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The Challenge of Homeless Children

homeless-children-sleeping

House the Homeless has spoken about the urgency of telling potential presidential candidates what we think is important. Keeping families together is maximally important.

It has long been obvious that one person working a minimum wage job can barely support herself or himself. With kids, the situation becomes desperate. When a person is called upon to do two different things at the same time, like hold a job and be the sole parent, the awful stress of trying to do the impossible has a bad effect on health and mental stability. Even if there are two parents, if one has a low-paying job and the other takes care of the kids, they are teetering on the edge of homelessness if not homeless already.

The number of families living in garages and basements is larger than official statistics would indicate. But in recent years, even if both parents work, or one parent holds two jobs, in many places they still can’t afford a place to live that includes such amenities as running water, electricity, outdoor space for kids to play, or indoor space for them to do school assignments.

The flyover states

Too often, a cruel Catch-22 comes into play. There are plenty of places in the United States where the rent is relatively low. Unfortunately, such a place is unlikely to offer the luxury of employment. Journalist Alexis Rosado quotes experts from Volunteers of America and Homeless Angels, to the effect that, although most people don’t realize it, families with children make up a huge proportion of the homeless population. This is certainly true in middle America.

Just last week, WLNS in Lansing, Michigan, profiled a family that has been experiencing homelessness for about two years since the father lost his job and couldn’t find another. Lansing only has two facilities where families can stay together, and then only for a short time. A lot of other cities don’t even have that much.

Audacious programs

Kids in tumultuous situations are prone to physical, emotional, social, and developmental problems, or all four kinds at once. In Oakland, CA, the Center for the Vulnerable Child (CVC) focuses on children whose lives are impacted by homelessness, family disruption (often a polite way of saying that a parent is locked up), abuse, neglect, violence, poverty, and other chaotic influences. Cheryl Zlotnick published a book titled Children Living in Transition, which describes the organization’s focus:

[…] this text recommends strategies for delivering mental health and intensive case-management services that maintain family integrity and stability.
[…] this volume outlines culturally sensitive practices to engage families that feel disrespected by the assistance of helping professionals or betrayed by their forgotten promises. Chapters discuss the Center’s staffers’ attempt to trace the influence of power, privilege, and beliefs on their education and their approach to treatment.

The CVC offers developmental screening, education in parenting, therapy for both individuals and families, and case management. It is connected with many programs that serve niche demographics, like foster kids who need medical care, or children who seem likely to fail out of kindergarten, so clients can be referred to numerous consulting specialists.

In nearby San Francisco, the Homeless Youth Alliance works with a very different group – youth designated as “unaccompanied,” who are either alienated from their families or who have aged out of foster care and never had families. They are encouraged to be more than the passive recipients of services. There is a neighborhood beautification crew that increases pride and earns good will, and the opportunity is always open to work as an outreach counselor.

Funded mostly by foundations and private donors, the HYA encourages people to accept challenge and be the change they want to see in the world. To potential supporters, executive director Mary Howe issues a refreshingly honest call to action:

We want your money, your talent, your support and, more than anything, your ability to utilize your own voice to educate people of the root causes of poverty, homelessness, drug use and mental health challenges… Don’t just sit on your ass and complain about the state of things—stand up, do something and get involved in your community.

Circling back to our first paragraph, House the Homeless would like to remind everybody that now is an excellent time to get involved by raising our voices about what needs to be done on a national level. Any pubic figure who aspires to leadership should be hearing from us, and not just that we want more and better homeless shelters. No, we want improvement in all the circumstances and conditions that lead to homelessness, which are conveniently listed on the page titled “Mission: School the Candidates.”

Source: “Homeless family sees flaws in the system,” WLNS.com, 02/19/16
Source: “Children Living in Transition,” Columbia.edu, 2014
Source: “Create to Destroy! Homeless Youth Alliance,” MaximumRocknRoll.com, 10/22/13
Photo credit: Blemished Paradise via Visual hunt/CC BY-SA

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Why “Kids 4 Kids Sake!” Is Important

one-in-45-graphicLast week, House the Homeless talked about the Kids 4 Kids Sake! campaign, which involves raising the awareness of potential presidential candidates about what needs to be done about children experiencing homelessness, and why. The illustration on today’s page, created by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, is probably outdated. Currently, HomelessChildrenAmerica.org says one in 30 children are homeless in any given year.

A recommended resource on all aspects of homelessness is a “No Safe Place: Advocacy Manual,” a report prepared by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. Here are some facts from it:

  • Family homelessness has been on the rise since the inception of the foreclosure crisis in 2007.
  • The U.S. States Conference of Mayors found that family homelessness increased an average of 4% between 2012 and 2013 in its survey of 25 major American cities.
  • In some areas of the country, the numbers are even higher.
  • From 2011 to 2012, the number of unaccompanied children in shelter increased by 28%.

To rely on the numbers is misleading anyway. Counting people who have nowhere to live is a difficult job. In counting children and youth experiencing homelessness, problems come up.

There are two main types of kids — those attached to a single parent or a set of parents, and those who are on their own. In a way, the ones with parents are easier to count, through the school system, although with irregular attendance and frequent address changes they can be difficult to keep track of.

Elusive numbers

Minors are easier to count if the family stays in a shelter. One of the administrative problems in that field is deciding how long a family can remain. Some helpers believe that authorized stays need to be longer, to give families a better chance to get on their feet.

The choice is between a rock and a hard place: Help more families, short-term, and spit them back out into the world unprepared, so they will probably end up on the waiting list again; or help fewer families for longer periods until they really get solid ground under them.

On the other hand, kids with parents might be harder to identify. Even if two adults and five children are inhabiting a one-car garage with no water or electricity, there may be reasons why a family does not want to be identified as homeless. Some bureaucracies will substitute the gentler word “displaced,” but changing the adjective doesn’t really help.

Older kids, called “unaccompanied,” are harder to count. Rather than officially entering the system by admitting that both parents are in jail, a teenager might prefer any kind of makeshift living arrangement. And she or he just might not bother with school. An accurate census is improbable. Also, different agencies, bureaucracies, and jurisdictions have different ways of defining homelessness.

Locating the lost

For Bridge Magazine, Pat Shellenbarger learned about the work done by Brenda Greenhoe, whose job (under a federal grant) is to find homeless kids and get them into school. Her beat includes four Michigan counties, comprising 2,400 square miles and more than 340,000 destitute kids living in some of the bleakest “poverty pockets” in any state. Overall, Michigan has more than 30,000 homeless students. In the 2013-14 school year, Greenhoe found 1,550 of them.

A couple of years back, Prof. Yvonne Vissing of Salem State College wrote a list titled “Being Ruthless for Homeless Children” that offered several suggestions for people who sincerely care about children. They included:

We must be ruthless against the everyday decisions that force parents to choose between which of their options are the least awful, instead of making decisions about which options are in the best interests of their children.

We must be ruthless against the policies and practices that force children to have no secure place to sleep and no where to call home.

Reactions?

Source: “No Safe Place: Advocacy Manual,” NLCHP.org, 2014
Source: “Along Michigan’s back roads, thousands of homeless children,” BridgeMi.com, 08/12/14
Image by National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty

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Mission: School the Candidates

kids-4-kids-sake

The National Coalition for the Homeless is sending out a call to action:

Join us in asking each candidate what they will do to create affordable and accessible housing for all!

Whoever winds up running for President need to be urgently reminded that nothing is more important than ending the national disgrace of American homelessness. On the NCH’s “2016 Presidential Campaign” page, just hit the “How to contact the candidates” tab to access what looks like a pretty up-to-date list, except that Martin O’Malley has dropped out (which may be updated by the time our page is published).

Bernie Sanders seems to be pretty well informed about all the issues that contribute to homelessness, and he is particularly tuned-in to the urgency of housing homeless veterans. Still, if you are “feeling the Bern,” it can’t hurt to encourage him to actually talk about solving the issue of homelessness for all people while on the campaign trail.

This helpful page supplies snail-mail addresses. Remember, in our electronic age, when someone takes the time to write an actual letter on paper, fold it into an envelope and stick on a stamp, that action is pretty impressive. Sending a physical piece of mail means getting a lot of bang for the half-a-buck.

Also, a lot of these prominent individuals have Twitter accounts and Facebook pages and heaven only knows what else. Speak to them through the social media of your choice. Send them a link to this video, which was produced by House the Homeless at Austin’s beautiful Homeless Memorial.

Send them a series of Tweets, Facebook messages, etc., containing that link and one of the messages read by these children. For your copy-and-paste convenience, here they all are:

  • “Income inequality… Homelessness: worst possible outcome”
  • “School can be hard… Sleeping on a park bench is harder.”
  • “Help them! Don’t arrest them!”
  • “Homes, not handcuffs”
  • “Mommies and daddies need a living wage.”
  • “Kids need a roof over their heads, not a bridge!”
  • “What’s wrong and what’s right? Kids say: housing is a human right!”
  • “My friend’s doggie needs a home — and so does she.”

Also, on that page you have the opportunity to refresh your knowledge of the root causes of homelessness, which will make your communications with public figures more effective.

If you want to say something more substantial than “End homelessness!” — find talking points on the NCH “Issues” page.

The issues fall under several main categories. Pick the one you know or care most about, or read up on the one you’d like to learn more about. Then tell all the potential candidates what you think. Or pick one candidate, and send separate messages regarding all of these issues. What are they?

  • Housing
  • Employment and Income
  • Health
  • Family Homelessness
  • Elder Homelessness
  • Youth Homelessness
  • Veteran Homelessness
  • Criminalization of Homelessness
  • LGBT Homelessness
  • Trauma Informed Care

Also on the “Issues” page are links for anyone who wants to donate, organize, advocate, volunteer, or request a speaker.

Our goal is to use the 2016 presidential election process to make the issue of homelessness a political priority so that the next President will put our nation on track to fixing the affordable housing crisis and ending homelessness in America.

Let’s do this!

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People Experiencing Homelessness are Stripped of Everything

A homeless woman

Emma Whitford related the harrowing story of a rainy night in East Harlem where several homeless people huddled beneath a protruding section of a building. City Parks Dept. workers showed up, along with some police officers.

According to participants, the people were not even given a chance to go out into the rain before the authorities began to load their belongings into a sanitation truck. In some cases, the police and/or city workers even shoved people to the ground and seized things that they held. The writer described the treatment of Anthony Rainey, a former Marine homeless since 1971:

Rainey says that most of his possessions were taken that morning as well—everything but an electronic benefit transfer card and credit card that happened to be in his pocket. Rainey lost his Veterans ID card, which he uses to ride public transportation free of charge and purchase clothing wholesale, plus family photographs, his birth certificate, hospital records, sweatshirts and jackets, and the CDs and chargers that he sells on the street.

Whitford also quoted Floyd Parks:

I grabbed my cart and was trying to get my stuff out, and the [officer]… just took my stuff and threw it in the [truck], and just crushed it up. And I said, ‘Yo, I got personal property.’ They said, ‘Too bad.’

Apparently, the same kind of gratuitous, random confiscation happens on a regular basis all over America. Of course, no one wants piles of junk everywhere. But reasonable measures can be taken to keep a city looking neat, without seizing people’s documents, or the things they are holding. In that New York incident, there was not even pretense of storing possessions to be picked up later. It went straight to the trash compacter.

Somewhere in Middle America

For a while, some of the people experiencing homelessness in Madison WI had been storing belongings in a supervised area at the Social Justice Center, but more space was needed downtown. The front steps of the City-County building took up some of the slack, an untenable situation that was never meant to last.

Last spring, city workers put up two enclosures across the street from there, out back of the Municipal Building, which took up part of the parking lot and probably annoyed some citizens for that reason alone. The doorless “chain-link boxes” were not equipped with shelves or dividers of any kind, so things were just bundled in there any which way. There were tarps across the top, but the sides were wide open to the weather. There was no supervision or security, so items were stolen and their owners were upset.

The authorities contended that advocates for the homeless had promised to look after the storage area. They charged that people were using the space for illegal and immoral activities, and closed the minimalistic wire shed at the end of July. Dean Mosiman wrote,

Belongings were to be removed from the facility by 2 p.m. Wednesday, with the city considering anything remaining as lost property and collected and bagged by city staff and stored off site for up to 45 days. Items that are worth less than $50, hazardous, perishable or with no sentimental, medical or legal value could be disposed immediately.

That sounds pretty reasonable, but veterans of America’s streets have learned that items do not always arrive at destinations named by city workers. Several other issues arose, and it was pointed out that a firm agreement should have been made, and thoroughly understood by both sides, before the project was undertaken.

A great public relations opportunity was lost in Madison, and a lot of potential good will was squandered, that might otherwise have accrued to both sides. Imagine what might have happened if a capable organizer with a few devoted colleagues had been in the right place at the right time. It could have been a model project, illustrating how responsible people can be, even when they are not housed, and proving that they deserve to have fair treatment and jobs and places to sleep and all that good stuff. Just like, you know, regular people.

Richard R. Troxell, co-founder of House the Homeless, suggests that “The best way to avoid the criminalization of people experiencing homelessness, and these kinds of abuses, is simply to house them.” On the way to that goal, the Wisconsin State Journal‘s Chris Rickert asks,

It’s hard not to wonder: If city officials can’t work with the homeless and their advocates on something so seemingly simple, how are they going to work together on more pressing needs — such as more shelter space, housing and mental health and substance abuse treatment?

Reactions?

Source: “Video: NYPD Destroyed Birth Certificates, Medication, IDs In East Harlem Homeless Raid,” Gothamist.com. 10/13/15
Source: “Madison closes storage area for homeless belongings,” madison.com, 07/22/15
Source: “Chris Rickert: No hindsight needed to identify problems with homeless’ storage space,
Madison.com, 08/09/15
Image by bopswave