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Cute Doggy Keeps Desperate Family From Scarce Help


Oliver is as cute of a dog as a family would want. “Jane” and her daughter “Becky” have had this loveable beagle for 9 years, almost as long as Becky has been alive. To say they are best friends is an understatement. But Oliver may be a major impediment for this family to escape homelessness.

With what seems to be universal struggles—parents fight and break up, unaffordable rent goes unpaid causing eviction, months’ long waiting lists to get into shelters, not enough money to even get a motel room—Jane, Becky and Oliver were at least lucky to have their car. Jane sagely opted to put their valuables in storage (taking precautions we’ve suggested in our Save Our Stuff campaign) and they’ve slept in their aging SUV for the past couple months, parked near the storage facility which serves as their giant closet.

They snuggle together in the bed—station wagons and SUVs should be standard issue for homeless families—aka air mattress, with Oliver irregularly alerting them to a rare approaching stranger. Jane expressed appreciation for their sunroof, which provides circulation, albeit with a heavy dose of mosquito traffic, on the sultry summer nights. Becky apologized for how messy their sleeping space was, like a child explaining away a messy room.

Oliver is the glue holding this family together. He is also the speed bump in their return to permanent housing, or even getting into a shelter. Most programs don’t allow dogs—in their shelters, transitional housing or even permanent housing. Jane and Becky, understandably, can’t part with Oliver, who has dutifully served as Becky’s furry security blanket since Becky was a toddler.

Fortunately for this threesome, a canine foster parent has emerged who may be the first step to a solution to their complicated crisis. A Good Samaritan stepped in, and a beagle-loving volunteer offered to take the cute pooch until Jane and Becky get on their feet. The beleaguered homeless student social worker for the district will hopefully work a miracle with this family. But I'm not holding my breath.

Madison, WI, their delightful city, sports average rents (1 BR) of $900, and very low vacancy rates. In the meantime, hoping to get into a family shelter is futile. The 4-month wait lists now will only get worse as winter approaches. Record numbers of homeless families have slammed the fragile system. The alternative, motels, is another vexing problem because the rates, as the Good Samaritan discovered, were in the $600-900 a week range.

So you have no affordable housing. No emergency shelter. Expensive motels. Where do families end up when they hit these formidable obstacles?

As I’ll be documenting as HEAR US begins an exciting filming project in Texas this month, many families double up (or worse), bouncing from friend’s house to another friend’s garage to an acquaintance’s basement and so on. This non-solution to homelessness, which is officially defined as “homeless” by the U.S. Department of Education, is the most common form of alternative living arrangement for families. It doesn’t take long for the “worn-out welcome mat” syndrome to uproot the vulnerable family.

For now, Jane, Becky and Oliver, are going to keep toughing it out in their SUV, with Becky slinking into the storage unit to find her school clothes and to gather her supplies into the Good Samaritan-provided backpack. Helter-skelter hygiene, hit-and-miss meals, mosquito-disturbed sleep, haphazard study conditions. No friends coming over for a sleep-over. Shame and embarrassment.

In the meantime, Congressman “I’ve Got the Power to Make the Poor Even More Miserable” Paul Ryan (R-WI) refuses to acknowledge that Wisconsinites and millions of other families lack what they need to survive, much less thrive.

My unspectacular visit to his Janesville office on Friday wasn’t my last attempt to “afflict the comfortable.” My fantasy: “kidnap” him and his family and tie him down in the back of a cramped SUV with windows open on a hot Wisconsin night. In lieu of that, I may just splurge and send him a copy of “Where Can I Build My Volcano?,” a compelling child’s story of a 10-year-old girl and her mother living in a station wagon.The family ends up staying at a shelter I ran. 

That could be the Ryan’s worst nightmare. 

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