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Raising 5 Kids in a Tiny Camper? The Atrocious Ways America Treats Poor Women and Children

What happened to a safety net that's supposed to catch poor women and children when they fall?

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Families like Stacy’s often  turn to motels, an expensive and complicated solution. Motels allow families to pay by the day or week, not requiring deposits or credit checks, and they include utilities and amenities such as TV and air conditioning. But it requires a tremendous chunk of a family’s tenuous monthly income, using their limited resources up to pay the room, leaving nothing to help them get out of their quagmire. The grueling small space—I’ve been in a 200-sq. ft. room shared by mom, dad and their 5 kids—lack of cooking facilities and no privacy are at the top of complaints I’ve heard from these beleaguered and invisible families. But it’s better than the streets.

Short-Term and Long-Term Solutions

Ignored, to this day, is the need for a flexible variety of family housing solutions with layers of services to address the  ongoing trauma and physical damages caused and worsened by abject poverty and homelessness.  It is possible, but rare.

Respected programs, such as  UMOM in Phoenix, AZ, demonstrate commendable determination to create myriad housing and individually tailored services, as opposed to inadequate one-size-fits-all approaches. UMOM keeps families together, avoiding what my colleague  Pat LaMarche refers to as the “Sophie’s Choice of the 21st Century” conundrum, where the parent has to farm out their teenage males because the shelter bans boys over a certain age (as young as 10) or stay together in adverse circumstances—sleeping in a car, storage shed, leaky camper, or with unscrupulous hosts.

On our 2013 southwest tour to raise awareness and inspire compassion for homeless families, youth and individuals, when asked by  The Young Turks host Cenk Ugyur’s about what’s needed to address homelessness, my Babes of Wrath colleague Pat LaMarche provided a perfect answer: housing. 

For Stacy, finding a way out was essential, but daunting. I became more involved, conducting long-distance advocacy for her family with the local housing authority. The HPRP, Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-housing Plan, part of  Obama’s under-hyped stimulus plan, became her ticket to permanent housing. Because she had no criminal record and didn’t abuse substances, she qualified. Her family moved into a full-size house trailer, two-thirds of her rent paid by the housing authority. Compared to many other families, Stacy's is lucky, for now. 


Diane Nilan is president HEAR US, a nonprofit dedicated to giving voice and visibility to homeless children and youth.

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