homeless_baby_girl
Homeless people have shelters to go to, a common belief comforting those who don’t know better. 

Having just come from the community-based shelter where my friend and colleague Pat LaMarche works, having run shelters for 15 years myself, having seen shelters across the country for the past 9 years of my HEAR US traveling, I find myself seething at the perverted reality of what our shelter “system” is in this affluent country.

Pat’s shelter is probably average (no offense!). It’s in a middle-income borough in sort of central PA. Hundreds of similar communities dot the Keystone State. This community is quite unusual, with 3 shelters—one in a fixed site, this one which rotates to different places of worship—and a Salvation Army shelter for families. Stephanie, the shelter founder, fights hard to keep this meager operation going, knowing that 55 people a night will have a safe place to sleep. 

I listened as Pat answered one of many phone calls she and other staff get during the day. “I’m sorry, we’re full,” was the gist of it. The caller, a woman staying in her car. It’s below freezing tonight. Pat referred her to a neighboring community’s rotating site “shelter” program. At least she has a car, and gas is cheaper. Maybe she’ll get a spot to sleep.

Many shelters operate on paltry budgets, forcing them to creatively get around the lack of space and staff by setting hours that minimize the operations’ expenses. Pat’s shelter busses people to the night site which opens at 9:30 p.m. Everyone has to be out by 7 a.m., bussed back to this modest base so everyone can go on their way.

Imagine life for school kids—to bed by 10 if they’re lucky, up at 6:30, on a bus at 7 to go back to shelter headquarters to wash up and grab breakfast before heading out to school. Not a lot of quality time for homework, much less sleep and normalcy. The pads on the floor squeezed together don’t allow for privacy, or sleep. 

Volunteers and a skeleton staff make this emergency arrangement possible. And it’s much better than everyone cuddling up on the street. In Phoenix, the county is contemplating shutting down their overflow shelter—a bleak warehouse that offers nothing but a place on the floor for hundreds of desperate men.

Reading Bill Moyer’s post on homelessness, I found myself torn. His valid perspective is tainted by the use of wildly-delusional statistics provided by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. HUD’s official report to Congress, which determines funding for homelessness programs, was that 578,424 people were homeless last year.  

This extremely narrow enumeration hardly counts homelessness at all. It’s a one-night point-in-time count that, despite sincerely stalwart efforts by professionals and volunteers, documents a mere drop in the vast sea of people—adults and kids, oldsters and babies and those in between—with no place to go.

Case in point, the U.S. Department of Education reported that almost 1.3 million students without homes were identified in the 2013 school year, a staggering 72% increase since 2006. T America’s Youngest Outcasts reports over 2.5 million CHILDREN are homeless, not including parents or single adults. So, HUD’s report…just a tad under-representing the crisis.

I left as Pat headed down the garbage bag-lined hallway, holiday clothing donations. Folks were quietly waiting at tables. If you’d could ask, you’d hear about boredom, frustration finding housing or jobs, regrets about burned bridges and family alienation, and gratitude that at least they have some place to turn to on this cold Pennsylvania night where they’ll be safe. 

It’s perverted that they should feel grateful. It’s perverted that many communities have no shelters. It’s perverted that HUD is pushing “Housing First” with inadequate resources to help those who need it, and we’ll see the perverted action of the 114th Congress, which doesn’t begin to have a clue as to the staggering scope homeless Americans, as they likely slash spending for human needs.

homeless_baby_girl
Homeless people have shelters to go to, a common belief comforting those who don’t know better. 

Having just come from the community-based shelter where my friend and colleague Pat LaMarche works, having run shelters for 15 years myself, having seen shelters across the country for the past 9 years of my HEAR US traveling, I find myself seething at the perverted reality of what our shelter “system” is in this affluent country.

Pat’s shelter is probably average (no offense!). It’s in a middle-income borough in sort of central PA. Hundreds of similar communities dot the Keystone State. This community is quite unusual, with 3 shelters—one in a fixed site, this one which rotates to different places of worship—and a Salvation Army shelter for families. Shari Bellish, Carlisle Cares founder, fights hard to keep this meager operation going, knowing that 55 people a night will have a safe place to sleep. 

I listened as Pat answered one of many phone calls she and other staff get during the day. “I’m sorry, we’re full,” was the gist of it. The caller, a woman staying in her car. It’s below freezing tonight. Pat referred her to a neighboring community’s rotating site “shelter” program. At least she has a car, and gas is cheaper. Maybe she’ll get a spot to sleep.

Many shelters operate on paltry budgets, forcing them to creatively get around the lack of space and staff by setting hours that minimize the operations’ expenses. Pat’s shelter busses people to the night site which opens at 9:30 p.m. Everyone has to be out by 7 a.m., bussed back to this modest base so everyone can go on their way.

Imagine life for school kids—to bed by 10 if they’re lucky, up at 6:30, on a bus at 7 to go back to shelter headquarters to wash up and grab breakfast before heading out to school. Not a lot of quality time for homework, much less sleep and normalcy. The pads on the floor squeezed together don’t allow for privacy, or sleep. 

Volunteers and a skeleton staff make this emergency arrangement possible. And it’s much better than everyone cuddling up on the street. In Phoenix, the county is contemplating shutting down their overflow shelter—a bleak warehouse that offers nothing but a place on the floor for hundreds of desperate men.

Reading Bill Moyer’s post on homelessness, I found myself torn. His valid perspective is tainted by the use of wildly-delusional statistics provided by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. HUD’s official report to Congress, which determines funding for homelessness programs, was that 578,424 people were homeless last year.  

This extremely narrow enumeration hardly counts homelessness at all. It’s a one-night point-in-time count that, despite sincerely stalwart efforts by professionals and volunteers, documents a mere drop in the vast sea of people—adults and kids, oldsters and babies and those in between—with no place to go.

Case in point, the U.S. Department of Education reported that almost 1.3 million students without homes were identified in the 2013 school year, a staggering 72% increase since 2006. T America’s Youngest Outcasts reports over 2.5 million CHILDREN are homeless, not including parents or single adults. So, HUD’s report…just a tad under-representing the crisis.

I left as Pat headed down the garbage bag-lined hallway, holiday clothing donations. Folks were quietly waiting at tables. If you’d could ask, you’d hear about boredom, frustration finding housing or jobs, regrets about burned bridges and family alienation, and gratitude that at least they have some place to turn to on this cold Pennsylvania night where they’ll be safe. 

It’s perverted that they should feel grateful. It’s perverted that many communities have no shelters. It’s perverted that HUD is pushing “Housing First” with inadequate resources to help those who need it, and we’ll see the perverted action of the 114th Congress, which doesn’t begin to have a clue as to the staggering scope homeless Americans, as they likely slash spending for human needs.

tinas_trailer
Not a feel-good post. No serve-cookies-to-homeless-kids kinda holiday joy. Nope. I’m too worried about a formerly-and-(likely)soon-to-be-homeless family, mom and her 7 small kids that I know. 

Stop with the “why did she have 7 kids if she was going to be homeless?” crap. That’s a dead giveaway that you don’t know what it’s like to be a woman, and you certainly don’t understand homelessness. Few women I know planned for homelessness. Most don’t have 100% control over their reproductive “choices,” to say the least. Need to know more? View my film, on the edge: Family Homelessness in America.

Tina’s homeless/near-homelessness saga has been going on for years following the divorce which needed to happen. It’s an in/out form of torture that would appeal to the likes of Dick Cheney. You think you can breathe once you get your “own” place—a HUD-subsidized rental that often comes with a landlord that thinks roaches and other vermin should be on the lease—then your life crumbles again

Tina sat talking to me last year as roaches scampered up and down the walls and across the same floor her baby girl crawled on. Not because Tina was slovenly—quite the contrary. She had done everything possible at her own expense to rid this place of the critters. She had to move. 

Tina would tell you she was “lucky,” having the double-wide roof over her head after living in a 13’ camper for 6 months—extreme heat and cold temperatures—while she and her kids waited for the crumpled housing assistance “program” in this country to work for them.

They’ve lived in this Las Cruces house for the past 11+ months. The landlord gets paid promptly per his Section 8 agreement with the housing authority. Tina pays her share of the rent, $168, from the pittance of child support she gets. They don’t party or do other things to make them bad tenants. Nope. This one’s on the landlord.

Possible financial troubles? I’ve tried calling him, to no avail. I was going to beg for an extension for Tina and her kids. Moving at Christmas sucks. 

What sucks more is that they can’t find a place to rent. Her housing certificate guarantees her rent. She’s diligently scoured the list the housing authority gave her.

She and I both shudder at the looming possibility of her not finding a place to live. The lack of affordable housing, especially rental housing for large families, is dire. It’s a major cause of family homelessness.

Oh yeah, to make things worse, Las Cruces has no family shelter that will take her older boys. Few know that many shelters, especially gospel missions and privately-run shelters don’t accept boys over the age of 10 or so. And the only family shelter in Las Cruces is the rescue mission.

My nonprofit, HEAR US Inc., will help her if she finds a place. Even with the Section 8 certificate, the renter has to come up with the deposit, far beyond her budget. 

Countless families like Tina’s face this same daunting challenge. Too many people don’t know it’s happening. Too many elected officials don’t seem to care enough to push for an adequate supply of decent affordable housing. 

Few mayors follow the admirable efforts of NYC’s Mayor de Blasio who wants impoverished families to at least have access to a lawyer when facing eviction and other common legal housing related dilemmas. 

I’ve communicated with the Las Cruces mayor, Ken Miyagishima. He’s helped before. But this time it will take a miracle, coming up with a 3-4 bedroom rental in less than 2 weeks. 

The reality of family homelessness is that it’s never pretty. Seeing it up close at this otherwise festive time of the year hits me hard, and I’m not the one who will be living on the streets with my 7 vulnerable kids. 

HELP! I don’t know what else to say. (If you know of a viable possibility in Las Cruces, contact me.)

Slutty. Disrespectful. Social media traffic skyrocketed around remarks made by Elizabeth Lauten, the communications director for U.S. Rep. Stephen Fincher (R-Tenn.), for bashing the Obama girls’ appearance at the inane Turkey Pardon “ceremony.”

Many of my friends, a decidedly (usually) enlightened, progressive crowd, joined the social media stampede demanding Ms. Lauten’s head on the chopping block. 

Me, I was a tad less outraged, but dismayed nonetheless, not by the vitriol but by the energy and attention this almost-non-issue generated. 

Yeah, if you know me, you’ll know where I’m going with this. 

Last week we saw a slight bump in media coverage for what should be a major issue. The National Center for Family Homelessness released their America’s Youngest Outcasts report. Their conservative estimate is that our wealthy nation has something like 2.5 million kids experiencing homelessness. That’s 1 in 30, up from 1 in 45 just 3 years ago.

And I posted a clever and insightful Speakeasy blog taking issue with my respected colleagues at NCFH for what I believe is an underestimated number. I think we’ve got AT LEAST 3 million homeless kids in our value-distorted country. I’ve even put that claim on my license plate holder, hoping to either incite a public outrage or at least pique the interest of a curious member of the media.

Kids—the Obama girls issuing the typical-teen-looks as their dad, our president, follows the dumb-cluck turkey pardon tradition. In the meantime we’re ignoring millions of kids who will never see the outside, much less the inside, of the White House unless they’re sleeping in Lafayette Park across the street, a viable option for thousands of kids homeless in the DC area.

I confess to being annoyed at both the purveyors of the off-the-wall critique of the Sasha and Malia demeanor/wardrobe hoopla, and at participants of the incensed return volley.

My fantasy… Sasha and Malia holding their dad’s feet to the fire for not making homeless kids one of his top domestic issues. And the First Teens unleashing the outraged teen treatment at John Boehner and Mitch McConnell over this unaddressed and surging crisis. They could host a slumber party with these leaders of our country, showing My Own Four Walls, my HEAR US documentary featuring kids talking about what it's like to be homeless and what school means to them.

The stuffing in the turkey would be Elizabeth Lauten and her boss leading the charge to significantly diminish the number of our kids, with families and without, who have nowhere to call home. Now that would be a sincere display of atonement.

homelessLicense

With all the hoopla over the recent report of the staggering increase of homeless children and youth, I’m taking it a step further. I want people to wrap their mind around the fact that over 3 million kiddos in our country have nowhere to go, so I got a custom license plate holder that says it.

 

The National Center on Family Homelessness just released their jaw-dropping America’s Youngest Outcasts: A Report on Family Homelessness.

Take that one word at a time.

America’s.

Youngest.

Outcasts.

What? This country discards children? They must deserve it, you might be thinking.

Uh, no. They’re kids. They deserve at least a basic place to live, and the other essentials, not to be discarded like trash in the gutter.  They’re kids, mostly with a parent or 2, who fit the definition of homelessness that makes sense to any person who uses their cognitive capacity.

It boils down to: They’ve lost housing due to hardship, and they have nowhere to go.

Hardship in these hard times is not hard to imagine, except if you’re our U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the beleaguered, mostly-dysfunctional housing provider for those opposite the 1%. HUD can't seem to count high enough to document homeless kids.

How many kids you ask?

Well, NCFH estimates at least 2.5 million kids have fallen into the abyss of homelessness this year. I take issue with that number—too low.

What are the causes?

From their report: 

Major causes of homelessness for children in the U.S. include: (1) the nation’s high poverty rate; (2) lack of affordable housing across the nation; (3) continuing impacts of the Great Recession; (4) racial disparities; (5) the challenges of single parenting; and (6) the ways in which traumatic experiences, especially domestic violence, precede and prolong homelessness for families.

None of that should come as a surprise for any thinking person. 

What’s the big deal?

Well, this number has increased dramatically over the past 30 years, but HUD didn't get the memo. They have a convoluted definition of homelessness that excludes millions of kids, with families and without, who have lost housing due to hardship and have nowhere to go.

The government miscounts lots of things, why is this different?

These are kids, damn it! We should at least be able to draw the line on our nasty attitude towards our neighbor when it comes to kids. Babies. Toddlers. Younger kids. Teens. Young adults. And being homeless as kids makes it more likely they’ll be homeless as adults. We shouldn’t be “growing” homelessness.

So, what’s the deal with the numbers?

The U.S. Department of Education, with a more realistic definition of homelessness, has a fairly solid census of homeless students, although everyone familiar with the homeless student count agrees that it’s probably way low. For the 2012-13 school year, the most recent data available, they reported 1,258,152 students identified as homeless. That number has increased an astounding 75% since the recession began.

The Outcasts report points out that HUD ignores 75% of homeless children, particularly those doubled up with others due to having nowhere to go. My organization, HEAR US Inc., recently produced a documentary on doubled up, Worn Out Welcome Mat, to give doubled up families and youth a chance to describe the hardships involved in bouncing place to place when you’ve got nowhere to live.

OK, OK, so we’ve got a bunch of homeless kids with nowhere to go. Now what?

A few things can be done, even if you’re lacking money to donate. For the sake of space in this post, I’ll refer you to my recent blog that lists some options.

Can I get one of those license plates?

I'd love for them to be attached to thousands of vehicles all across the U.S. Email me and I'll let you know how to get them. 

And I double-dog-dare someone to dispute the 3 mil. 

Looking for answers
Bad as the newly-elected legislators may (likely) be, a certain segment of the population better brace for what will likely be the Dickens’ “worst of times” in the years to come. 

The millions of kids and adults who find themselves on the far end of the economic spectrum—living at, under or near the poverty line—will undoubtedly learn what hard times are in ways we haven’t seen before. Most at risk, millions of children and youth experiencing homelessness.

The National Center on Family Homelessness just released their report, America’s Youngest Outcasts, citing an all-time high surge of homeless children: 1 in every 30 children lack a place to live in…America.

As someone who’s been around the poverty arena for 3 decades, I viewed the 2014 election results with justified horror. My memories include the “beloved” (by some) Ronald Reagan’s reign, thinking it can’t get worse, followed by the constant deterioration during the Bush years,  with Clinton’s dismantling of the flimsy safety net for families, aka welfare “reform,” in the middle. No, Obama’s terms have been no picnic either. I’m bipartisan pissed. 

Rather than point to massive policy changes needed, let me point out the one thing that helps, the “something” that gets scant media attention but exists everywhere, that will not only help the most vulnerable survive these next troubled years but will also nurture a grassroots movement capable of restoring some semblance of humanity to our hurting world: compassion.

compassion [kuh m-pash-uh n] 1.a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering. 

Throughout my travels across the U.S., now beginning my 10th year, I’ve witnessed countless instances where compassion has bridged unimaginable gaps between both those homeless and not. Even within the ranks of homeless families and individuals, compassion regularly occurs. Compassion keeps humanity alive. It can be accomplished in small, even negligible seeming ways (here’s a starter list). It can be as simple as a smile or as vital as giving food to the hungry person on the street.

Attempts to stifle compassion won’t work, as blatantly illustrated in my former hometown of Ft. Lauderdale where officials seem to have a vendetta against not only people enduring homelessness but also the 90-year-old do-gooder taking a stand against their cruelty. Too many unsung champions still exhibit kindness and love. Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes’s simple reminder is worth pondering, “Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach.”

My prescription for these next years leading up to the drudgery of the next round of elections (when voters better come out in droves) is simple. Practice compassion. It’s contagious. It can be done with little to no money. It establishes and promotes kindness. It pisses off those who want to control society by dividing the ultra-rich from the peons—people like you and me that think all people should have a meal, a place to sleep and the basics to stay alive and thrive. 

I’m asking you to be part of the “compassion epidemic” that will defy attempts to destroy humanity. My HEAR US website has a page to get you started. You can take this simple action aimed at reformulating how our nation defines homelessness.

Now get away from your computer and get your hands dirty in a sink of pots and pans at your local soup kitchen. Oh wait. Congressman Paul Ryan already washed them.

puzzled_boy
Why do some “advocates” deny the suffering of families and youth experiencing homelessness?

Maddy and her middle school daughter lived in a Naperville motel, with Maddy paying nightly using her meager wages from her McDonald’s job. That doesn't make them less homeless than if they relied on the local shelter for a place to stay.

But, according to a national homelessness organization, Maddy and her daughter don’t need to be called “homeless” because their situation isn’t as dire as some. Oh?

What’s this line of desperation that must be crossed for families and youth to be declared “truly homeless” in the eyes of the all-knowing HUD (U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development)? And why does HUD make the distinction that ignores the plight of millions of families/youth with nowhere to go?

Way back in 2007, as I continued my nonprofit mission of HEAR US Inc., traveling across the country giving voice and visibility to homeless children and youth, I was asked to testify before Congress on the issue of the definition of homeless families/youth. Perplexed as to what was behind HUD’s refusal to count millions of kids and parents as homeless, I called and spoke to a Capitol Hill staffer working on this issue.

I asked why HUD’s definition did not include the million+ babies, toddlers, youngsters, youth and parents as homeless who were doubled up or staying in motels. The response flabbergasted me. “We don’t want to open up a floodgate,” the staffer dismissively replied. I sputtered something to the effect, “Yeah, our country hasn't done too well with floods,” picturing the devastation I witnessed in New Orleans post-Katrina. 

With Maddy and her daughter, as with countless (because they don’t count) others, I know how precarious their situation is. Maddy could get sick, even a common bad cold, and not go into work, which means she doesn’t get paid, therefore she’d not be able to pay her room rent. She and her daughter would get tossed into the shelter system (at least DuPage County has somewhat of a safety net). A few sneezes and they’re "really" homeless. Wah-lah!

I met Tina and her 6 kids in Las Cruces, City of the Crosses that lacks any shelter for homeless families. The school homeless program had stretched their boundaries to pop for a few nights in a motel. As I interviewed Tina, I was quite aware that in a couple hours she and her precious children, including an infant, would have nowhere to go. No amount of imagination could comprehend the stress this desperate, devoted mom was experiencing.

What’s behind that fine line that HUD hides behind when it comes to defining—much less addressing—homelessness? 

Does it boil down to money?

Or is it based on the history of this federal agency’s insensitivity toward families? Is that insensitivity based on racism, sexism or anti-poverty-ism? 

Why wouldn’t advocates from across the country clamor for more funding to house those with nowhere to go? 

What will it take to change this woefully inadequate response to what is painfully real homelessness among millions of families and youth?

What could turn the tide is to pressure your member of Congress to sign on as cosponsor of the bipartisan Homeless Children and Youth Act. It’s simple. You don’t need to be a policy wonk. And it takes just a few seconds on this site. 

Homelessness among families and youth is far more extensive than even I realize, and I’ve been doing this kind of work for almost 30 years. As I drive through cities and towns of all sizes, I recognize the places that are providing “shelter” for families with nowhere to go. I’ve spoken to countless kids, youth and parents in that dreadful plight. They’re not living the life of security that HUD apparently thinks comes with their circumstances. It’s hell. And worse. 

What we want is an honest accounting of the depth and breadth of homelessness in America. 

And I'd like an explanation of how people who obstruct the expansion of services for homeless families and youth sleep at night knowing that parents, their kids, and youth on their own have nowhere to go. 

 

Little_Logan
Opponents of the Homeless Children and Youth Act, inexplicably a major national “advocacy” organization, are putting plenty of effort into denying the reality of families and youth experiencing homelessness. 

Let me ask a question:

Is your way— rebuffing the existence of millions of families, youth and adults with nowhere to go—working? 

In the 30 years I’ve been involved with homelessness I’ve seen homelessness go from a trickle to a flood. My book, Crossing the Line: Taking Steps to End Homelessness (Booklocker, 2005) describes people I saw as I ran shelters. I witnessed the steady increase of families and youth in those we’ve served. And it’s only getting worse.

I’ve seen the federal government, and many states, drastically retreat from providing affordable housing and supportive services to the growing beleaguered poverty populace, the source of the burgeoning homeless families and youth population, at the same time as federal welfare policy drastically scaled back family supports. Oh yeah, then the economy tanked….

What rarely gets mentioned—the astounding number of communities that lack any shelters or services for homeless families/youth—contributes to the trauma of millions. We seem to have dismissed their plight, tossing them into a survival mode that includes sex trafficking, prostitution, child abuse, hunger, physical and mental health issues and more.

Another question:

Why, after hearing the demands from policymakers to document the scope of the existence of homeless students, when we show dramatic increases in the numbers of children and youth experiencing homelessness (knowing that parents, and younger/older siblings are not included in the school census), do you dismiss their plight?

In the years since our nation’s economic meltdown began, 2006, public schools have identified an astounding 72% increase of students experiencing homelessness. The 2012-13 school year finds the census (albeit an undercount) at a record 1.2 million, not including parents, younger/older siblings. 

We’ve been counting students’ noses for about 10 years now to document the extent of their homelessness. Now what? Do they count or not?

And another question:

Do you think Congress will just wake up one day soon and decide to provide ample resources to ease the growth of family/youth homelessness?

Seeing that the paltry funds tossed at homeless by the feds came about because of massive grassroots actions, it makes sense to me that we need to be moving toward an expansion of advocacy, not retreating into a comfortable sense of we’ve got something, let’s not rock the boat. We need a concerted advocacy effort, not complicity with the status quo.

And my final questions:

Instead of hiding behind what appears to be a fear of not having enough resources to address homelessness for the pathetically inadequate programs now trying their best to ease and end homelessness, why not take a principled stand and say we need to expand HUD’s definition of homelessness to match the reality faced by millions of children, youth, parents and single adults with nowhere to go?

How do you sleep at night knowing that so many babies, toddlers, children, youth and parents struggle to survive with nowhere to go? 

To those uncomfortable with knowing that millions have nowhere to go, I urge you to take just a few moments and send this petition to your federal legislators to urge them to cosponsor the bipartisan Homeless Children and Youth Act. 

Having been instrumental in getting the Education for Homeless Children and Youth Act passed in 2001, I can assure you that Congress, not being accustomed to hearing that homelessness is an issue that besets families/youth, might just pay attention. We’ll all sleep better when that happens.

Who has born the brunt of this nation’s decades long failure to deal with homelessness? Babies. Toddlers. Young kids. Teens. Young adults. Parents. Don’t take my word for it. Google “number of homeless students in 2006” and see what you find.

The Chicago Tribune reported, “Nationally, the number of children identified as homeless also has been growing. According to the latest available data, released last month by the U.S. Department of Education, 1.17 million homeless students were enrolled in 2011-12, the highest number on record.” (Nov. 7, 2013)

Perhaps this monumental, traumatic debacle is about to change. 

Unbeknownst to most, the most significant barrier contributing to neglect of millions of homeless kids and parents has been the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. As Congress retreated on support for subsidized housing back in the 1980s, HUD held onto a grossly inadequate definition of homelessness that excludes the bulk of those who experience many permutations of having nowhere to go.

Family and youth homelessness, to no surprise but garnering little attention, has grown exponentially since last decade’s economic disintegration, although it was a significant, unaddressed problem since HUD’s budget was slashed in the early ‘80s. 

In 2006-07, schools identified 680,000 homeless students. In the 2012-13 school year the number had skyrocketed to almost 1.2 million, nearing a 72% increase. And that does not count younger or older siblings, parents or unidentified homeless students.

In 2001, Congress strengthened the U.S. Dept. of Education’s definition of homelessness to reflect the reality of most homeless students with their families or on their own—doubled up with another household, in motels, or bouncing around to keep a roof over their heads. The Runaway and Homeless Youth Act, Head Start, Health Care for the Homeless (all HHS programs) and Violence Against Women (DOJ program) also use the comprehensive definition. 

But HUD continues their unenlightened ways despite the reality that nowhere to go and plenty of peril endangering vulnerable children, youth and parents.

Shelters for families and youth are in appallingly short supply. Many communities have no shelters. And virtually all family and youth shelters turn significant numbers away for lack of bed space or because the family/youth doesn’t meet the shelter’s criteria.  

HUD thwarted previous efforts to expand their definition of homelessness to include families and youth not staying in HUD-funded shelters. HUD’s distorted homeless count (inaccurately) declines. School counts hit records. It’s time to change our approach to homelessness.

The Homeless Children and Youth Act, a bipartisan effort, will allow local communities to focus on the most at risk homeless population, children/youth, instead of being limited by D.C. bureaucracy. It would bring a long overdue reality check to how this nation identifies and addresses homelessness, making a compelling case for a more comprehensive approach to addressing this skyrocketing problem. 

Ignoring the issue will not make it better, as convincingly demonstrated since the federal government began to pay attention to homelessness in the late 1980s.

Greg Kaufmann in his The Nation post, astutely points out, “…the first step—the big step—seems to be this: see the problem of family homelessness, admit it and commit to doing something about it. And don’t for a second believe that working with a single adult is the same thing as working with a family with so many moving parts.” 

It’s time to look into the faces of little kids with nowhere to go and show them we’re doing everything we can to help. Here’s the TAKE ACTION link to urge your Member of Congress to co-sponsor this bill.

The distorted view of family/youth homelessness, with incredible suffering that goes along with having nowhere to go, and our false impression of the serious nature of this crisis hasn’t worked. It’s time for HUD to accept reality. 

 

Homeless child
To the good people of Sarasota, I’ve waited long enough. From what I’ve read in the Herald Tribune’s article (July 8, 2014), you are stumbling in a very important responsibility—how to help homeless families in your county. 

 

I used to live in Sarasota, and I’ve returned many times, rekindling fond memories of this delightful area. I’ve cringed as I’ve followed your struggles to cope with a significant homelessness population. I could tell it wasn’t going well, but I waited to see what would happen. This latest account alarms me. 

 

I've worked with homeless families for 3 decades, including 15 years running volunteer-based shelters; spent time in other shelters nationwide; chronicled lives of homeless families/youth in documentary films; wrote a reader-friendly book about homelessness; advocated for improved state and federal policies; addressed countless audiences nationwide on the topic; and, most importantly, spent a lot of time listening and observing homeless families. I am qualified to offer opinions.

 

I’ll focus on families, a vulnerable population that will benefit by the right steps. Here’s a starting list of concerns to be addressed:

 

HIGH MOBILITY—a devastating state of mind for those in stress. Many families without homes have been shuffling around for years, with much uncertainty as to what’s going to happen. That’s hard on kids and adults.

 

CAPACITY—how many families can be served at the emergency shelter(s)? I suspect you’re underestimating, based on the number of families identified by the county schools’ count. While you can’t help every family, just getting the tip of the iceberg might not be most effective. Over 1,200 homeless students have been identified, a ghastly number not including babies and toddlers or parents.

 

STABILITY—the time needed to get back on one’s feet varies, but certainly is more than 2-6 weeks, as proposed by the plan to move families from their (up to) week at the emergency shelter into one of five homes. Again, families are devastated by high mobility. What they need is stability, not a plan to shuffle them from place to place.

 

FAMILY PROMISE—a tremendous family shelter program, but they have limits. They’re highly mobile, shifting week by week, open only at night. Put yourself in place of the family. Think of the logistics. And this program is dependent on significant support from the community, especially people of faith. They’ll need sites willing/able to host a handful of families a week at a time. Families won’t automatically become economically solvent, and FP has a time limit, 90-days, a very short time to regain stability.

 

HARVEST HOUSE—a commendable, faith-based program that focuses on addictions. For all the good they can do, it’s not a program for every family. Their religious focus might be hard for some families to adapt to, for a variety of legitimate reasons. And their capacity is quite limited. 

 

TRAUMA—many homeless families have experienced a tremendous amount of trauma that shapes their lives and impedes their ability to comply with standard shelter approaches to ending homelessness. A recent report points to this overlooked fact. Addressing the multitude of challenges families experience requires the work of patient, knowledgable professionals and the availability of significant resources.  

 

HOUSING OPTIONS—because of significant cutbacks in federal housing assistance programs, foreclosures, bankruptcies, rising rents, and more, it’s hard for families with limited income to find decent housing. This sobering housing affordability calculator will confirm what thousands of Sarasota County residents know.

 

REALITY—no one can deny the devastation of the past 8+ years of economic turmoil. Jobs paying living wages are scarce, belts are tightened squeezing out the vulnerable, those with even minor credit or legal issues are passed over in job or housing searches, and those finding themselves on the edge of—or in—homelessness are often treated as lepers. 

 

You’ve paid a consultant plenty of money to advise your community. The above issues don’t seem to have been addressed adequately. Let’s see what happens next. But put yourselves in the place of families needing help. How much longer can they hang on?