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 30, 2017

Happy Birthday, HEAR US! True Confessions

All I can remember about 12 years ago was scrambling. And anxiety. And plenty of stifled doubt.

I was in the process of giving birth to HEAR US Inc., the incorporation took place on July 1, 2005, overseen by our attorney-friend Judd Lofchie. 

Now I can admit: I had no clue what I was getting into. I had decided to sell my townhome, my SUV, most of my stuff to buy a small RV that would become my home-office-wheels. I had never been in an RV before. I had to buy a pro video camera, with mics and paraphernalia. I had never filmed video before. I figured I’d travel to non-urban places where families and youth experiencing homelessness would hopefully speak with me on camera for a documentary which I had no clue about how to produce.

Amazing things happened! Help came in all sorts of ways. My friends Betsy and Francois held a massive fundraiser dinner (over $7,000 raised, enough to give me courage to proceed). A generous $5,000 grant from the Aurora Foundation allowed me to buy video equipment. Immeasurable donations large and modest bolstered my courage. Prayers and well-wishes continue to pave my route.

My friends agreed to serve on the board of directors for this venture which I could only vaguely explain. They kept their doubts to themselves. Incredibly, most of them are with me still! 

July 1, 2005 was the birth of this unimaginable journey called HEAR US Inc. 

I’ve met courageous kids and parents who’ve compellingly articulated their plight and promise. School personnel, including selfless McKinney-Vento liaisons doing the impossible, trusted me enough to connect me with their students and families. Donors generously filled the coffers as I nervously checked the bank balance, calculating how few months remained if money didn’t come in. Friendly strangers became friends, eventually strengthened by the unimaginable social media Facebook. Media folks poked into this weird story and managed to report honestly which gave me cred. Willing homeowners let me park in their driveways and plug into their outlets. 

The hundreds of interviews I’ve done are real life films thanks to my video guru and friend Laura Vazquez, professor at Northern Illinois University who taught me all things I now know about documentary making. 

Daniel Riefstahl, PixelPoint Creative, stepped up when a friend asked, becoming my web guy, designing the HEAR US website and providing much-needed tech assistance over the years. 

Jim Robbs, Sassetti Inc., agreed to provide the financial management and reporting tasks to keep HEAR US in good standing with the IRS. 
Oh yeah, they do this stuff free. Good, because HEAR US never had the kind of money that would have been needed to do what they’ve done. (And so many more people did so much more...I'll never be able to list everyone!) 

Flipping through my journal (yes, I’d love to write a book about this adventure), I laughed out loud about tech issues (getting cellphone signal, much less connecting to the internet). My naiveté about all things RV made life interesting, and a few times scary, especially as I encountered storms or had mechanical issues. 

I won’t bore you with the details. I get nostalgic on these milestone occasions. Besides the nostalgia, I have a deep sense of gratitude that I am inadequately expressing. 

The focus of my efforts has been, and continues to be, giving voice and visibility to families and youth experiencing homelessness. My purpose is to raise awareness of and sensitivity to these kids and parents without homes who try gallantly to get an education and to have a life beyond homelessness. My commitment to them is to get their stories in front of as many eyes as possible. 

You, dear reader, friend or stranger, are the one who can make this possible. I’m not asking for your money (although that’s always welcomed and needed in this frugal operation). I need your time, your networks, your energy to get the word out about this problem we’ve yet to address as a nation.  

I’m on RV #2, a smaller rig that gets double gas mileage. I’ve got at least 300,000 miles of mostly backroads travel through 48 states under my belt. I have no idea how long I’ll continue this unique mission. My health and determination are solid. Family and youth homelessness soars. More states are asking me to film families and youth experiencing homelessness. 

This adventure is beyond my wildest dreams. Thank you. 

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Beyond the Obvious, Reasons to Fear for Homeless Families

Most enlightened people can grasp the common concepts of why homeless families become and remain homeless so long. Realities like:
  • An appalling shortage of decent affordable market-rate housing; 
  • An even worse dearth of subsidized housing, with wait-lists of 5 years and more;
  • Stringent, some would say impossible, credit requirements filtering out people in poverty (those with tainted credit tend to be the most impoverished);
  • Harsh penalties for those who’ve done time in prison—banning them from even stepping onto public housing projects, excluding them from consideration as tenants in the private market.
  • Exorbitant application fees that don’t get refunded if an applicant is denied. 
  • Steep deposits, for housing and utilities, which often get kissed goodbye when the tenant moves out.
(Read Matt Desmond’s excellent expose on this topic, Evicted. Or my 1-page "Causes of Homelessness" from my book, Crossing the Line: Taking Steps to End Homelessness.)

That's tough enough, as exemplified by our nation’s record high number of families in homeless situations. 

HUD’s (U.S. Dept. of Housing and Human Development) policies  and their continuing refusal to acknowledge the horrifying level of homelessness among families and youth, will only get worse with an incoming clueless HUD Secretary.

While HUD is dancing around the Washington Monument waving banners proclaiming “Homelessness Is Ending!” the U.S. Department of Education grimly points to the doubling of homeless students identified since schools began seriously counting back in 2006. The number of students—not parents, older/younger siblings, nor those still unidentified—has doubled, from about 600,000 to more than 1.3 million in 2015

That's bad enough, but another barrier exists that causes, perpetuates and prevents homelessness from ending. It doesn’t get discussed much publicly. But it needs to be addressed. 


That one word encompasses physical, mental, sexual abuse that creates a sense of panic, dread, and immobility, to name a few manifestations. This affliction often sabotages a person’s return to self-sufficiency. It’s the invisible demon that lingers in the background, waiting for the opportune moment to shatter any chance of progress. 

I’ve seen it time and time again. Depending on the damage the trauma has inflicted, some are rendered pathetically, frustratingly immobile when it surfaces.

We’ve heard “PTSD” referring to soldiers exposed to horrors of war. Post traumatic stress disorder. It’s not just a way of explaining away unacceptable behaviors of our troops. Or our citizens. Lady Gaga’s admission of her PTSD recently rocked her fandom. 

It’s far past time to acknowledge that those exposed to violence—mental, physical and/or sexual—are vulnerable to PTSD. Their trauma is real. As I’m witnessing now.

The mother who, after 3 long years of enduring and surviving incomprehensible abuse and hardships, including homelessness that resulted in her family being split up for survival’s sake, has an opportunity to move out of her (and her daughter’s) hell-hole of indentured servitude and homelessness into a decent, affordable place of their own. 

I suspect the demon is circling, pushing her vulnerable self-esteem against the wall, shouting the abusive chant that she’s unworthy, that she’ll fail, so why should she try. 

She texted me to ask how soon she should tell her sinister employer/housing provider that she and her daughter are moving. Reading between the lines of this short text, she wants to, understandably, tell him to “f-ck off,” a satisfying response to a hated bully. 

Her justifiable anger is ready to spew, amassed over years of abusive, demeaning, brutal experiences that have threatened her wellbeing, and worse, that of her children, just as she’s about to break out of this prison. 

Not now, I uncharacteristically advised. He can kick you to the curb, or make your lives even more miserable while we’re waiting for the languid housing authority to hand her the keys. 

She thanked me for my counsel and said this will be, next to the birth of her kids, the best Christmas ever (we agreed to postpone the celebration of Christmas by a month, figuring they’ll be in their new home). 

This can be my best Christmas, with my fingers crossed that she can hang in and make this happen. Selfishly, I could use a reason to cheer 2017’s inauspicious arrival. Demon, be gone!

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

A Homeless Family's Christmas Tale: From Ogre to Oh My God!

Melissa kept sobbing “Oh my God!” Probably 50 times. 

Then she said the phrase that caused me to cringe. “We don’t have to worry about The Man anymore.”

Spoken by the absolutely desperate mother of a young girl. They, by virtue of desperate poverty and homelessness, were doubled up in a hardscrabble Kansas town. This Mom and her 9-year-old daughter share a small, dark room in return for the mother’s providing in-home health services to the disabled wheelchair-bound, obese and allegedly perverted homeowner, a man whose 2 teens who also live in this menagerie.

I’ve known this mother for over 2 years. I’ve known others who’ve known her longer. So I know her story rings true. She’s allowed me to share it (4-min. video) hoping it would enlighten or embolden other women (and maybe men) in similar situations.   

As with far too many women, she found herself and her 2 daughters bouncing from couch to motel to basement floor and around again after her marriage broke up—shattering both her jaw and self-esteem. She worked the jobs mothers can work when juggling child care, school obligations, and pernicious poverty. Instability was their constant companion. So was violence, sexual abuse, and hopelessness.
The one insurmountable barrier to returning to any kind of normal living was a $2500 debt to the local housing authority. It’s a long story, but trust me when I say this mom found herself doing something most of us would have done, and she was “sentenced”  to 5 years of hard time (homelessness), barred from the only affordable housing in Kansas—subsidized by the federal government via HUD (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development). 
I kept in contact with her for reasons I cannot explain. Maybe because she was the one mother I interviewed who had no one. I encouraged her when my normally optimistic self was cringing at the hopelessness of her situation. I suggested that she apply for a housing voucher before the new HUD administration takes over. She did, and was told that she’d be eligible (strict guidelines) as long as she was able to pay her arrearage. I personally tried to get them to waive all/part, to no avail.

Through a lot of luck, I was able to find donors to clear her debt. She meets with the housing authority person next week. They evidently have a unit ready for her and her family. 

Families (and individuals) who live in these horrible conditions for so long need time to adjust to having their own place. The trauma they’ve experienced for so long follows them like a vicious tornado cloud ready to tear their fragile lives to shreds. And too often, the earlier experience of homelessness often leads to homelessness as an adult. All is not “happily ever after” yet, and maybe ever.

Imagine yourself as a parent in this situation, what would it mean to have your own place? And try to imagine Melissa’s relief when she realizes, “We don’t have to worry about The Man anymore.”

Be assured—she’s not the only parent in this situation.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Babies Beware! Billionaire Blathering

Babe of Wrath Pat LaMarche stood with her sign outside
the Janesville, WI office of Speaker Paul Ryan. The police were
summoned. She collected $6.79, and donated it to HEAR US. 
It’s not easy to stand on a street corner with a sign—asking for money or demanding justice. Between hecklers and honkers, and those who pass you by like litter, it takes a hefty dose of chutzpah to put yourself out there. Three good-hearted women in Greenville, MI discovered the perils of panhandling last Friday.

Panhandling is one of the least popular “professions” in America, aside from politicians and plumbers. That loaded term demeans those standing on street corners asking for money. Think of it as people trying to earn money honestly since they’ve been shut out of the brutal employment market.

The women who stood with their cardboard signs in this nondescript Michigan town were calling attention to homeless babies and children. 

What? Babies and children are homeless? It never ceases to surprise me how many are, and how few know. Using numbers of actually identified homeless students, I’ve estimated that probably 3 million kids in America—from infants to youth approaching adulthood—are homeless. That number shocks me. And I’ve been doing this work for over 3 decades. 

A couple years ago I visited with Becky, an astute mom in central Michigan, not far from Greenville. She, along with her family, had experienced homelessness, including a brutal winter in a pop-up camper. In 3 minutes she can enlighten and maybe inspire you. 

My national nonprofit, HEAR US Inc., “specializes” in raising awareness of homeless children and youth. For the past 11 years I’ve traveled more than 300,000 miles of mostly backroads to chronicle the kind of homelessness the press, politicians and the public fail to see. It’s not a pretty picture. And it’s about to get worse. 
My prediction isn’t based on partisan politics. It’s based on how a billionaire buffoon’s blathering bamboozled bubbleheads’ beliefs. 

Enough alliteration. For now. 

Having been around the block a few times during presidential elections, and being fascinated by media, I’ve witnessed the power of the idiotic overpowering the essential. I knew it was coming in this incessant election "news" cycle that had millions wanting to stick our heads into pencil sharpeners. And it’s not over.

That doesn’t bode well for vulnerable populations, homeless babies and children for example. HEAR US worked hard to create a catchy project, Yay Babies! Yay Kids!, to call positive attention to the millions of little and bigger kids without homes. Our effort offers free materials—a catchy short PSA (Public Service Announcement) video about babies, and a simple flyer with 3 action steps to help babies in local communities—and a modestly-priced ($10) guide, The Charlie Book: 60 Ways to Help Homeless Kids, to, well, you know. 

Despite my cogent nature, I had hoped these tools would light the world on fire, or at least generate a sizable and viral ripple that would make sure we are at least caring for the basic needs of babies and kids without homes. Um, well, no. 

But it’s not too late. The tools stand ready:
All that’s needed is you. 

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

4G Means 4 Generations, Homeless

4 generations of homeless families in one camper. That almost seems impossible. But I saw them with my own eyes. 

Their ancient camper belonged to the great grandparents. Great grandpa died, and when things fell apart for his widow (Gen1), her daughter (Gen2) and their 4 dogs—eviction. The mother (Gen3) and her family—husband (who works), 3 kids and their dog also lost their housing. Eventually all the families moved into this little home on wheels. It’s safe to say they didn’t choose this cramped lifestyle because they like the togetherness of a 32’ camper.

When I met them, they were in a Washington state park. These parks aren't cheap and have time limits, usually 10-14 days, I suspect to keep the “riffraff" from moving in and not moving out. I could be among the riffraff on my HEAR US journey, but that’s another story for another day. This conglomeration of campers discovered that old RVs are not allowed in some parks, though state parks haven’t gotten that fussy, yet. 

Dad works, 2 part-time jobs, lots of hours, but at $10 an hour, with no benefits and lots of schedule juggling, he doesn’t make that much. What he does make gets scarfed up by the sleazy auto loan people who enticed him into financing a beater van. 

When the family's stability crumbled, they fell behind on the payments and it was repossessed. But they still must pay the loan, so his paychecks are garnished, $200 a week! This leaves very little to live on and the insult of paying on a vehicle they’ll never see again. One more big thing. Because of this ding on their credit, landlords won’t rent to them, and they can’t get into subsidized housing. 

Their RV furnace isn’t working, and as cooler temps become the norm, that will be an issue. Everyone in this crowd has serious health issues, a byproduct of poverty. With my 11 years of full-time camping, I cannot imagine being in a camper with this many folks and having anyone sick, much less everyone.

Evidently the 2 grandmas will be moving out in a couple weeks, hopefully to an adequate place. That will give the family some breathing room, maybe easing the naturally-occurring stress when you have too many people in too small of a space with too many things going wrong.

As strange as it seems, the kids are being “home-schooled,” or “homeless-schooled.” I’ve encountered other families in similar situations trying this approach. Gallant efforts not withstanding, it’s not a good thing. But I understand why the families do it. Logistics are daunting, and sometimes schools aren’t that homeless-friendly. 

The McKinney-Vento homeless liaison in this area is involved with the family and will get things worked out, eventually. No easy task, though the district recently received a significant state grant that should help. In the meantime, she’s delivered sleeping bags, coats, book bags with all the fixin’s, and clothes. And her direct phone number. And a heap of compassion. 

The obstacles in front of this family are complicated. Their prospects for escaping this nomadic lifestyle are slim. They’re not alone. In one day I heard 3 stories from 3 Vancouver area families that made me so very sad, for them, and for the invisible families all over with stories like this and worse. 

I’m not new to this horrible reality. For over 3 decades I’ve worked on homelessness issues. I ran shelters. I’ve interviewed countless families and kids who’ve experienced every form of homelessness possible. I’ve seen multi-generations, but never 4. Our country has yet to put enough effort into reducing family homelessness for one generation. Now we're up to 4G. 

(HEAR US is working on a statewide film of family/youth homelessness in Washington, contracted by the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, McKinney-Vento program)

Monday, August 22, 2016

I'm No Wuss, But...

I’ve been living in a van/RV for the past 11 years. I’ve traveled to 48 states, over 300,000 mostly backroads miles chronicling homelessness of families/youth under my HEAR US Inc. ( banner.

I’ve been in blizzards (Snowzilla is the latest), dust storms, powerful wind and rain storms, and have lucked out avoiding hurricanes, tornadoes, and wildfires, with close calls. I’ve been in places cold enough to freeze all my water systems (thawing in a fire barn once) and in places hot and humid enough to scare me from any hell-earning behavior. I’m no wuss, but I’ve come to accept that cold is better than heat--not by much. 

My latest projects is a trifecta--filming in Oregon, Washington, then Idaho--three separate projects focused on how schools work with homeless families/youth. I’ve been hired because, I’d like to think, I’ve gotten pretty darn good at making documentaries of this topic, perhaps a product of my 3+ decades of homelessness work. 

When I made arrangements for this trip I naively thought “Great! A nice time to be in this part of the country!” Silly me. 

I’m in the middle of my first heatwave, with temps hitting 105. Fortunately it cools off dramatically at night.  I naively thought since this round of scorching temperatures is supposed to abate tomorrow, that I was done with the heat. But not so fast. Give it a few days and we’re right back up to the 100s again.

For me, the heat is inconvenient. I need to either sweat and film during the hottest part of the day or find a place to stay cool during the afternoon/early evening hours. It’s a challenge, but I’ve got resources so I can make stuff work.

What has been painfully evident to me--because I see it with my own eyes--is the number of infirm adults without homes, some very obviously seniors, who are out in this heat with no relief. In many cases, they have no place to go--few shelters, especially in the smaller cities and towns, much less rural areas. Oh yeah, they’re probably all hungry and quite thirsty, and often scorned.

The other reality--unlike my previous northwest area trips--is the absolute ban on anyone sleeping anywhere but a motel or expensive campground (most of which have been at capacity) or shelter (not always an option). I’ve joined the ranks of people without homes--though, again, I have resources--who are not wanted. For me it’s a good, albeit painful, experience. 

I’ve scrambled to find places, tapping resources of friends and friends of friends (thanks Facebook!) who might let me park stealthily in a driveway. I’ve drifted into a restless sleep, pretty sure I’d be disturbed by the authorities (or booted, like I was in Atlanta a couple years ago). 

Those not as lucky as me tough it out in a variety of abysmal situations--in the woods, in storage units, in vehicles that will often get ticketed or impounded--and all of those “solutions” are horrible for any number of reasons. Families often double up (or worse). Youth commonly “couch surf” or find abandoned buildings.
Homelessness is out of control--an assessment I don’t make lightly. Despite the gallant efforts of both those in this quicksand-like situation and those truly trying helping them escape, it’s getting worse, not better. I see far too many people on street corners or in doorways--way more than I’ve seen in previous treks through these same areas--to think we’re making progress. (My anecdotal observations are at least as valid as the inaccurate federal census of this nomadic population.)

I suppose it’s too much to expect that we’ll make any significant dent easing homelessness. It’s not part of the political priorities of either party. So our best bet is to build an underground railroad. It worked once. I’m sure it will again--if we can maintain some level of humanity. Let’s Make America Kind Again. Or something.

(Thanks to Mary Ann Parks for the design of this bumper sticker which you can actually order (for only $5 + shipping)!

Friday, July 22, 2016

Let Yay Babies! Work For You—Locally!

Leave it to the littlest ones to get attention about homeless families. HEAR US launched Yay Babies! Yay Kids! in July and received an unprecedented response!

Our cutest video ever was viewed over 2,000 times in less than a week! With lots of shares! And plenty of kudos! 

Yay Babies! video focuses on the youngest segment of this almost invisible population. It’s designed to be used by as many people as possible to share in their LOCAL circles to generate support for LOCAL babies—collecting diapers, baby food, formula, etc.— to donate to a LOCAL program serving LOCAL babies.
Yay Babies! Facebook PageYay Babies! Yay Kids! HEAR US Page
Get it? LOCAL. HEAR US created this awesomely cute short (less than 2 min.) video for you to use locally. It’s that cute. It will generate response—and you’ll be able to collect items—diapers, formula, baby food, etc.—for the LOCAL babies whose families struggle to survive. And, most importantly it will generate awareness of the massive number of homeless babies, toddlers, kids, youth, and parents that seems to be a surprise to most. 

HEAR US also generated a simple flyer to go along with your local campaign. And it has room for LOCAL contact info. Email Diane for the PDF file.

Thanks to the Justice Peace and Integrity of Creation commission of the Joliet Franciscan Sisters for the grant to film, produce and promote the Yay Babies! film. 

Oh yeah. All of this is free. HEAR US relies on donations and occasional grants or speaker’s fees. So we encourage those who can to become monthly supporters so we can keep these babies and other young ‘uns in the faces of those who need to have their consciences poked.

And very soon we’ll launch a powerful tool for Yay Kids! Stay tuned!