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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?

The following article is part of AlterNet's ongoing series on poverty in America, Hard Times USA. 

Leaving her husband became the only option for "Stacy" after he became violent with the children.  She returned to her hometown, Las Cruces, NM, with her 5 little boys in tow. Other than lacking an emergency family shelter, this is a pleasant mid-sized city. The family stayed for a while at the domestic violence shelter. Her time there ended without her finding housing, and she scrambled for a desperate, stopgap solution: her mother’s old, tiny camper.

For $300 a month, including utilities, the family could park their leaky camper in a park in her town. She had no money. We connected at the campground and made arrangements with the manager. Stacy didn’t have the prerequisite water and sewer hoses or electrical adapters.

For years, I've travelled the country meeting families in desperate straights. My 27’ motorhome teaches me how to live small, but I cringed as I left her and her under-9 troop of boys in their 13’ tin-can-home. She stalwartly said they’d make it despite sporadic child support, a host of legal and custodial issues swarming around her, unaddressed trauma lingering like storm clouds, and the challenges of raising a large family in miniscule space.

Much of what I have continued to learn about the inadequacies of our so-called safety net I’ve learned from families like Stacy’s. As with everything else, it’s theory and reality. The theory—resources are available to assist families in homeless situations—is dreadfully far removed from reality. Let me explain.

Poverty—Fast Track to Homelessness

For the 7 million families hovering in poverty, longtime homelessness expert, Dr. Ralph Nunez, founder of the  Institute of Children, Poverty and Homelessness, bluntly predicted the ominous reality when he said: “If you’re going to be poor in the 21st Century, you’re going to be homeless.”

Reasons include: Skyrocketing housing costs, stagnating wages, plummeting employment, unaffordable health care, shredded safety net programs, and failed child welfare practices, including the abuse and neglect of the foster care system ( 1-page list of causes of homelessness from my book,  Crossing the Line: Taking Steps to End Homelessness). Two decades of that deterioration has left its mark. The economic malaise of the oil and housing bust jolted previously stable families, pushing many into poverty and homelessness, ill-equipped to navigate the fragmented assistance network, straining existing resources.

Ancillary services that might ease family homelessness—legal assistance, child welfare programs, nutrition, counseling, childcare—were also slashed. Stacy and millions of other families found themselves with no recourse. It’s ugly.

Stacy and her boys would not get out of their 13’  camper for a brutal 6 months, enduring heat, cold and dust storms. In that time, because of the trauma she’s experienced that tends to make women vulnerable for bad relationships, she became pregnant. This loving mother didn’t consider another mouth to feed as a problem. Enduring pregnancy in the below-freezing winter and sizzling summer was indescribable. 

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

The Feds Get Dragged Into Addressing Homelessness

Spurred by my mentor and ferocious radical  Mitch Snyder’s relentless hunger strikes and activism, President Reagan directed Congress to designate a modicum of money and administrative attention to address homelessness back in 1987. The McKinney Act, now the  McKinney-Vento Act, is the supposedly comprehensive federal plan to address homelessness.

Federal law mandates that all federal departments sit at the same table to coordinate efforts, under the auspices of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, USICH. However, scant attention and resources (a meager $2 billion) are  ineffectively directed at this growing national crisis.

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