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Unacceptable: No Option, No Exit for Waco Homeless Families

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no exit
It takes a lot to shock me. My jaw cracked on the floor when I heard what homeless families endure in Waco, TX.

Waco, a city of 125,000+ in east central Texas, has a 30%+ poverty rate. 90% of their district’s 15,000 school kids are on free/reduced lunch, indicating, among other things, that they are at or below poverty. How many beds do you think they have for families when they become homeless?

One.

I could stop there, but it gets worse.

A mom, dad and their five kids, ages 12 on down, including an infant, were found living under a Waco bridge this summer, where inescapable hellish heat is the reality day and night. The kids’ blonde hair matted beyond recognition; dad, a military veteran shackled by PTSD, catatonically stares nowhere; and mom scrambled to keep this pathetic situation from completely disintegrating.

The 4-year-old, surprise, wasn’t potty-trained. “Where do you potty train a kid when you’re living under a bridge?” asked Cheryl Pooler, the stalwart social worker heading the McKinney-Vento homeless students’ program at Waco Independent School District. The district’s preschool balked at taking this toddler until Cheryl and a special ed specialist intervened.

Part of the problem, not unique to Waco, is lack of awareness about the scope of homelessness among families and youth on their own. Federal government contributes to this atrocious handling of homeless families and youth. They deny the scope of the problem, insufficiently funding a smattering of homeless programs, far from meeting the need nationwide. The feds’ focus has been adults, especially those labeled “chronics,” the highly visible and much despised portion of the homeless population vexing cities like Columbia, SC and beyond. And the state, well, you know...it's Texas.

In Waco, one family at a time can access emergency shelter. The other program, with a host of requirements to be accepted, is a transitional shelter that offers quality assistance, but requires the parent to be working, excluding those who are disabled or unemployed. And they serve a mere19 families at a time.

Where do families and youth go when they don’t have an option for emergency shelter? Cheryl rolled her eyes as she described the first “choice” for Waco families with resources, motels, high-risk environments teaching kids adult-sized lessons of sex offenders/predators, prostitution, and drug trade, sadly the story I’ve heard in every community along my HEAR US route this past 8 years. To make things worse, families in motels will take in other families because that’s what families familiar with hardships do.

Doubled up is the other significant “option” which often goes undetected for any number of reasons. That's why I'm in TX, to chronicle doubled up families and youth for our Worn Out Welcome Mat project. It's epidemic. And fraught with insecurity and other perils. Landlords typically frown on overcrowding of apartments or rental houses, evicting the host family and the visitors. Child protection services can be called if families are deemed at risk, a possibility in a variety of doubled up situations. Let’s be clear, these families aren’t bunking together for any cultural or convenience reason. They lack housing due to crisis, economics, or a combination of those realities. And they have few options to escape their shackles.

Sitting in Cheryl’s office, I heard stories of gallant efforts to stem the tsunami of poverty enveloping this struggling city. The biggest obstacle, it seemed, is ignorance. Denial may be a part of that.

Ira, a soft-spoken 18-year-old with his eye on college, described his family’s high mobility and more than doubled up situation in a matter of fact tone that almost lulled me into thinking all was well. The McKinney-Vento program provided backpacks stuffed with food that helped his household-on-steroids survive the weekend. A ramrod, crew cut First Sergeant’s mentoring has kept Ira focused on the future instead of his chaotic present situation. But Ira's "It's hard," left lots unsaid.

The reality is thousands of kids and families in this community (and beyond) need a safety net. And they don’t have one. 

My fantasy would be a forum of articulate parents and kids to address community leaders, elected officials and school personnel. These experts could share stories of plight and promise that they face every day. And the audience would not be released to their comfy homes until they committed to solve the crises with the same fervor used on other lesser issues. 

Decision-makers and their families need to walk in the shoes of families and youth struggling to survive homelessness. They'd be running for the exits within hours. For most of these families and youth, no exit exists.