Another Reason Texas is #1: Homeless Families in the Parks
I went to the park, filming for my Worn Out Welcome Mat project for the Texas Homeless Education Office and their cohorts. I couldn’t get Francesca’s story out of my mind, and when a few ants started gnawing on my sandaled foot, I lost my rickety objectivity.
For the past 2 weeks of this absolutely insane government shutdown, I’ve found myself avoiding all news stories about it. Being busy filming stories of doubled up Texas homeless families and youth helps. My 30 years of working with families and adults abysmally failed to prepare me for this tsunami of homelessness where Texas is #1 when it comes to homeless students.
Remember: homelessness does not “just” afflict men. In fact, if our government ever insisted on a proper definition of homelessness, one that reflected the reality of loss of housing and inability to regain it, we’d be looking at probably close to 10 million babies, toddlers, children, teens, youth and adults in that category instead of the asininely low 500,000 mostly street-wise adults reported to Congress by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Schools have identified over 1 million students, not counting parents or younger/older siblings.
With tears rolling down her cheeks, Francesca shared her brutal experiences of “camping” with her children. Desperate to escape the ants in the park, she sought and found shelter—an abandoned house where they used to live. Someone had already broken into it, so the backdoor was pried loose. She cleared the floor in the kitchen so the family could spread their meager covers and curl up together.
Eating was sporadic, and relied heavily on food stamps, or SNAP, the junkyard dog of public support that gives righteous elected officials something to kick when Tea Party foot-stompers demand less government spending. Francesca said they often went without food. Her kids got 2 meals at school, and she just did without. When they had food stamps, she couldn't even cook efficiently, lacking any way to prepare and store meals.
Her relief—keeping her kids in their schools. The younger ones attend Head Start. If she pulled them out to avoid the hassle of getting them ready for school in an abandoned house, they’d have to wait for months, or years, to get back in another Head Start program. So she washed their school outfits by hand nightly, hoping the humid Texas night would squeeze enough moisture from the clothes by morning. When the school discovered the family’s plight, significant support kicked in, making it a bit easier for them.
Her fear—being discovered by police or child welfare officials. And it happened. Someone reported the family staying in their old house—and the police showed up at bedtime. At least the cops were kind, and they helped the family get in the shelter system—for a night. But the respite didn’t last, and Francesca and family were again bouncing around, couch-to-couch of friends and acquaintances. I asked if the kids were bothered by the nomadic lifestyle. Improbably, they didn’t seem disturbed, but she suggested that things were pretty chaotic in their lives before they were evicted, so this was more peaceful.
San Antonio is a vibrant city to unsuspecting tourists. To those working with families and youth without homes, a different image appears. “San Antonio has a horrendous housing problem,” stated one family social worker. In fact, the area school districts report a growing homeless census, over 4,000 for the last school year, with close to 80% in doubled up situations. The handful of family/youth shelter beds doesn’t come close to meeting the needs.
Where do families go? This infographic indicates the most common places (omitting motels, campgrounds and the great outdoors). Shelter beds in metro areas are in short supply; in non-urban areas—rare to none.
As I drove across the fracked-out wasteland of southeastern Texas on my way to the nation’s #1 impoverished metro area, I feared the stories I'd hear would be even worse. And they are...Texas, it's a good thing I'm not writing your tourism ad copy.