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Homelessness: Some Teen Girls Study It, Some Live It

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One teen inmate in Flagstaff detention ponders

One brown-skinned young expert shared her story of months’ long isolation in solitary confinement, incredibly reflecting on her hope for the future. One brown-skinned young advocate-wanna-be shared her dream to really do something about our nation’s, or at least Mayor Bloomberg’s, apathy toward those locked in the tentacles of poverty and homelessness.

My insightful friend Pat LaMarche pointed out that my recent presentation at The Calhoun School in NYC offered a fascinating contrast with our February Babes of Wrath visit to the Flagstaff juvenile detention center. In common, teen girls viewed the documentary on the edge: Family Homelessness in America.  But Arizona’s incarcerated, impoverished and beleaguered teens were light years away from the upper crust, but impressively compassionate, Calhoun girls.

Arizona’s Indian reservations and other enclaves of poverty provide hardscrabble lessons on how to get ahead, or at least survive to escape. Elite and expensive schools like Calhoun tend to immerse students into the curriculum of what the rest of the world sees as success.

What we need more of, in all schools and in homes (for those who have them), imparting lessons on the meaning of true success. That curriculum would include the importance of assuring that all people possess and are entitled to dignity, including having food to eat, a place to live, and access to affordable and decent care—for their children and their physical and mental health. Those rights were clearly spelled out in the much-ignored United Nations’ (go ahead, read ‘em!) Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

For a stark reminder of how entrenched in poverty our wealthy nation is, we go to The Nation, where Greg Kaufmann recently rattled off a bleak report card, including:

  • Twice the poverty level (less than $46,042 for a family of four): 106 million people, more than 1 in 3 Americans.
  • Jobs in the US paying less than $34,000 a year: 50 percent.
  •  Jobs in the US paying below the poverty line for a family of four, less than $23,000 annually: 25 percent.
  • Poverty-level wages, 2011: 28 percent of workers.
  • Low-income families that were working in 2011: More than 70 percent.
  • Families receiving cash assistance, 1996: 68 for every 100 families living in poverty.
  • Families receiving cash assistance, 2010: 27 for every 100 families living in poverty.
  • Impact of public policy, 2010: without government assistance, poverty would have been twice as high—nearly 30 percent of population.

I suspect the Calhoun students might not grasp the painful reality of what these statistics mean. I know the young inmates in Flagstaff could teach graduate level courses on poverty, hunger, homelessness, medical deprivation, child sex abuse, and the hopelessness. These girls are perceptive enough to realize that without a miracle, they’ll be stuck in this mire for the rest of their statistically shortened life. Fortunately, what Pat and I witnessed was a fairly unique and quite impressive effort to make the time spent in detention really worthwhile.

My daunting task the other day: How to bridge the gap for the privileged girls of NYC’s who’s-who so they could grasp the reality of a growing number of young people—homelessness and abject poverty? I gave it my best shot. Fascinating how I ended up at this school….

My friends and Columbia University professors Markus Redding and Heidi Horsley, have a son, Alexander. He shared his dad’s on the edge DVD with Debbie Aronson, the conscience of Calhoun. Debbie heard I was coming to NYC and maneuvered her schedule to fit mine.

The 7 women in OTE, a documentary I made in partnership with Laura Vazquez, media professor at Northern Illinois University, give their riveting perspectives of homelessness, honed in painful experiences. I’d like to think viewers would be unable to watch this film and walk away unchanged.