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, 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.