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 14, 2015

What Homeless Kids Want For Christmas…And Beyond

Peer into the face of any of America’s 2.5 million+ homeless children. What could you do to ease their suffering? A toy for Christmas does not assuage their basic human need of housing, but that seems to be all they’re likely to get, and even less from our perpetually politically-hamstrung, priority-challenged Congress. 

Let’s stop pretending that homeless kids count. They don’t. 

HUD (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) continues to deny their existence, saying that families and youth who’ve lost housing and rely on a patchwork quilt of nightly accommodations—insecurely doubling up with a succession of friends, families and acquaintances; bouncing in and out of cut-rate motels—are not “really homeless." The only “benefit” of this declaration is to keep the homeless numbers down and avoid addressing the surging increase in families, youth and adults without a place to call home.

An effort to expand the definition of homelessness to bring HUD’s definition in line with the Department of Education’s definition, one that reflects reality, is still being pondered by Congress. HUD’s annual Annual Homelessness Assessment Report (AHAR), indicates a slight decrease in homelessness, based on their “Point In Time” (PIT) count, a process criticized by homeless children/youth advocates. “The obvious discrepancy between the AHAR numbers and what any provider, public school employee, or American who regularly walks down a city street can see with their own eyes, calls into question the need for the AHAR and indeed, the purpose of the PIT counts,” stated Ruth White, executive director of National Center for Housing and Child Welfare, in a recent press release criticizing HUD’s PIT and AHAR.

Surprisingly, the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 recently made it through Congress and was just signed by President Obama. The new law includes a sliver of language addressing the issue of education for homeless students, finally reauthorizing the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Act, last addressed in 2001. Unfortunately, this legislation includes a recommendation for a paltry amount of funding, $71.5 million, resulting in what my educator-friend points out boils down to an “unfunded mandate.” I can hardly argue.

In the 10 years I’ve been traveling backroads of America to chronicle the plight and promise of homeless children and youth under my nonprofit banner “HEAR US,” the number of homeless students identified by schools has more than doubled, from 600,000 to the current 1,360,747. During that time, funding to help schools cope with this growing population has languished, to say the least. Current funding is a mere $65 million, “up” from $62 million in 2006, reaching about 10% of districts. Money is used to provide supplies, tutors, and transportation as well as pay for staff on the state and local level to coordinate services for homeless students. So much for “homeless kids count.”

Education alone will not alleviate homelessness among families and youth, though without it they’ll have no chance to get ahead. Mostly ignored by mainstream media, accounts of homeless students breaking the chains of poverty merit sporadic coverage, highlighting their hard work and luck, but sadly diverting attention from the millions experiencing daunting struggles with poverty, gut-rumbling hunger, immobilizing trauma, debilitating physical and mental health issues (kids and their parents), and numbing insecurity, the result of not knowing where to sleep at night.

One family I’ve met in my travels, a mother of 2 girls forced to ask her ex-husband to care for their daughter until she finds a secure place to live, illustrates the devastation of homelessness. The mom has continued to try to work, providing in-home health care in return for lodging for her and her youngest daughter. In the process she’s endured grueling abuse from her hosts. Imagine the worst. 

The mother is traumatized, immobilized. She struggles to make productive decisions for her and her daughter, but she’s not able to because the help they need doesn’t exist. Her college degree and rusty work ethic will hardly provide the escape from this “non-homeless” homelessness. No jobs, much less those paying a living wage. No shelters. No affordable housing. No transportation. No counseling. No health care. 

So looking her 8-year-old daughter in the eyes, all I can do is offer an inadequate “Merry Christmas” and a stuffed animal. I painfully know it is not enough. 

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Disturbing Shelter Sights and Sounds--Something You Can Do To Help

Watch this 4-min HEAR US video I filmed at
Carlisle Cares.
From my vantage point, tethered to the electrical outlet a few feet from the front door of the daytime
resource center at Carlisle Cares, I heard the morning murmurs of the early arrivals, those who walked in the brisk Pennsylvania morning from the Quaker Meeting House converted last night into a haven for dozens of homeless adults and kids.

Thuds as the center’s door closed. Rumble of wheels from those wondrously easy rolling suitcases that carry the humble possessions. Grumbles and giggles from big people and little ones. 

I spent a few days in Carlisle before continuing my 10th Anniversary, 10,000 mile HEAR US cross-country jaunt, giving talks, screening my documentaries, and doing whatever I can to raise awareness of homeless families and youth.

This tiny borough, population 19,000, has an remarkable 3 shelters that accept families. Even more astounding to the unknowing—the shelters are over capacity. And it was “only” mid October. This program is way over their capacity of 64—a census hovering in the mid 80s and 20+ children.

Babies and toddlers, toted and tugged by stressed out moms and dads. Discarded youth, over 18 (the legal age for shelter admittance, leaving the younger ones to predators and chance). Blended in with mostly single men and a handful of women.

I focused on kids and families. PA has way more than 23,000.

Contrary to the demented rantings of a blowhard media “news” figure who blissfully and erroneously maintains that this burgeoning hungry and homeless kids’ crisis is a hoax, more and more families and youth find themselves with nowhere to go.

And contrary to unenlightened popular belief, most communities have nowhere to go for these vulnerable young people, including hoards of babies and toddlers with desperate and despairing parents, even for the night. Ask around your community—any shelters that accept families, intact or single parents, dads with kids? Are they full?

Even established nonprofit (and I really mean NON profit) programs like Carlisle Cares struggle to patch together a nightly shelter program, utilizing area faith communities willing to turn their halls and classrooms into havens for homeless kids and adults in their community, providing a handful of devoted volunteers to keep watch over their homeless guests. (Donate to their holiday challenge)

Beyond the incalculable numbers (millions, Mr. O’Reilly), are the little things you might not think about that bedevil programs like Cares. They’re not really set up to handle record numbers of kids. They struggle to keep a supply of vitals—diapers, formula, baby food--and have an embarrassing dearth of kids’ stuff—coloring books and games, DVDs, books, and the kind of things that can keep kids busy for a few moments. Kids’ basics—underwear, socks, shoes, coats, clothing—forget it. 

One of my HEAR US board members, Rita Sullivan, decided to act on these needs. She’s in Illinois—but she’s met Pat LaMarche, the shelter manager and Babe of Wrath. Rita decided to help the families there.  She solicited the items listed below and sent them to Carlisle Cares.

Here's an ongoing wish list for items needed at Cares. New items are best, but gently-used accepted. If you're not near the sweet town of Carlisle, you can order online and have items delivered.
  • diapers and pull-ups, all sizes
  • formula and baby food
  • baby wipes
  • coloring books, crayons
  • puzzles (all ages)
  • kids' books
  • kids' socks and undies (new)
Now, make the next sound heard here the rumble of delivery trucks as they drop off packages that show you care for the families of Carlisle Cares. The kids’ giggles and happy sounds from parents, staff and Cares’ guests will make it all worth it. (And remember--they need items and support year-round!)

(And if you'd rather do this for your local shelter, great! Call and see what they need.)