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....

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.