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Homeless Mom: 'This Law Saved My Life'

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Julianna's Family
Her smile and the gleam in her eyes reflected the joy in her heart. The path she has traveled so far— uphill, strewn with broken glass and obstacles designed to thwart the tender-footed in the midst of myriad crises—proved daunting but not impossible. Julianna is alive and well today. Her 4 kids are moving forward, 2 in college, 1 headed there, and 1 snatched from the jaws of disaster.

People in helping professions need reminders that some make it, even the likes of me, who some people mistakenly believe able to leap tall buildings.

A strong dual disclaimer: I don’t want to jinx Julianna, nor do I want to hold her on a pedestal. We had a wonderful visit yesterday, and she inspired me, so here goes….

Julianna shares her gripping story, a soldier who fell in love with another soldier, in on the edge: Family Homelessness in America, a documentary I produced, in collaboration with Dr. Laura Vazquez, a documentarian at Northern Illinois University. (4-min. trailer) The film aired on PBS and is available for $30 on DVD from HEAR US Inc., my nonprofit. OTE shines a light on the little-known issue of women experiencing homelessness.

I met Julianna and her family 7 years ago on my first cross-country trip to chronicle homelessness as experienced by children and youth. Her daughter, Gabrielle, agreed to be interviewed for My Own Four Walls,my first documentary, kids sharing about their homelessness and what school means to them.

To summarize Julianna’s experience (I’m doing it unavoidable injustice, see the film): military service, married someone who turned out to be horribly abusive, repeated and unwilling pregnancies, raised 4 children in a volatile environment, leaving him and struggling to survive. 

She attributes the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Act for saving her life, “My kids demanded two things: that we didn’t return to their father and that they didn’t have to change schools.” They didn’t do either. My involvement in passage the homeless ed law is validated. All that hard work saved (at least) one life.

Julianna would be the first to say she didn’t make it on her own. Her success today—in college, finishing her prerequisites before choosing a major, working as a teacher’s aide (whose hours and benefits are being whacked to ostensibly cut costs)—she attributes to

·       God’s love;

·       Her circle of friends—providing a safe haven for her homeless family, helping her find a car, rent and furnish an apartment, watching her kids, giving her rides, etc.;

·       Fresh Start, a wonderful resource to help women navigate the tough road following divorce or other crises;

·       Her children.

I distinctly remember her sharing her dream: to go to college to get a job that will move her off the edge of poverty, and to own her own home.

She didn’t talk much about these goals, but didn’t lose sight of them. She enrolled in classes, including those designed to help the adult returning to get a degree, TRIO, an under-heralded government program to assist those like Julianna—low-income, first-generation college students. She saved nickels, dimes and quarters for a down payment for her home, made available through another successful and under-touted government program, Newtown Community Development Corporation in Tempe, AZ. She continues working as a teacher’s aide for kids with special needs.

Yesterday she proclaimed: “I’m not a gold digger, I’m a benefits digger.” She’s not looking for money, realizing that benefits—health, vision and dental insurance—will mean more than an hourly wage. Her veterans’ benefits are how she’s now accessing health care. She’s extremely grateful.

Pondering all she shared, I see a pattern—a person needs help to make it. She’s received hand-outs and hand-ups. She’s turned around and helped others. Vital government programs help people move from poverty to promise. She’s had people extend a hand—a room in their house, a connection to a side job, advice and resources—that provided the stepping-stones she needed.

Not everyone will succeed like Julianna. Family homelessness is not a one-size-fits-all plight that responds to single solutions. The other OTE stories portray women’s plights and responses that haven’t necessarily led to a successful resolution.

Seeing Julianna has—in the middle of a grueling 5000-mile EPIC Journey—kept me from being overwhelmed by the seemingly endless abject poverty and homelessness that greets us at every stop. We can’t give up on people. We can’t give up on trying to level the playing field for those who face all kinds of challenges. We can’t give up on making sure people know about family and youth homelessness.

Learn more about our Babes of Wrath journey. See our segment on Current TV’s The Young Turks.