segment that dwarfs the single adults so disparagingly labeled "chronic" as in a disease--well, it's either a lack of conscience or a lack of awareness of the dire conditions facing families and youth.

In an ongoing effort to convey the desperate situation facing families and youth, a panel of experts--homeless children and youth who know the perils of living without a home and without shelter--addressed Members of Congress in mid-December. Their compelling and heartbreaking stories illustrated beyond a doubt the level of suffering common to families/youth in motels, doubled-up with others, or in other non-HUD-homeless states.  

But what happened? The so-called homeless advocates that have vehemently opposed bringing HUD's definition in sync with other federal definitions ratcheted up their rhetoric dismissing the suffering of the kids in the various non-HUD states of homelessness. Fortunately, the subcommittee headed by homeless kid champion Judy Biggert (R-IL, my congresswoman) passed HR 32, The Homeless Children and Youth Act, which now heads to full committee.

And about the same time, at a national conference of homelessness service providers, the anti-HR 32 rhetoric spewed.

I will not apologize for hammering hard on this issue. Nor will my stalwart band of colleagues (with a growing network of agencies) working hard to get Congress, HUD and the nation to acknowledge--and address--what boils down to federally-sanctioned child neglect.

If we "can't afford" to go all-out to help those in all kinds of homeless situations, if we (from our positions of relative comfort) deem some homelessness tolerable, if we don't demand that resources be immediately and adequately marshaled for the millions of precarious and/or un-housed people in this country, than I'd say we're suffering from a severe and unconscionable lack of compassion.

My conscience pushes me to do everything possible to help. What about yours?
  • Contact your member of Congress if she/he is on the House Financial Services Committee (view committee list)
  • Urge their support of HR 32. Sample letters here.
  • Challenge nay-sayers who insist this nation cannot care for our homeless kids.
  • Do something to help.
At least you'll be able to look at kids like this with a clear conscience.