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Moms, Dads With Kids: Homeless But Nowhere To Turn


The number of cities—not backwater towns—that I’ve visited recently that have NO FAMILY EMERGENCY SHELTER (a walk-in overnight haven that immediately accepts most all homeless families) is more than astounding, it’s utterly and inexcusably dismaying.

Before Christmas I was in Mobile, AL. Lots of good people are doing lots of good things to help homeless folks. Families get a little help, but when it comes to emergency shelter, zippo.

Early in January, Savannah, GA. Ditto the good people doing good things. And ditto the lack of emergency shelter.

Last week, on our Babes of Wrathtour, it was Ft. Smith, AR. This week Flagstaff, AZ. Yup, you got it, ditto, ditto.

So what’s the deal?

Simple. Families don’t count. And I’m not pointing a finger at the local folks because they are forced to bend to the dictates of the U. S. Department of Housing and Human Development, HUD, where money trickles to some communities (many smaller towns don’t get any) to address homelessness. HUD determines priorities. Recipients must comply.

HUD doesn’t, and has never, seem to grasp the dynamics—or desperate straits—of (mostly) moms and kids without homes. HUD-funded urban family shelters have typically been abysmal. Non-urban—mostly nonexistent.Here’s a map compiled by the respected Institute of Children, Poverty and Homelessness that illustrates the point.

What happens to cause a typical family to become homeless? (My 1-page list of causes of homelessness.)Trauma commonly accompanies the family on the road to homelessness. Multiple crises and Murphy’s Law travel along. Take “Brenda” and her 3 little ones, 1, 2 and 4-years-old.

This young mom really wanted to do the right thing. She had worked until things fell apart, was with the same man who fathered her children, and she appeared to be a good mom. I met her in Mobile, and she shared her story with me.

To her, her plans seemed to be solid. Since the kids’ dad was locked up (a common occurrence for impoverished black men in the South), she reached out to her estranged father. He offered to get her and his never-seen grandkids back to California, and assured her (Grapes of Wrath-style) that housing was affordable and plentiful, jobs were ripe for the picking, and all would be well.

Brenda has a SUV that appeared functional. Her cousin was going to fly out and be the extra adult, essential when traveling with 3 “littles.” Brenda’s anticipated income tax refund would cover her court fines. In holiday-inspired kindness, a friend let the family double up, supposedly until the IRS money fairy visited Brenda.

Instead, the dark cloud of doom dumped a load of disaster. The host/friend left town right after Christmas, bumping Brenda and her kids into a motel. Kids got sick, eliminating the daycare break she needed to work. Her car had problems, $300+ worth. The $200 a week for the motel room was scraped up from a diminishing number of friends. And it dried up.

She called me for help. And other than pointing her to the agencies she already knew about, I had no bright idea, and certainly no money to shell out.

I’ve seen this same script—the well intentioned but disastrous plan. Families in crisis teeter on a razor-thin edge, with no safety net, and it most often results in catastrophe.

  • Option A:The kids end up placed in expensive foster care. Mom slips into deep depression, or into the many escapes to avoid dealing with the mess that seems to have no solution. Self-esteem shattered, nothing left to lose, this tragedy hurts her and her kids. Taxpayers foot the ridiculous cost of foster care, medical and legal expenses. 
  • Option B: A decent emergency shelter, where she could turn with her children for a few nights to stay and get some help. The family stays together, their crisis eases, their situation stabilizes, and options can be realistically considered and pursued. It’s cheaper than the Option A, and better for the kids and mom.

Now, I’ve been around long enough to know Option B takes resources, and that not all shelters are ideal, to say the least. But I also know that Option A has left us with generations of dysfunctional families that end up costing far more than providing support—not the one-size-fits-all kind—to keep the family together and safe.

I’ve been cooking up a desperate but doable scheme to address the logistical aspects of making Option B a possibility. But first, I’d like to hear from other communities. Is what I described the reality in your community? Worse? Better?

Follow Pat LaMarche and meon our 5,000-mile Babes of Wrath tour, sponsored by my nonprofit organization HEAR US Inc. and supported by dozens of generous donors.