Raising 5 Kids in a Tiny Camper? The Atrocious Ways America Treats Poor Women and Children

The following article is part of AlterNet's ongoing series on poverty in America, Hard Times USA. 

Leaving her husband became the only option for "Stacy" after he became violent with the children.  She returned to her hometown, Las Cruces, NM, with her 5 little boys in tow. Other than lacking an emergency family shelter, this is a pleasant mid-sized city. The family stayed for a while at the domestic violence shelter. Her time there ended without her finding housing, and she scrambled for a desperate, stopgap solution: her mother’s old, tiny camper.

For $300 a month, including utilities, the family could park their leaky camper in a park in her town. She had no money. We connected at the campground and made arrangements with the manager. Stacy didn’t have the prerequisite water and sewer hoses or electrical adapters.

For years, I've travelled the country meeting families in desperate straights. My 27’ motorhome teaches me how to live small, but I cringed as I left her and her under-9 troop of boys in their 13’ tin-can-home. She stalwartly said they’d make it despite sporadic child support, a host of legal and custodial issues swarming around her, unaddressed trauma lingering like storm clouds, and the challenges of raising a large family in miniscule space.

Much of what I have continued to learn about the inadequacies of our so-called safety net I’ve learned from families like Stacy’s. As with everything else, it’s theory and reality. The theory—resources are available to assist families in homeless situations—is dreadfully far removed from reality. Let me explain.

Poverty—Fast Track to Homelessness

For the 7 million families hovering in poverty, longtime homelessness expert, Dr. Ralph Nunez, founder of the Institute of Children, Poverty and Homelessness, bluntly predicted the ominous reality when he said: “If you’re going to be poor in the 21st Century, you’re going to be homeless.”

Reasons include: Skyrocketing housing costs, stagnating wages, plummeting employment, unaffordable health care, shredded safety net programs, and failed child welfare practices, including the abuse and neglect of the foster care system (1-page list of causes of homelessness from my book, Crossing the Line: Taking Steps to End Homelessness). Two decades of that deterioration has left its mark. The economic malaise of the oil and housing bust jolted previously stable families, pushing many into poverty and homelessness, ill-equipped to navigate the fragmented assistance network, straining existing resources.

Ancillary services that might ease family homelessness—legal assistance, child welfare programs, nutrition, counseling, childcare—were also slashed. Stacy and millions of other families found themselves with no recourse. It’s ugly.

Stacy and her boys would not get out of their 13’  camper for a brutal 6 months, enduring heat, cold and dust storms. In that time, because of the trauma she’s experienced that tends to make women vulnerable for bad relationships, she became pregnant. This loving mother didn’t consider another mouth to feed as a problem. Enduring pregnancy in the below-freezing winter and sizzling summer was indescribable. 

What happened to a safety net that's supposed to catch poor women and children when they fall?

The Feds Get Dragged Into Addressing Homelessness

Spurred by my mentor and ferocious radical Mitch Snyder’s relentless hunger strikes and activism, President Reagan directed Congress to designate a modicum of money and administrative attention to address homelessness back in 1987. The McKinney Act, now the McKinney-Vento Act, is the supposedly comprehensive federal plan to address homelessness.

Federal law mandates that all federal departments sit at the same table to coordinate efforts, under the auspices of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, USICH. However, scant attention and resources (a meager $2 billion) are ineffectively directed at this growing national crisis.

When Snyder and our ambitious cadre of activists marched on Washington for “Housing NOW!” back in October 1989, we were determined to make our case for, well, housing now.

The alcohol-addled, grizzled guy on the street, purportedly a dangerous substance and sex abuser, became the poster child for homelessness. Criminalizing homelessness became the more common response. Federal funds barely touched the crisis of homelessness. In the process, with the inaccurate image of a scary homeless guy on the street corner engraved in the public’s mind, the needs of the emerging younger and more vulnerable population—homeless families and unaccompanied youth—languished. Over the past 25+ years, political will and capital dried up like an Arizona desert.

Communities were slow to realize that the underlying shift in federal policies excluded families from homelessness assistance. Unbeknownst to many policymakers, legislators, local officials and the public, the assumed safety network of homeless shelters for families and youth barely existed, in far too few communities (Map). 

In fact, to this day, many communities lack any emergency shelters for families or youth.

Simultaneously, many families were devastated and became homeless in the aftermath of the dismantling of public assistance, aka “welfare reform;” coupled with countless policy tweaks to HUD’s public housing regulations, such as the barring families with bad credit and increasing punitive restrictions; and a greatly reduced budget for subsidized housing.

Starting in President Bill Clinton’s administration and intensifying under George W. Bush, HUD focused on derisively labeled “chronic” men and women on urban streets—veterans, elderly, mentally ill, physically diminished. Some communities struggled to fill the gaps and to provide humanitarian aid, mostly in the form of emergency overnight shelters that relied on benevolent faith-based volunteers, but many of those efforts excluded families or erected barriers to inadvertently turn families away. 

Parents, ashamed of their failures, disappeared in the background, fearful of child welfare authorities removing their children, which still happens despite laws to prevent it.

Defined Out of Homelessness—Beleaguered Families Become Invisible

HUD requires communities to count their homeless population, a task often done annually. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, HUD doesn’t count families like Stacy’s, inadequately—to say the least—housed in that tiny camper, or those doubled-up (or worse) with family, friends or acquaintances, or those in motel rooms (with a convoluted set of exceptions). That’s supposed to change, but years of ignoring families took its toll, and it bamboozled Congress.

HUD reports to Congress that 633,782 individuals were counted in the latest Point-In-Time counts, justifying appropriating few federal dollars to a diminishing number of programs serving a spiraling number of people without homes. The U.S. Department of Education reported slightly over 1 million homeless students, contrasting with HUD’s numbers. Yet HUD and their minions boast about the success of the 10-Year-Plan to end homelessness, a reminder of “Mission Accomplished” delusions.

HUD’s housing dollars have shrunk over the past decades, as poverty and housing costs shot up. Family assistance supports, aka “welfare,” also shriveled. Families unable to get cash assistance clamor to get into subsidized housing, but they find the waiting lists years long and no viable options. These families, “at the bottom of the poverty ladder,” as Nunez astutely points out, will become homeless. And we have scant ways to help them.

Astoundingly, even to me, a seasoned veteran in the world of homelessness, is the dearth of emergency family shelters in many communities nationwide. Too often, a family displaced by trauma (violence, disaster, economic crisis, etc.), has no place to turn for short-term help, often worsening their circumstances. For Stacy and her little boys, the camper was it. The only family shelter in her community, Las Cruces, NM, closed in 2007 due to administrative and funding problems. It has yet to reopen.

Families like Stacy’s often turn to motels, an expensive and complicated solution. Motels allow families to pay by the day or week, not requiring deposits or credit checks, and they include utilities and amenities such as TV and air conditioning. But it requires a tremendous chunk of a family’s tenuous monthly income, using their limited resources up to pay the room, leaving nothing to help them get out of their quagmire. The grueling small space—I’ve been in a 200-sq. ft. room shared by mom, dad and their 5 kids—lack of cooking facilities and no privacy are at the top of complaints I’ve heard from these beleaguered and invisible families. But it’s better than the streets.

Short-Term and Long-Term Solutions

Ignored, to this day, is the need for a flexible variety of family housing solutions with layers of services to address the ongoing trauma and physical damages caused and worsened by abject poverty and homelessness.  It is possible, but rare.

Respected programs, such as UMOM in Phoenix, AZ, demonstrate commendable determination to create myriad housing and individually tailored services, as opposed to inadequate one-size-fits-all approaches. UMOM keeps families together, avoiding what my colleague Pat LaMarche refers to as the “Sophie’s Choice of the 21st Century” conundrum, where the parent has to farm out their teenage males because the shelter bans boys over a certain age (as young as 10) or stay together in adverse circumstances—sleeping in a car, storage shed, leaky camper, or with unscrupulous hosts.

On our 2013 southwest tour to raise awareness and inspire compassion for homeless families, youth and individuals, when asked by The Young Turks host Cenk Ugyur’s about what’s needed to address homelessness, my Babes of Wrath colleague Pat LaMarche provided a perfect answer: housing. 

For Stacy, finding a way out was essential, but daunting. I became more involved, conducting long-distance advocacy for her family with the local housing authority. The HPRP, Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-housing Plan, part of Obama’s under-hyped stimulus plan, became her ticket to permanent housing. Because she had no criminal record and didn’t abuse substances, she qualified. Her family moved into a full-size house trailer, two-thirds of her rent paid by the housing authority. Compared to many other families, Stacy's is lucky, for now. 


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