More Homeless Families Than Ever

Photo of abandoned house. Text underneath reads: "There are 18,600,000 vacant homes in the United States. That's enough for every homeless person to have six."

According to figures from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, nearly 240,000 people are estimated to be homeless in families, which accounts for just over 40% of the homeless. In terms of child-rearing, that adds up to an awful lot of parents who don’t have the luxury of worrying about preventing a child’s obesity with nutritious home-cooked meals served at a regular time, with the family gathered around the table. They don’t have a table, or a kitchen, or very much choice about what their kids eat. Also, it adds up to an awful lot of kids who don’t have a safe, quiet place to sleep after listening to a softly read bedtime story, or even a safe, quiet place to do their homework assignments.

Another set of numbers reckons that there are over a million homeless students across the country. A lot of kids are not getting an equal chance to make something of their lives, and there is an additional wrinkle. As Sanya Dosani reported for Al Jazeera, more than half of the people experiencing homelessness in America do not live in big cities.

Suburban and rural homeless populations are often invisible to local residents and lawmakers, experts say, so social programs are scarce and funding isn’t a priority…. The neglect of homeless youth in suburban and rural swaths of the country is most dangerously apparent in schools.

Sometimes the needs of homeless rural students are met, thanks to the McKinney-Vento Act. It allows attendance at the school a child went to before becoming homeless, so you find such makeshift (and expensive) arrangements as a child being taken by taxicab to a school in a nearby town.

Leaving aside all the other problems of homelessness that impact a child’s ability to learn, there is the social stigma. When I was in grade school, my hometown, Niagara Falls, was the site of a massive hydroelectric project that drew construction workers from all over the country. Their children enrolled in the local schools. Except for being nomadic, these were ordinary families. They had homes, albeit on wheels. Each family had a mother, and a father with a car and a good job. But the kids who “belonged” avoided the trailer kids. It’s hard to imagine how much more isolating it must be for children who live in shelters with parents who can’t find jobs, and certainly not jobs that pay living wages.

In Little Rock, Ark., the local school district teaches around 500 homeless students, and many of their needs are paid for not by tax dollars but through private funding and grants. Pulaski County Special School District Superintendent Dr. Jerry Guess says:

Arkansas requires every school district in the state to have a homeless liaison. [A typical school] has backpacks for each of the homeless children to take home each weekend that gets packed with food. The school has clean clothes for the children as well.

Georgia Mjartan, director of Our House, says:

Arkansas is ranked third worst in the nation for child homelessness for a number of reasons…. No one in this state when they think about homelessness thinks about a beautiful little baby or a teenager who’s going to school, who’s studying for the ACT.

In Cincinnati, Ohio, Laura Tolbert, a military veteran who, with her husband and two small children, had been couch-surfing for almost a year, told a Fox News reporter:

When you have kids, if you are a good parent, you will do everything that you can not to show your child that something is wrong…. [You] try to make them think that everything is normal and everything is fine and let them have a great life and childhood because you only get to be a child one time.

After this family landed in a shelter run by the local Interfaith Hospitality Network, a re-housing program placed them in an apartment where their rent will be paid for up to six months as they establish themselves, as if they are magically going to find jobs that pay living wages. However, compared to what other families are going through, this was incredible good fortune — like 1-in-5 luck. Kevin Finn, director of Strategies to End Homelessness, says:

The reality is that only about 21 percent of the families that reached out for shelter last year were actually able to come into a shelter…. It’s not at all uncommon for a homeless child to change schools six or even eight times in one academic year which means they are perpetually behind…. Three out of every ten, 30 percent of our homeless population are children.


Source: “Rise of homeless families,” AlJazeera.com, 12/09/13
Source: “Growing Up Homeless in Suburbia,” AlJazeera.com, 03/27/14
Source: “Arkansas struggling with homeless children population,” KATV.com, 05/20/14
Source: “Homeless children: One local family’s struggle to overcome poverty,” Fox19.com, 05/07/14
Image by unknown


Homeless Kids, Parents, and Schools

sign reading "how many homeless families does it take to make a billionaire"

“The new face of homelessness is a kid under 18 years old.” So many people have noticed this that the quotation can’t even be attributed. Many families, even with one or both parents working, can’t make enough money for a place to live. The number of homeless American children in grades K-12 cannot be exactly known, for many reasons.

However, officials believe that more than half of them are in the elementary grades. Older kids who don’t want to reveal their condition to the authorities become part of not only the “invisible homeless,” but the uncounted homeless. The tendency of some older kids, and even of some parents, to conceal their homelessness is described by euphemisms like “underreporting” or having “reporting issues.”

Not long ago, Al Jazeera America published a guest blog titled “Living in the cycle of homelessness,” written by 33-year old Julia Cooley, mother of a 4-year-old son. They have been homeless for three years despite Cooley’s employment as a teacher’s assistant, but she still holds self-sufficiency as a goal. Cooley writes:

Self-sufficiency is defined as the ability to provide for yourself without the help of others. I could not provide for me or my son. My family was in no position to help us financially or to provide housing…. I needed stable housing, childcare for my son, and a job. (In that order.)

A friend told her about Our House, an Atlanta agency that offers free childcare, help with transportation, medical services, a childcare training program for parents, and housing referrals — and while this small family still doesn’t have a place of its own, the possibility exists more strongly than ever before.

Al Jazeera also published a story, by Azmat Khan & Lori Jane Gliha, about the tragic case of 8-year-old Relisha Rudd, who disappeared from a Washington, D.C., homeless shelter where she lived with her mother and three younger brothers. She was apparently taken by a man who worked there, who later was found dead, and Relisha is still missing. There has been a great deal of controversy over who was at fault. Terrible as the story is, it has drawn attention to the massive number of children who are experiencing homelessness in the nation’s capital:

According to the Fiscal Policy Institute, a Washington think tank focused on low-income populations, the number of families staying in D.C. shelters increased from more than 400 to more than 700 in the last year…. Advocates say the surge in homelessness in Washington isn’t just putting pressure on homeless families, but is also pushing the city to cut corners.

Even with the occasional statistical fluke that makes the numbers go down, the overall picture nationwide is dismal. There are more homeless children and less money to help them. Or is that the main problem? TakePart.com, in a story accompanying a photo essay called “The 10 Worst States for Student Homelessness,” reveals the astonishing fact that out of the nation’s 15,000 school districts, only 3,000 have applied for government grants available under the McKinney-Vento Act. On the bright side:

Many schools already have homeless education coordinators, and more districts are hiring them. These educators help students access what many of us consider life basics — a pair of shoes, a shower, and even a prepaid phone for safety. There are more than 15,000 of these liaisons in schools in the United States.

A child might be living in a place with no running water or electricity, and may not have access to a TV, and almost certainly doesn’t have a computer to work with. In fact, there might not even be a flat surface with a chair in front of it to do homework.

A lot of Americans are accustomed to thinking of homelessness as an urban problem, but more than half of all homeless people live outside of big cities. This can make their lives more difficult in many ways, including complications with getting the kids to school. According to the McKinney-Vento Act, children must have transportation provided to the school they were enrolled in before they became homeless.

Caught between the devil and the deep blue sea

When homes are lost and parents have to move their families into shelters or worse, they face the choice of putting each child through the trauma of starting at a new school, or putting themselves and the kids through the daily trauma of traveling to and from the school of the child’s last enrollment. Sometimes the district doesn’t have funds and the parents have to figure out the transportation. Some kids spend hours on buses every day.

To try and make sure that any child who needs help gets it, teachers are told to watch their students for signs like carrying a lot of belongings; not wanting to leave a coat where it might go missing; acting like they haven’t gotten any sleep; wearing the same clothes; and lack of hygiene. Sadly, it’s a danger sign when kids like getting to school early, or when they hang around after hours for the social atmosphere and to avoid having to return to a chaotic living situation. For many kids, school is their hold on stability and normalcy.


Source: “Living in the cycle of homelessness,” AlJazeera.com, 12/11/13
Source: “Are We Doing Enough to Protect Homeless Children?” AlJazeera.com, 03/27/14
Source: “The 10 Worst States for Student Homelessness,” TakePart.com, 12/08/13
Image found at Tumblr


Head Trauma, Homelessness, and Crazy

elderly homeless woman

Scientists studied men from a homeless shelter in Toronto to discover each person’s history of head injuries. They interviewed the participants (ages 27 to 81) using the standardized Brain Injury Screening Questionnaire. The team’s own report said:

Demographic information and detailed histories of brain injuries were obtained. Participants with positive and negative screening results were compared…. A positive screening result was significantly associated with a lifetime history of arrest or mental illness and a parental history of substance abuse.

Almost half of the participants had suffered traumatic brain injury (TBI), which can even lead to seizures. Among them, these numbers relating to the precipitating incident were recorded:
— assault, 66%
— sports or recreation, 44%
— vehicle accident, 42%
— fall, 42%

Since those percentages add up to well over 100%, obviously many individuals have fallen prey to more than one head injury. Usually, the first time was in childhood, possibly as a result of being raised by parents who were substance abusers, which showed up as a positive correlation. In men who were under 40, the most prevalent cause of neurotrauma was falling because of alcohol or drug blackouts. For those over 40, sadly, assault was the most common cause. The researchers also found that 87% of the injuries happened before the participants became homeless.


That research team was led by Jane Topolovec-Vranic, Ph.D., a clinical researcher in the Neuroscience Research Program of St. Michael’s Hospital. Meanwhile, another research project was in progress — the Health and Housing in Transition Study, conducted by Dr. Stephen Hwang of the Centre for Research on Inner City Health. Dr. Hwang collected data not only in Toronto but in Vancouver and Ottawa as well. Among his subjects, the incidence of TBI was seven times higher than in the general population.

An attorney who represents accident victims wrote:

[T]he victims of traumatic brain injuries so often have the potential to suffer longer than almost any other group. TBI victims frequently experience problems such as loss of memory, loss of cognitive function, physical impairment and personality changes or disorders. In simple terms, a person who suffers a traumatic brain injury may never be the same after the accident…. While a TBI may result in serious problems, the problems are almost always made worse if the victim cannot afford good medical care.

In Austin, Texas, House the Homeless conducted a health survey of 501 participants, which revealed that 83 had suffered a brain injury; 45 had experienced at least one seizure; 70 had a history of panic attacks; 175 reported themselves as mentally ill; and 330 said they sometimes need to stop and rest before they can continue walking to a destination.

Richard R. Troxell fought for years to exempt disabled people, including those with TBI, from being charged a $500 fine under Austin’s No Sit/No Lie ordinance. With disability credentials, a homeless person is allowed to sit for 30 minutes to recover strength, and in extreme weather (over 100 degrees) any homeless person is permitted the grace of being able to sit or lie for a while. House the Homeless got the new rules written into the Police Procedures Manual and published small laminated versions of the rules for distribution to people experiencing homelessness.

This may sound like a trivial issue, but think again, and answer the Bonus Question: Which is more crazy — a homeless person with TBI, or a city that has spent over a quarter of a million dollars to prosecute one individual for violating a No Sit/No Lie ordinance? From Los Angeles comes the ludicrous story of how 59-year-old Ann Moody has been arrested 59 times and spent a total of 15 months in jail, mostly for sitting. The Los Angeles Times quoted Moody: “We’re human beings, not to be pushed around like cattle. We have a right to be stationary.”


Source: “Traumatic brain injury among men in an urban homeless shelter: observational study of rates and mechanisms of injury,” CMAJOpen.ca, 04/25/14
Source: “Almost half of homeless men had traumatic brain injury in their lifetime,“ ScienceDaily.com, 04/25/14
Source: “Homeless Men Have High TBI Rates,” May 2014
Source: “Homeless Grandmother Arrested 59 Times for Sitting on Sidewalk,” DemocraticUnderground.com, 05/02/14
Image by Alex


Statistics and Homeless Students

Uto Elemenary School

Here are some samples from the mystifying patchwork that answers the question of how many children are experiencing homelessness in the United States. Some sentences just give numbers from various cities, while others include interesting details, and the sources for those are in the end notes.

● 2010, Pennsylvania — 31,386 homeless children, an increase of 46% (nearly double) from the previous year. Ralph da Costa Nunez wrote:

To put this number in context, that is more than the entire University of Pittsburgh student body…. HCEF [Homeless Children’s Education Fund] has joined with U.S. Attorney David J. Hickton, and together they have made addressing the needs of homeless children a priority, shifting the conversation to rightly define childhood poverty and homelessness as a civil rights struggle.

● December 2010, Washington state — 22,000 homeless students, increased from around 14,000 just four years earlier.

● Mid-2012, Miami-Dade County, Fla. — 4,400 homeless students.

● October 2012, Philadelphia — 5,000 homeless students. The Students Without a Home summit identified available resources to increase youth opportunity in accordance with the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act of 1987.

● 2013, Baltimore — 2,800 homeless students, twice as many as five years before.

● 2013, Weld County, Colo. — 800 newly homeless students. After devastating floods, this number was added onto the number of students already homeless because of wildfires and because of the usual reasons that apply anywhere. Ann Schimke wrote:

[T]he district has been spending about $1,000 a day to transport displaced students from temporary quarters to their home schools, in some cases sending buses far afield to pick up students doubled up with relatives or staying in hotels.

● 2013, America — In 10 states, the number of homeless students increased by at least 20%.

● Early 2014, Springfield, Mo. — 727 homeless students.

● February 2014, Bryan Independent School District, Texas — 578 homeless students, up from 316 the previous year.

● February 2014, Washington state — 30,609 homeless students, increased for the sixth year in a row.

● March 2014, Williston, N.D. — 128 homeless students.

● March 2014, Alief Independent School District, Houston — 1,600 homeless students. Shern-Min Chow wrote about kids without an “adequate, stable night time residence”:

Most are constantly moving between relatives and friends…. We have 79 that are in hotels, motels, 50 that are in shelters, around 22 that we do not know and there are roughly 10 that are sleeping in their car, under a tree, they are transient…. Those students still go to school. Free breakfast and lunch on campus, along with gym showers are big draws, but not real solutions…. Directly across the street from Alief Elsik High is one the local apartment complexes that donates or leases units at a discount to homeless students.

● March, 2014, Long Island, N.Y. — over 8,000 homeless students, up from about 2,600 only five years before. NBCNewYork.com quoted an education professional:

Some of the places where we tutor, they don’t have electricity. They don’t even have a light bulb where we can sit a tutor to read with them and do their homework. The problem is a lot more widespread than people understand.


Source: “Pittsburgh: A Model for Addressing Child Homelessness,” HuffingtonPost.com, 05/15/12
Source: “Educational summit about homeless students to be held Friday,” TheNotebook.org, 10/11/12
Source: “Flooding adds thousands of students to district homeless rolls…” chalkbeat.org, 10/04/13
Source: “HISD schools helping homeless students,” KHOU.com, 03/13/14
Source: “Homelessness on Rise Among Long Island Students,” NBCNewYork.com, 03/18/14
Image by Kenta Mabuchi


Wage Adjustment


The Federal Minimum Wage has slipped into distinct disrepair. The historical one-size-fits-all approach, be it $7.25 per hour, or even the proposed $10.10 per hour, is antiquated. Our national economy has evolved into a thousand-plus economies. We’ve all traveled, and we all know that the cost of living in Washington, D.C., is different than it is Austin or in Harlingen, Texas, etc.

At long last, there is talk of indexing the Federal Minimum Wage (FMW) to the cost of living. This would make complete sense if the wage had enabled minimum-wage workers to afford life’s necessities to begin with. But, until that piece of the puzzle is fixed, the proposed cost-of-living increase only addresses the inflation aspect of the wage. The core wage itself is still too little to enable people to afford the basics of life: food, clothing, and shelter.

To solve the failings of the FMW, we must index it to the local cost of housing, as it is the single most expensive item in the budget of every American. The failure of the FMW is that it is creating homeless people. But by indexing to the local cost of housing, we account for the nationwide variation in local economies without crushing small businesses in rural America. This will ensure that if a person works 40 hours in a week, be it from one job or more, they will be able to afford basic food, clothing, and shelter (including utilities) wherever that work is done throughout the U.S. This will end economic homelessness for over 1,000,000 minimum-wage workers.

– by Richard R. Troxell, from a recent letter to the editor at The Austin American-Statesman

Image by Social Alterations


Homeless Families on the Rise

children's drawing of mother and child

Imagine that you’re a mother with two kids, one sleeping on a sofa with you, the baby on the floor next to you sleeping in a bureau drawer that your host emptied out for the purpose. You and your kids are taking up space and making noise, causing inconvenience by sharing the bathroom and using the kitchen. In determining eligibility for help, different agencies have their own definitions of what constitutes homelessness. On this topic Saki Knafo wrote for Huffington Post:

The problem is that HUD’s definition leaves out thousands who lack permanent homes — people who sleep on the couches of friends and relatives, or many who live in cramped motel rooms. Before approving aid in these cases, HUD requires proof that their arrangements are very tentative: either documentation of a lack of funds to afford a hotel room for more than two weeks, or confirmation from the friend offering the couch that this setup can not be permanent.

So now, on top of everything else, you have to ask your friend to write a letter confirming that you and your kids will be kicked out soon. Imagine the humiliation involved in such a simple-sounding request. Maybe this is a subject you didn’t really want to bring up, hoping that the kind person sharing the apartment will get used to having extra people around, and prolong the invitation. And about that documentation — a pay stub can show that you have some money, but what verifies that you’re stone broke? How do you prove a negative?

A couple of years ago, the Department of Education guessed that about a million American kids were homeless, but the HUD definition only covered about one-third of them. Early in 2012, legislators in Washington considered H.R. 32, a bill that would expand HUD’s definition — which sounds like a good thing, right? Or maybe not. If a family camping out in a relative’s living room came under the homeless definition and got in line for help, then ultimately there would be less help available for a family in an even worse situation, like living in a car or a condemned building with no heat or water. (At any rate, the bill died.)

One small corner of America

Earlier this year, after the annual census, the total number of people experiencing homelessness in Bakersfield, Calif., was found to have decreased, but a larger proportion of the remaining homeless were children. (Granted, kids might be easier to count because they are supposed to show up for school.) An official told the press that the Bakersfield Homeless Shelter contained parents with as many as 10 offspring, and expressed despair at the challenge of finding permanent housing for such large families. Overall, the shelter was hosting 40 more children than it had in the previous year, and nearly half of those additional kids belonged to just two families.

Never enough

As in a game of musical chairs, someone is always left out. Poverty columnist Greg Kaufmann noted that a third of the Americans who use shelters are families — totaling about 500,000 parents and children each year. He listened to a speech given by Joe Volk, the CEO of Community Advocates in Milwaukee, and came away with the following quotation:

In 2000, we as a nation — and the Department of Housing and Urban Development — made the terrible decision to abandon homeless children and their families. Families for a decade have been ignored.

Supposedly, the underlying rationale was to first do something about the homeless people who are most noticeable and most annoying to downtown businesses, and the most expensive in terms of services — the single adults who run up huge hospital emergency room bills and take up the time of police and firefighting personnel. That’s what the Housing First approach is all about, and it’s a great idea as far as it goes.

Then, with the money saved, fiscal attention would theoretically be focused upon families with children. But apparently that hasn’t worked out according to plan. There are still plenty of homeless single adults, and still plenty of homeless families with children who are, even as we speak, maturing into homeless single adults.


Source: “Homeless Advocates Divided Over Bill Aimed At Helping Kids,” HuffingtonPost.com, 02/11/12
Source: “Survey finds increase in homeless children but overall drop in homelessness,” BakersfieldCalifornian.com, 02/18/14
Source: “America is Ignoring Homeless Families,” BillMoyers.com, 04/21/13
Image by Valerie Everett


Art for the Homeless

Pope Francis blessing

A parishioner left a bequest earmarked for art, and the other members decided on which art, and that’s how “Jesus the Homeless” came to repose on a park bench on the grounds of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Davidson, N.C. The congregation, partly composed of a nearby college’s faculty, students, and staff, is described as liberal, gay-friendly, and embracing of the arts and sciences.

The piece is interactive, in the sense that when a contemplative viewer occupies the space invitingly left empty on the bench, that is the best vantage point for noticing the scars of brutal wounds in the figure’s feet, clinching the identification.

The bronze sculpture is the work of Canadian artist Timothy P. Schmalz. As we see from the picture on this page, taken last November at the Vatican, Pope Francis very much liked a smaller version of it. The possibility exists that another iteration of the full-size sculpture will take up permanent residence outside St. Peter’s Basilica. Another copy of the statue can be seen on the grounds of the University of Toronto’s Jesuit School of Theology, and Catholic Charities of Chicago will soon have one, and maybe the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., as well.

At St. Alban’s, the pushback originated with a local woman who called the police, believing that the statue was an actual slumbering homeless person, and probably a threat to the neighborhood’s safety. Various other objections have been raised on both aesthetic and theological grounds. Some people feel that the sculpture is not only bad for the town’s image, but an insult to Jesus. Others find it odd that Christians prefer their deity hanging from a cross (the execution method for common criminals) rather than sleeping on a bench. But Rev. Anne Vouga, an Episcopal priest, wrote:

At first I was surprised to notice that the picture of the homeless Jesus huddled in the sunshine did more to bring out a Good Friday spirit of contrition in me than did all of the pain and horrors of the Cross…. But a homeless man huddled on a park bench — that is a sight that I recognize only too well in my world. It easily conjures up connotations overflowing with sin and suffering: oppression, injustice, addiction, loneliness and despair.


“Jesus the Homeless” is supported by a Bible verse, Matthew 25:40, whose broadest interpretation is that when someone helps another person with a kind deed, it’s just the same as doing a good turn for Jesus himself. TheMuslimTimes.org published a commentary on the controversy, and backed it up with a passage about poverty and charity from Al Quran.

RightWingNews.com, on the other hand, chastized St. Alban’s for wasting $22,000. But the donor specified that the money should be spent on art, and it is the custom, in civilized societies, to honor such dictates — aside from being illegal not to. Also, it’s not really bizarre or outlandish for a church to have a piece of religious statuary on its premises.

The financial objection is a bit disingenuous, considering that plenty of churches in America contain millions of dollars worth of accoutrements. An ecclesiastical supply catalogue reveals that somebody out there is willing and able to pay $28,000 for a Romanesque Tabernacle (an ornate safe made of precious metal, for storing the components of Holy Communion) — and that’s only one item in the extensive furnishings of a church. Plus, unlike Homeless Jesus, it’s locked up inside the building, where hardly anyone can enjoy the sight of it.

Shalom Community Center in Bloomington, Ind., is a nondenominational yet religiously inspired day shelter and resource center for the poor, hungry, and homeless. Its director, Rev. Forrest Gilmore says:

The brilliant subtlety of it all lets us know the homeless man that we have seen so many times, ignored, stepped over, crossed the street to avoid or perhaps put a coin in his cup, bought him a cup of coffee, or sat down to have a conversation with, that that man could actually be Jesus.

The rector of St. Alban’s, Rev. Doctor David E. Buck, says, “You love it, you hate it, it makes you think.”

Home Coming

As House the Homeless has discussed before, Richard R. Troxell conceived and began work on Home Coming, a sculpture with multiple figures. The soldier represents the military vets who make up a third of the homeless population. Accompanying him is his daughter, who at age 9 represents the average age of a person experiencing homelessness today. Just arriving on the scene is an elderly African-American woman, who stands in for the people of color who make up 65% of the homeless population. She also represents the disintegration of American families of all ethnicities, but the welcome that the other two extend to her signals the impromptu creation of a different kind of family.

Through a marvelous combination of circumstances, Timothy P. Schmalz has agreed to complete the work including the final casting, and it will eventually stand in Austin, Texas. In a YouTube video, Schmalz describes his process.

In a letter confirming his participation, Schmalz wrote:

The homeless project that Richard is planning will tell a much needed story at a glance to all that pass by. So many times public sculpture is erected to glorify only the certain top part of society, whether it is a famous politician, wartime hero or successful business man. The homeless sculpture proposed will take the least in our society and honor them with a public sculpture. This sculpture will show that ALL are valued in our democratic society and that ALL should be respected.


Source: “Homeless Jesus Statue Makes Some Uncomfortable, but Not Pope Francis,” ArtNet.com, 04/16/14
Source: “Good Friday Reflection on the ‘Homeless Jesus,’ ” Blogspot.com, 04/16/14
Source: “’Homeless Jesus’ Statue Gets New North Carolina Home, But Controversy Follows,” TheMuslimTimes.org, March 2014
Source: “Church Wastes $22K On Metal ‘Homeless Jesus’ Statue Instead of Homeless,” RightWingNews.com, 04/14/2014
Source: “Homeless Jesus,” ShalomCommunityCenter.org, April 2014
Source: “‘Homeless Jesus’ provokes debate on what it means to be Christian,” ReligionNews.com, 03/12/14
Image by Timothy P. Schmalz


Are Homeless Parents Paranoid?

Oklahoma family during Great Depression

In the 2011-12 school year, in America, an estimated 1.2 million school kids (kindergarten through grade 12) were homeless. As House the Homeless has discussed, counting the people experiencing homelessness is not an exact science. The number of homeless children is assumed to be underreported for several reasons, one of which is that such families tend to keep a low profile, to the point where they have been called the “invisible homeless.” Parents don’t go out of their way to flaunt their homeless-with-kids status in public places. You don’t often see them panhandling in the business district. The last thing they want is to attract the wrong kind of attention — the kind that leads to losing custody of their children.

Apparently it becomes easier every day for a parent to get into deep trouble, as the world saw recently with the arrest of Shanesha Taylor, who left her two children in a car in Scottsdale, Ariz., so she could go to a job interview. Taylor faces a prison term of at least four years, and her children were removed by the authorities.


On paper, according to the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, a homeless child can choose to keep attending the school appropriate to her or his last permanent residence. In reality, the logistics of allowing this to happen can be daunting for both money-starved school districts and parents who are already dealing with all the details of catastrophe.

Another homeless American mother made news within recent memory by using a friend’s address to enroll her 6-year-old son in a better-quality school where he technically didn’t belong. Tanya (or Tonya) McDowell was convicted of stealing educational services and sentenced to a long spell in prison.

Huffington Post writer Mary Ann West made an interesting point:

If the police, prosecutor, or really anyone of authority had shared their concerns with the school board, cooler heads would have prevailed, McDowell’s son’s rights as a homeless child would have been protected under the Federal McKinney-Vento Act, and perhaps a resolution would have been found.

It costs a lot of money per year to keep an adult incarcerated. If a child is placed in foster care, which is where McDowell’s son could easily end up, that costs a lot, too. The amount varies wildly according to the state, the level of care needed, the available funding, and other factors, but it’s a bunch of money. Here is an interesting question. Instead of taking kids away from homeless women and paying foster parents to take care of them, why not just pay the natural mothers enough to maintain homes and raise their own children? It might save the taxpayers a lot of money, and would certainly be cheaper in long-term consequences to society.

Cap City

In the District of Columbia, the Family Resources Center is where homeless families go for help. But that agency tells the Child and Family Services Agency everything, and CFSA had shown a pattern of taking kids away from parents who are characterized as neglectful just for being homeless. Kathryn Baer of Poverty Insights says it starts with intimidating investigations and interrogations that add to the burdens of already-stressed parents, and frighten already-insecure kids. She learned from the Washington Legal Clinic that, according to local law, “deprivation due to the lack of financial means … is not considered neglect.” However, Baer says:

CFSA has taken many children from their parents without getting a court order first. And, in more than half the cases, the precipitous removals were not justified. We also know, from CFSA’s own report, that “inadequate housing” was the primary reason it placed 35 children in foster care in 2010.

When Baer did her research, 308 families were on the waiting list of the Family Resources Center. How many parents stop renewing their applications for shelter space when they learn that they might be accused of not only neglect, but abuse, just for being poor? How many already know about the agency’s track record and never apply in the first place, preferring to take their chances in more tenuous surroundings? This achieves the exact opposite of what the law was supposed to accomplish, and makes children less safe, rather than more.

In the comments appended to Baer’s piece, two different readers warned of the truly horrifying possibility that some social service agencies may enter into an unholy alliance with private adoption agencies. Apparently, the bounty paid for a healthy, adoptable child, especially if white, can earn an agency thousands of dollars.

With all these things going on, how much anxiety is a homeless parent justified in feeling?


Source: “’Stealing Education’ Case Round II: Petition to Drop Case, Mom Still Homeless,” HuffingtonPost.com, 05/12/11
Source: “Homeless DC Parents Fear Loss of Children … And They’re Right,” Poverty Insights, 05/24/12
Image by Ashley Wilson


Homeless Kids and Education

Donated food for the homelessAll the news stories say the same thing — there are more homeless kids and less available money to do anything about them. Even with the occasional statistical fluke that brings the numbers down here or there, the overall picture is still far from optimal. By 2012, 1.3 million American children were homeless, and families with young children accounted for 40% of the people experiencing homelessness.

A year ago, Greg Kaufmann reported on a congressional briefing given by Joe Volk, the CEO of Milwaukee’s Community Advocates. The subject was the American Almanac of Family Homelessness. He recounted the story of how in 2000 the Department of Housing and Urban Development decided to focus on chronically homeless adults.

It’s a wonderful thing to remove anybody from streets, and recently the Housing First principle has been getting a lot of attention. Single adults who are chronically homeless tend to have serious problems with mental illness, physical disability, and addiction, and when they hang around downtown, it’s bad for business. Housing them saves cities (meaning taxpayers) money that would have otherwise gone to massive medical costs and jail rent, and there is nothing wrong with that.


Meanwhile, homeless families with kids have been relatively ignored. They tend to keep a low profile, eking out bare and crowded existences in sheds, storage units, cars, motels, shelters, and the garages and basements of relatives. Homeless kids are poorly nourished, don’t have access to quality health care, and suffer more from both acute and chronic illnesses. They also have learning disabilities at twice the rate of their housed counterparts, and have more emotional problems, which they act out in the form of behavioral problems. They score lower in reading and math. Sometimes these children can’t even get to school.

In Baltimore, the Public Justice Center, acting on behalf of three homeless families, filed a federal class action lawsuit to try and get their kids transportation to and from school. There were at least 2,800 homeless children in the city’s school system at the time, and the number had doubled since five years before.

One of the plaintiffs, a single mother with two sons, enrolled the younger one in a school near the shelter where they lived. But the older boy needed to stay in his old school for the special education offered there. Often, the mother didn’t have money for gas to drive him. In addition, to keep the benefits she and the children needed to survive, she was obligated to do a certain amount of job searching, which was seriously impacted by the amount of time used up in taking the kids to school.

Need for change

Last fall the National Center for Homeless Education issued a report stating that during the 2011-12 school year, 1.2 million school-age kids were homeless in America. The numbers had decreased in only eight states, and in 10 states there were increases of 20% or greater. At around the same time, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that nearly one-fourth of American children were living below the poverty line, and the Southern Education Foundation revealed that nearly half of all the kids in the country qualified for reduced-price or free meals at their schools. Kaufmann wrote, “The federal government’s plan was to use the savings gained by reducing homelessness among single adults to fight family homelessness. But that hasn’t happened.”

But it needs to happen. The same great cities that are making advances by housing single adults need to realize that kids are the future. Sure, keeping chronically homeless adults out of jails and hospitals saves money. But fewer than one homeless kid in four graduates from high school. What is the societal price of that grim fact, and how much will it cost society in five years, in 10 years, when the bills really start to come in?


Source: “America is Ignoring Homeless Families,” BillMoyers.com, 04/21/13
Source: “How Little Things Add Up to Keep Homeless Kids From School,” TheAtlanticCities.com, 09/30/13
Source: “Youth homelessness at all-time high, says report,” AlJazeera.com, 10/25/13
Image by U.S. Department of Agriculture


Some Obscure Homeless Facts

No Trespassing - FOreclosedA lot of Americans who are well past middle age grew up with Mad magazine parodies as their source of honest political education. Mad had an imitator called Cracked, a print publication that over the decades metamorphosed into a website that’s both entertaining and tuned in to the reality of the times. Strange as it seems, a Cracked.com piece titled “7 Things No One Tells You About Being Homeless” has exposed nearly 1,800,000 visitors to some hard truths that hopefully they will not have the opportunity to find out for themselves.

The author, William Bonnie, who had a job and paid his rent, explains how he came to endure a spell of homelessness anyway. He counts himself as one of the lucky ones, because his life has improved since. He didn’t particularly want to learn these things, but passes along something we all need to know: “The line between where you are now and sleeping in your car is much, much thinner than you think.” In fact, nearly a third of all people experiencing homelessness are actually employed.

Their chances of ever owning a home? Slim to none. The likelihood of saving enough to move into a rental is almost equally nonexistent. First and last month’s rent, plus security deposit, plus enough for minimal furniture, add up to a sizeable chunk of change.

Bonnie goes into considerable detail about the conflicts between shelter rules and the needs of an employed person or someone who’s looking for a job. At the very simplest level, shelters are designed to have people sleep at night and vacate the premises during the day, which makes it impossible to live in a shelter and hold a second- or third-shift job.

Car camping

Since sleeping within sight of any citizens in town is usually quickly punished, the car resident will need to spend a considerable amount on fuel to go back and forth to some remote area, if one can be found. Keeping warm can be an expensive proposition, and once in a while you need a night in a cheap motel in order to catch a shower.

If you are suddenly homeless, and lucky enough to have a car, you’ll need to invest about $150 in outdoor cooking equipment and, since you don’t have a refrigerator, an ice chest. If you’re lucky enough to get food stamps, the grocery store is only supposed to sell foods that require from-scratch preparation. Food stamps are not supposed to be used for prepared foods such as deli items, and only four states allow their use in restaurants. It’s possible to avoid the cooking problem by subsisting on snack crackers and soda pop, in which case you’ll be not only homeless but fat and malnourished.

The author was indeed one of the lucky ones, being white, personable, able-bodied, capable of inspiring trust, and equipped with at least one skill (gourmet cooking) with which to recompense helpful friends. He elaborates on how he was a member of the “hidden homeless” class, composed of people who have enough of a support system to avail themselves of some of the benefits of housed existence and avoid looking like a “stereotypical homeless guy.”

A foreign thought

One aspect of homelessness does not become apparent until a person is in that situation — the problem of how to fill up massive amounts of free time when there is no job to go to. It costs money to hang out in even the cheapest diner or café, and few businesses want customers who sit around for hours nursing a single cup of coffee. There are places to hang out for free, but it might get you arrested. So, what happens? Sometimes, Bonnie says, even the person who never had a substance abuse problem before can develop one:

What often comes first is having nothing else to do (an especially big problem for people staying in shelters), and the boredom literally drives them crazy. I finally understood, in a very immediate way, why people who’ve been living on the street for a long time tend to be addicts: Drugs not only get you high, but also give you a schedule and a routine. And once again we see how a short-term problem can turn into a cycle that threatens to suck the rest of your life into it.

Another important thing he asks us to keep in mind is that nearly 40% of the homeless are younger than 18, and that includes a huge number of children who never did anything to deserve such a harried and tenuous existence. Millions of Americans spend more than half their paychecks on just staying inside walls. We used to be told that a quarter of our income was a reasonable amount, and then it became a third, and now we’re not supposed to balk at any outlandish proportion of our income going for rent, because we’re darn fortunate not to be sleeping in a dumpster.

Homeowners fare no better, unless they are already wealthy enough not to really need the help they get through the mortgage interest deduction. More than 10 million homeowners are barely hanging on, paying more than half their income for housing. In 2012, homeowners with annual incomes below $50,000 only got 3% of the benefits conveyed by this deduction, while homeowners making more than $100,000 per year reaped 77% of its benefits. But that’s a topic for another day.


Source: “7 Things No One Tells You About Being Homeless,” Cracked.com, 11/12/13
Source: “Mortgage Interest Deduction Is Ripe for Reform,” CPBB.org, 06/25/13
Image by numb3r


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