Every now and then a scandal arises from the foster care system. Earlier this year, Americans were horrified by a story from North Carolina that broke when a law enforcement officer observed an 11-year old boy handcuffed to the porch of a house. The weather was cold, and someone had tied a dead chicken around his neck. It turned out that, along with this foster child, four adopted children lived in the house. The adults in residence were a medical professional — a male who worked as a hospital nurse — and a female Department of Social Services employee who happened to be the county’s child protective services supervisor.
Had no one noticed the abuse and neglect? Some faculty members did, where the kids used to go to school. But the couple who fostered and/or adopted them had unenrolled them in favor of home-schooling. The publicity surrounding this story pointed up the fact that North Carolina has more than 53,000 registered home schools, many of them populated by foster children — some of whom were taken on just for the sake of earning subsistence payments from the government. Since there is no legal requirement to inspect home schools, this means a lot of foster kids are being raised in sequestered environments, ignored and forgotten. The potential is huge for every kind of abuse.
The case made enough of a splash to get several other social services workers fired, and to stimulate a review of the process by which foster-care licenses are granted. Meanwhile, investigators looked for approximately 36 children who had been fostered by the couple in the past.
Those former foster kids must be scattered all over the map. Maybe some of them ended up in the Morongo Basin, an area of Southern California whose population includes about 800 people experiencing homelessness. On leaving the area, longtime advocate Rae Packard told an audience,
In my experience working at Morongo Basin Unity Home, women who choose to leave their abuser and go into a shelter most often lose custody of their children. Judges nationwide consider shelter housing to be ‘homeless’ and give custody of the children to the abuser, who is stable in the home.
Remember the House the Homeless post titled “Are Homeless Parents Paranoid?” If paranoia represents an unreasonable or unlikely fear, homeless parents apparently are not paranoid. All kinds of heart-rending scenarios take place every day in offices and courtrooms. A homeless mother faces the real possibility that her kids can be turned over to the violent non-provider who caused all the trouble, or taken by the state and placed in foster situations. Or she can try to stay under the radar and avoid government agencies altogether. This involves teaching kids to lie to authorities, and other habits that can get them in trouble.
Elsewhere in California, journalist Greg Lee interviewed the CEO of the Riverside County branch of Court Appointed Foster Children (CASA). In that county, some 4,000 foster children reside, with another 1,500 in the nearby Coachella Valley. CASA is a volunteer organization with not nearly enough volunteers for its mission, which is to assign each child an advocate to help them deal with the court system. Deborah Sutton-Weiss made a startling statement:
The foster system is broke. We have more homeless children on the streets now than we have vets and that’s a big deal…. What does happen to them is that they either end up homeless, prostituting, in jail or dead.
The authorities take kids from their parents for reasons that are sometimes excellent and sometimes wrong or pointless. Those children grow up in foster homes, age out of the system, and all too often find themselves on the streets. Vulnerable and unprotected, girls get pregnant and have children who either have no place to live or are removed to foster placements. (Either way, they grow up with a greater chance of being chronically homeless.) There is far too much two-way traffic between the foster care system and homelessness, and plenty more about it to discuss.
Source: “Two growing NC student populations: homeless and homeschooled,” BlueNC.com, 11/24/13
Source: “About 800 homeless in Hi-Desert, speaker tells advisers,” HiDesertStar.com, 04/18/14
Source: “Homelessness among foster children on the rise in California,” KESQ.com, 07/22/14
Image by Martin Belam
The cost of homelessness has been a topic before, here at House the Homeless. When we’re talking about cost, it’s not just the enormous waste incurred among the people experiencing homelessness — of life, of time and talent, and productivity, and potential contributions that they might make to the world if they were not so busy trying to survive and avoid arrest. That huge loss of human potential is sad enough and bad enough. But compared to the enormous societal expense, it’s a drop in the bucket.
How much longer can this go on? The most cursory glance at history will show what happens when too much wealth is concentrated in too few hands, and when the majority of the people struggle just to get through each day. It’s almost as if some hidden specter sits back chuckling, taking bets on how soon a cataclysm will occur, and speculating on its own selfish gains if that dire day ever arrives.
This week, House the Homeless looks at some current media offerings. Cardboard Stories is a viral video, meaning lots of people have seen it and passed it around to others. A story about it is subtitled, “Viral Video Reveals Who the Homeless Are — and It Might Surprise You.” Those words contain a grim and ironic joke. Far too many Americans have found out who the homeless are the hard way — by waking up to find themselves out in the cold (or heat).
Yes, learning the identity of “the homeless” does come as a big surprise to many people. One day you’re a solid citizen, regarding those haunters of the street as a tribe that preferably should just disappear — maybe even a different species. Next day you’re one of them. Such a rude awakening has become the reality for far too many Americans. Xander Landen for PBS says:
Since 2001, the U.S. has lost nearly 13 percent of its low-income housing according to a report by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty that surveyed 187 cities. The advocacy group’s report found that laws placing restrictions on loitering, begging, sitting and lying down in public have increased nationwide since 2009. Eighteen percent of cities now ban sleeping in public and 42 percent of cities ban sleeping in vehicles.
Understand what they are saying — It’s illegal to pee! It’s illegal to have a bowel movement! And to help the homeless avoid the temptation to perform those functions, it’s illegal to feed them! It’s illegal to sit down, even if you’re old and sick and suffering from hyperthermia or dehydration or anything else. Cities would rather spend their money to build and fill jails than to provide public restrooms or even benches. PBS also sponsors a Twitter chat that touches on many aspects of the problem.
18 days remain
Speaking of problems, there is a sizable one connected with talking about Destiny’s Bridge, a film by Jack Ballo. The film is crowd-funded through Indiegogo (the drive closes August 15), and because every paragraph is loaded with astonishing revelations and galvanizing ideas, the problem lies in choosing which section of its proposal to quote here. Should it be these words?
We see their gifts and talents at work as they set off to create their own homeless shelter called Destiny’s Bridge. The conflict in this documentary is clear — township officials file a lawsuit against homeless residents demanding eviction…. The government chooses to spend millions of dollars paying hotel owners and landlords without understanding the real issues behind homelessness or searching for solutions.
Or should it be these?
People whose lives have been taken over by poverty, addiction, depression and mental illness don’t have the resources to be rehabilitated and to get their lives back together like most people can who have family support, healthcare and financial stability…. Over an 8 year period, there have been between 80-120 people living in Tent City at any given time without any government subsidies, effectively saving tax payers millions of dollars.
Oh, please just go and check out the page for yourself.
Source: “‘Cardboard Stories’ Viral Video Reveals Who the Homeless Are — and It Might Surprise You,” TheBlaze.com, 07/23/14
Source: “More cities across the U.S. consider homelessness a crime,” PBS.org, 07/19/14
Source: “Destiny’s Bridge – A Home for the Homeless,” igg.me, 07/16/14
Image by Jack Ballo
The Department of Housing and Urban Development gives the number of homeless youth in America as 46,000 on any given night, and in any given year, about 2 million youth experience homelessness for at least one night. The number of shelter beds available for this population is under 4,200. In other words, if you’re a homeless teen, your odds of finding a place to sleep are less than 1 in 10.
To break it down by age group, there are more than 6,000 homeless teenagers under 18, and about 60% of them are unsheltered. In the youth demographic of 18-24, there are more than 40,000, and about half of them are unsheltered. The system deals with two different kinds of kids — those still with parents and those on their own. Even with better funding for school districts to hire homeless liaison personnel, there is no way to know how many youth fly under the radar, uncounted.
Most of these kids come from poverty, and they can be wary and hard to reach. Some are on the loose because their parents are in the penal system. Some have had negative experiences with mental health providers whose only tool was medication that worsened rather than helped their conditions. A lot of kids are ejected from their families, and many leave voluntarily to escape flagrant neglect, violence, sexual exploitation, or other untenable situations.
Imagine a family so dysfunctional that a 16-year-old girl asks the authorities to put her in a foster home or institution. That’s what Kathy Long’s twin sister did. Kathy had gone to visit friends for part of a summer, people she used to babysit for who had moved out of state. While she was gone, her parents ran away from home. Returning to an empty house and no forwarding address, she asked a schoolmate’s parents to rent her a room, worked part-time to pay for it, and finished high school. She went on to become a mixed martial arts fighter and five-time world kickboxing champion, and her story is definitely worth hearing. But not every abandoned teenager has Kathy Long’s gumption.
As House the Homeless has discussed, the challenges presented to former foster kids are daunting. Even worse, in a news story about California’s “hidden human disaster,” John Burton and Carol Liu observed that youth who never were in foster care fare much worse on their own. Older teens
who become homeless and have no prior child-welfare-system involvement have a very rough time. But today’s economy is cruel to most homeless teens, who find themselves increasingly pushed out of the job market and unable to reap the basic rewards of work:
Becoming gainfully employed helps homeless youth form their identities, connects them to conventional institutions such as employers and banks, provides income that could lead to self-sufficiency, and reduces their chances of engaging in risky behaviors such as panhandling and exchanging sex for money, shelter or food.
It is very easy to criticize people for not working, especially when, despite scarce resources, agencies exist to offer help in finding employment. What prevents homeless youths from connecting with services like training, tutoring, and placement programs? What circumstances either encourage young people to use available services, or to avoid them?
In facilitating this type of connection, how much influence do friends and acquaintances exert? That is the specific question asked by Anamika Barman-Adhikari and Eric Rice, whose findings will be published in the August issue of the Journal of Evaluation and Program Planning, under the title “Social Networks as the Context for Understanding Employment Services Utilization Among Homeless Youth.”
The researchers surveyed 138 Los Angeles homeless youth between the ages of 15 and 21. Slightly more than half of the subjects were literally homeless; slightly less than half were “couch surfing.” The researchers took a keen interest in how the presence of a support system affects a youth’s motivation toward employment. They differentiated carefully between human sources of support (street peers or other friends/family) and types of support (material or emotional).
The knee-jerk reaction would be to assume that kids who are given some degree of help, even if it is partial and sporadic, are less zealous in their search for employment. What Barman-Adhikari and Rice learned is counterintuitive, intriguing, and too multi-faceted to summarize here, so please see their full report.
Source: “Study: More Resources, Smartly Used, Needed for Youth Who Are Homeless,” PSCHousing.org, 04/15/14
Source: “Eddie Bravo Radio – Episode 39 – Kathy Long (11/24/2013),” YouTube.com
Source: “Opinion: California is failing homeless youths,” MercuryNews.com, 01/24/11
Source: “Primary Sources: How ‘Social Networks’ Affect Homeless Youths,” HHS.gov, 07/16/14
Image by Surian Soosay
Care continuum workers know that early episodes of homelessness increase a child’s risk of continuing to experience homelessness throughout life. The foster care system tries to alleviate some of the damage but carries its own risks. Even in such an enlightened state as Washington, every year nearly 200 children run away from their foster homes.
It’s painful to think of the darker reasons why a child might prefer the streets, but some runaways take off because of a powerful need to find family members from whom they have been separated. In Washington, there is a rule that a runaway foster child should be represented by an attorney, to make sure that the compulsion to connect with a sister or brother does not become a punishable offense.
The four biggies
Writing for the Seattle publication Crosscut, Judy Lightfoot discussed the four main reasons why it’s so difficult for foster kids to achieve and maintain stability in their lives. Health is a big factor, both mental and physical. A child with allergies, asthma, or any one of a hundred other ailments will face extra obstacles. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that when a child is removed from a situation of neglect or even abuse, separation trauma still hurts deeply. It should come as no surprise that a displaced kid might suffer from panic disorder, depression, nightmares, or addiction proneness.
One of the experts Lightfoot consulted was Cacey Hanauer, director of Foster Care Transitions at the YMCA. There she learned:
Another side effect of separation is a natural resistance to agencies. Youngsters raised in a system that wrenched them away from their parents ‘don’t trust anyone agency-based,’ says Hanauer. ‘Just walking in the door is hard for them.’ Even if doing so means accessing services that could help them.
Sadly, the foster care system is underfunded and in many ways dysfunctional. In this setting, it’s particularly hard to train young people to plan for the future. By its very nature, the system trains kids into passivity, because so much waiting is involved in every stage of their journey through it. For a child to try to change anything is dangerous, because complaints can be interpreted as a bad attitude. Attempts to be proactive and take responsibility for oneself can backfire spectacularly and bring down an avalanche of trouble.
Another thing that happens in the system is mobility from one foster home to another, for a variety of reasons either personal or bureaucratic. The placement might not be a good fit for the child or the foster parents, and some kids end up needing to be moved repeatedly. Even under the best conditions, it’s hard for a foster child to build a network of supportive adults and appropriate peers. Every relocation severs bonds and decreases the opportunity for a stable human community.
According to Washington’s Department of Social and Health Services, every year about 550 teens age out of the foster care system, and 35% of them end up on the streets within a year. For nearly a decade, the state legislature has worked at building rules to stem the tide of homeless young people spewed out by the system. Thanks to the Extended Foster Care (EFC) laws, most 18-year-olds are eligible for financial support and other state benefits until they are 21. Presently, about 360 youth are enrolled with EFC.
Care continuum personnel must also be aware of “the two-steps-forward, one-step-back” pattern followed by so many former foster kids. Their progress toward self-sufficiency is rarely linear. It seems that in Washington, at least, the bureaucracy’s consciousness has been raised enough to allow for flexibility and even fallibility.
Source: “How to keep foster youth from becoming homeless youth,” Crosscut.com, 07/07/14
Image by Cambodia4kids.org Beth Kanter
A large part of what we identify as American culture is born in California and, for better or worse, eventually spreads to the rest of the country and even the world. It’s a state worth keeping an eye on. Twenty years ago, a program started there that now runs learning centers in two of the worst areas of Los Angeles and in five other California counties. It’s a nonprofit called School on Wheels whose founder, a retired teacher named Agnes Stevens, made a modest start by tutoring homeless kids in a Santa Monica park.
Helping with homework was only part of her plan; encouraging the kids to participate in school activities was equally important. Of course, a big priority was to discourage dropping out of the education system altogether. Currently, hundreds of volunteers are paired up with kids to work with them one-on-one. The organization also collects donations to buy backpacks and school supplies. It counsels parents about educational goals and can help locate missing school records for families whose lives are in disarray. The “Success Stories” page is very heartening.
Homeless Youth Alliance
San Francisco has an unusual dual personality. As a place to buy or rent dwelling space, it is heinously expensive, but the clement weather allows almost anyone to survive outdoors — especially the young, healthy, and agile. In addition, the Haight-Ashbury district, where the Homeless Youth Alliance is located, bears the burden of history as the molten core of the best and worst of the ’60s.
The HYA clients are mainly unaccompanied youth, teenagers who have no contact with their families or who aged out of the foster care system. Every day the drop-in center greets between 40 and 150 youth in need of the services offered by 13 staff members and 20 volunteer workers. Adding in the contacts made by the outreach initiatives, HYA touches the lives of at least 7,000 young people every year.
At the center, the kids can shower, use the Internet, receive mail, and get help with obtaining identification papers and government benefits including shelter and transitional housing. They can join the beautification crew (earning goodwill from the neighborhood by cleaning up trash) or volunteer as outreach counselors. Here’s how it works:
For a minimum of two hours each day, 2 members of our outreach team walk along Haight Street and into neighboring parks, distributing snacks, safer sex supplies, and hygiene kits. Counselors also distribute educational materials on healthier lifestyle choices and behaviors.
Kids can take part in groups and workshops with both educational and creative aims, and sign up for substance-abuse treatment if needed. HYA meets homeless youth where they are, which means, among other things, a needle exchange program to prevent the spread of communicable disease. Nonjudgmental harm reduction is the name of the game. There is counseling for those who want it, and medical, dental, and mental-health services are available. About the psychotherapeutic possibilities, the website says:
Encounters may be crisis oriented, insight oriented, solution focused, supportive, or based on symptom management or behavioral change. Youth may access a single therapy session on an on-demand basis, or may engage in ongoing psychotherapy over months or even years. A private office is available to ensure confidentiality; but based on individual preference, sessions may take place on the sidewalk, in the park, drop-in center, or at a cafe.
The executive director is Mary Howe, who emancipated herself at a young age, and whose past experiences include homelessness, “chaotic drug use,” and jail time. She put HYA together from two previously existing groups, and as an organizer received wisdom from several mentors but was mostly self-taught. Howe has written a lot of grant proposals, an activity so arduous that only someone truly devoted to a cause would undertake it. A certain amount of interaction with and dependence on the government is unavoidable, but most of the HYA funding comes from foundations and private donors.
As much as possible, staff members come from the ranks of former clients. A collective spirit is the ideal. Kids who are being helped also volunteer to help. They have a say in the rules and in the hiring. If they thrive in the atmosphere and want to stay on as staff members, they have a very good chance of being employed. Howe says:
These youth leave home for valid reasons and it is not for me or anyone else to judge or question…. Homelessness exists because of a structural breakdown of our government, schools and families…. We rebelled, so to speak, against the way most social service programs are set up in this city. We purposely never went after government funding because we don’t need to be told how to work with the kids; we already know how because we are them.
Source: “Our Mission and History,” SchoolOnWheels.org, undated
Source: “Create to Destroy! Homeless Youth Alliance,” MaximumRocknRoll.com, 10/22/13
Source: “Programs,” HomelessYouthAlliance.org, undated
Image by Byron Bignell Busker
The Beatles, Frank Sinatra, and Bill Clinton had all stayed at the Shoreham. With 1,000 people in attendance, it still felt as if it was nowhere near capacity. The excitement and energy level was palpable. The din was almost numbing as we waited in line and slowly worked our way to the security checks. The president of the United States was coming! But the “participants,” as the name badge around our necks stated, were perhaps more excited that Gloria Steinem, Nancy Pelosi, and Michelle Obama were also scheduled speakers. The original title of the conference, White House Economic Summit on Working Families — which is what attracted me — had now been converted to the White House Summit on Working Families…after all, this summit was about families.
Gloria Steinem, celebrated feminist, spoke to the importance of women in the workplace when she shared the European Union’s plan to legislatively ensure that every Board of Directors be comprised of 40% women by 2020. She pointed to studies that show that the presence of women in business settings introduces compromise and increased business productivity.
U.S. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi (a hero of mine) continued to set the tone of the summit when she announced that “one in five children in America lives in poverty.”
Business leaders such as Sheila Marcelo, CEO of Care.com, informed us that in three states child care now costs more than state college tuition.
Speaker after speaker echoed themes that called for paid maternity leave, flexible work hours, wage equality, and comprehensive health and child care.
Congresswoman Pelosi declared, “The bottom line is, 21st century families deserve 21st century workplaces, and Congress should pass the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act and increase opportunities for American workers.”
Vice President Joe Biden shared the major sacrifices of his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, who helped him raise children after his first wife was tragically killed in a car accident shortly after Biden’s election to the U.S. Senate. He spoke adamantly about the role of “family” in all of our lives and the need to make major changes designed to support the structure and enhance all of our families.
President Obama also spoke of the many sacrifices of his mother as a single parent. He let it be known that she did whatever she had to do to provide for her family, including accepting food stamps. He went on to talk about the importance of minimum wage workers. He spoke of his proposed increase in the current $7.25/hour minimum wage to $10.10/hour. He said that 28 million people would benefit from his proposed increase to the Federal Minimum Wage.
I learned that, following the general group session, the Breakout Session on Hourly Workers would be held in the Ambassador Room. I located the room and placed my prepared documents about the Universal Living Wage on each of the yet-to-be-filled 450 seats where participants would get their marching orders on the proposed $10.10/hour minimum wage. I returned to hear the last of the morning speakers before people moved to the breakout sessions.
Not one to leave anything to chance, I again left the morning session and checked on the documents that I had left just minutes before on the chairs. They were gone! I had previously befriended a media person who had been setting up equipment. He directed me to the person, Bill Flanagan, who had removed my documents. I confronted him, got his identification and my documents back. He said that they “had not been authorized by the White House.” He worked for the Center for American Progress Action Fund. I took my documents and returned later for the breakout session when I planted myself in front of the audience microphone.
When I finally reached the microphone, I shared with the people that in 2006, Beth Schulman, author of The Betrayal of Work, stated that “people are no longer using minimum wage jobs as stepping stones, but rather they are remaining in those jobs for ten years or longer and being forced to try and raise families on that wage.” I told the audience that:
$10.10 = “Old Thinking!”
We are a nation of over a thousand economies. One size does not fit all! If the goal in raising the Federal Minimum Wage is that we cross the Federal Poverty Guideline and escape poverty, but the raised amount is always less than the amount needed to reach that goal line, then how will we ever escape poverty? We won’t. “Something is better than nothing” is not true if we are forever economic slaves and if that approach also attacks small businesses. Business benefits from labor. They should pay “a fair wage for a fair day’s work” but not suffer for it.
Instead, we must index work to the local cost of housing, so that a person can afford the basics in life, wherever that work is done throughout the U.S. (without ending up living on our streets).
I then told them that I was embracing common sense and that today I had come with a solution that will fix the plight of minimum-wage workers/families across America!
Universal Living Wage
I explained that the Universal Living Wage uses existing government guidelines that ensure that if a person works 40 hours in a week (be it from one job or more), he or she would be able to afford basic food, clothing, shelter (including utilities), public transportation, and access to emergency rooms, wherever that work is done throughout the nation. This will end homelessness for over 1 million people, and prevent economic homelessness for all 20 million minimum-wage workers. It will stimulate the national housing economy, save billions in taxes, and stabilize small businesses across America.
Several speakers behind me then stepped to the microphone and asked, “Why are we were not demanding a Living Wage approach?” The sound of their questions faded in my ears as I stepped out into the hallway and proceeded to hand out information about the Universal Living Wage to the rest of the “participants.”
“You have not converted a man because you have silenced him.”
— John Morley, 1st Viscount of Blackburn
More than a year ago, House Bill H.R. 1136 was introduced and assigned to a congressional committee, where apparently it remains. If passed, one thing this bill will change is how state and federal governments define hate-crime violence. Victims who are obviously chosen for their economic status will be included in the Hate Crime Statistics Act. The National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) has just released a report (available as a 56-page PDF download) titled Vulnerable to Hate: A Survey of Hate Crimes and Violence Committed against the Homeless in 2013.
The cloud of unknowing
Unless they set up a Google alert for the keyword “homeless,” most Americans probably have only a hazy notion about the extent of violence against people experiencing homelessness. Susan Sarandon, the actor and longtime activist, said to a Congressional briefing session, “Even though I worked with the homeless, I wasn’t aware of the level of violence.”
An overview of the NCH report published in the Huffington Post brings it all together and ties it up in a bow. Titled “New Report: Homeless Torture Not Covered by Government Data,” the article was written by Brian Levin, director of California State University’s Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism.
Since the government doesn’t keep track, we look to NCH data and learn that in the past 15 years there have been 1,400 documented hate crimes of violence against homeless people by attackers who were not homeless. Averaged out, that’s fewer than 100 such incidents per year. Or one every three or four days, nationwide. It seems like we are hearing about such atrocities much more frequently than that.
But taking an average does not tell the whole tale. The numbers fluctuate for many reasons. One thing for sure is that, according to the FBI, far more people are summarily executed by their fellow citizens for being homeless than because of religion, race, or sexual orientation. Levin writes:
National data over the most recent five-year period of 2008-12, where comparative figures are available, showed anti-homeless hate homicides at 139, compared to only 36 for all other hate crime homicides combined.
The victims tend to be on the older end of the age spectrum. It only makes sense. Of the known perpetrators of these brutal attacks, almost half of them are younger than 20. The young are efficient aggressors but often unsatisfactory victims. An agile youth can sleep in a tree. Unsheltered victims hampered by age and disability are less able to find good hiding places and certainly less able to defend themselves from unprovoked attacks. Levin says:
Over recent years the NCH data collection efforts have documented beatings, stabbings, blunt force trauma, setting victims on fire, drownings, shootings, sexual assault, maiming, stoning and spray painting…. The NCH representative sample of nonlethal attacks, considered a vast undercount, rose 30 percent last year, although it is unclear how much of that rise is attributable to enhanced reporting.
There is no way to know how many incidents go unreported. How many bodies are never found? How many serious assaults, and even murder attempts, go undocumented by people who want to steer clear of the authorities, even if it means suffering from untreated injuries? How many such assaults are perpetrated by the authorities themselves, and how many of them go unreported? An entire industry is in charge of crunching numbers and making educated guesses about this sort of thing. The bottom line is, any number is too high.
In the days of the Civil Rights struggle, when Freedom Riders were enrolling voters in the South and determined crowds were marching all over the country, cynics would say “You can’t legislate love.” And activists would answer, “Maybe not, but you can legislate law.”
Source: “Report: Homeless Torture Not Covered By Government Data,” HuffingtonPost.com, 06/27/14
Image by Ron Cogswell
The Center for American Progress (CAP) is the co-author, with Maria Shriver, of A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink, published earlier this year. One of its subjects is the income gap. The net worth of the average American family is slight. But in the highest 1%, the average family’s net worth is 288 times that much. To put it another way, 288 families could survive on the same amount of money that sustains one family in that lofty 1% bracket.
Not looking good
The book examines the national financial crisis from the viewpoint of American women, and the picture it reveals is dire. Women make up half the workforce. But when primary and co-breadwinners of families are identified, two-thirds of the time, it’s a woman. To put it another way, while occupying half of the jobs, women do considerably more than half of the family-supporting. And of course women, including many mothers of young children, and many who have served our country in the military, are increasingly found among the total number of people experiencing homelessness.
This is by no means Shriver’s first work in the field. In 2009, under CAP auspices, she published “The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Changes Everything.” As president of House the Homeless, Richard R. Troxell has long appreciated Shriver’s passion and eloquence. Also, he has discussed in detail the need for a better Federal Minimum Wage formula with Rep. Lloyd Doggett of Texas’s 35th District, who was responsible for Richard’s being invited to the summit.
In the months leading up to the White House Summit on Working Families, the groups involved reached out to ordinary Americans, asking for their stories and for ideas about what initiatives would be effective in creating a 21st century in which every person working a full-time job can afford rent, utilities, clothing, food, medical insurance, and maybe even send their kid to summer camp. The philosophy is the same simple but powerful idea once articulated by Werner Erhard: “The world doesn’t work unless it works for everyone.”
Working families, American businesses, and the American economy are always linked together throughout the literature describing the summit. To achieve the best possible outcome for all may require some resetting of workplace norms, such as unequal pay for the same work. People need to be able to get jobs, without discrimination or other barriers. They need a living wage and a chance to improve and achieve their full potential.
Several of the issues addressed by the summit are really aspects of one big issue: the fact that workers are complex human beings with loyalties, obligations, and duties outside of the employee role. They are not robots, but people with children to raise and/or elderly parents to care for. Because of those human characteristics, they need workplace flexibility to accommodate unorthodox schedules and emergencies. Sometimes they need paid leave to keep the family or themselves from falling apart. Of course, some conscientious businesses exist, as the CAP website describes:
They know policies that support women and families lead to more productive workers and help business attract and retain their best talent, all while improving their bottom line…. There are concrete steps we can take to give all workers the best chance to succeed at work and at home. These strategies must include making full use of the entire talent pool of workers so that our workplaces are fair, effective, and productive for employers and employees alike.
We can’t wait to see where the inspiration derived from this summit will lead. Meanwhile, please use the “Donate” button over on the right of this page to help defray the $1,051 cost of Richard’s journey to participate in it.
Source: “The White House Summit on Working Families,” WorkingFamiliesSummit.org, undated
Source: “The Shriver Report Executive Summary,” AmericanProgress.org, 01/12/14
Source: “The White House Summit on Working Families,” WorkingFamiliesSummit.org, undated
Source: “The White House Summit on Working Families,” WorkingFamiliesSummit.org, undated
Image by lifescript
Each city has its own particular culture and problems, and it’s instructive to pick one out for a closer look. Part of the uniqueness of the homelessness picture in Washington, D.C., is that it is America’s capital. To some observers this implies that whatever the government does ought to happen there more efficiently, more sanely, and more humanely than anywhere else. Otherwise, how can it claim to be a “capital”? The word comes from Latin, and relates to the head. If the head is sick, how can any other part of the body be well?
Kathryn Baer provides a really stunning breakdown of all the latest numbers, and none of them are good. She mentions the most recent one-night count of people experiencing homelessness in the District of Columbia:
On a night late last January, 1,231 families in the District were in an emergency shelter or transitional housing. This represents a one-year increase of about 25.2% — and a mind-boggling increase of 109.7% over 2008.
At this one point in time, 2,236 children were homeless and with parents or other caretakers.
Washington, D.C., is surrounded by the six of the 10 richest counties in the the nation — for instance, Fairfax County. There, the count found 1,534 homeless individuals, one-third of them children. Young students from Capitol Hill Montessori participated in a program, run by a government agency and the National Geographic Society, designed to “use geographic information systems and local data to bring light to social causes.” Using data from the education department, they created a map illustrating how many homeless students are enrolled in each D.C.-area school.
At the beginning of this year, Washington recreation centers were repurposed as family shelters, but few parents feel safe in them, and fears over children’s safety have sparked rebellious attitudes. Azmat Khan wrote:
Seventy-nine homeless families are currently suing the city over the makeshift conditions, and on Monday, a D.C. Superior Court Judge ordered the city to immediately provide more private rooms for families as the class-action lawsuit plays out.
After a series of welfare motels and horrible apartments from which they were frequently evicted, 8-year-old Relisha Rudd lived with her mother and brothers in the shelter that used to be D.C.’s General Hospital. Shamika Young allowed her daughter to leave the premises with a trusted family friend, and it was probably a fatal decision. Relisha’s fate is still unknown, but the margin for hope is between slim and nonexistent.
Her disappearance can’t be blamed on the shelter administration. It’s not a prison, and those who suggest that the authorities perform bed checks, or take other intrusive measures, are misguided. Even homeless parents are entitled to some dignity, and the degree of surveillance necessary to prevent a similar occurrence would be unconscionable.
On the other hand
However… there is absolutely no doubt that Relisha hated the shelter, described as a “grim place with bedbugs and no playground.” A Washington Post piece by Theresa Vargas, Emma Brown, Lynh Bui and Peter Hermann paints a sordid picture and gives a definite impression that the repulsiveness of the venue was as much a factor as anything else in Relisha’s disappearance. Relatives said she would pretend to have asthma attacks in order to spend time at their homes. Teachers and staff described her reluctance to leave at the end of the school day.
Why didn’t some family member step up? For one thing, if a family receiving housing assistance wants to take in a relative, they have to negotiate forbidding and complicated Section 8 red tape. And maybe Relisha’s mother would not have agreed anyway. One Post commenter wrote:
I’ve seen first-hand my own parents’ hands tied by “the system” when trying to take care of a family member child whose parent(s) effectively abdicate responsibility via abuse/neglect. There’s virtually nothing you can do until that parent legally releases them to your care or until the children are forcibly removed by the overworked, overburdened, underpaid, understaffed ‘system.’
The article also points to the self-perpetuating nature of such an unstable existence:
Shamika Young … also lived in shelters as a child. She was 6 years old when she entered Virginia’s foster-care system, where she bounced between homes until the age of 18, relatives said. About a year later, she had Relisha.
Critics can’t help asking why an unmarried teen in such a precarious situation would have a baby. There are many answers, including the decreasing availability of abortion. People with more empathy understand that maybe the father promised a home and stability. Maybe the young woman just wanted somebody in her life to love her — and a baby is the one person guaranteed to do that, instinctively and automatically. Personal issues aside, it is crystal clear that allowing so many kids to grow up in shelters and foster homes is beneficial to no one, and certainly not to society as a whole.
Source: “Over 25 Percent Increase in Homeless DC Families, Annual Count Finds,” PovertyAndPolicy.wordpress.com, 05/15/14
Source: “More Than 1500 Reported Homeless in Fairfax County” greateralexandria.patch.com, 05/23/12
Source: “Where do DC homeless students go to school? These tween hackers can show you!” MiddleChildInDC.wordpress.com, 05/04/14
Source: “Are We Doing Enough to Protect Homeless Children?” AlJazeera.com, 03/27/14
Source: “Before Relisha Rudd went missing, the 8-year-old longed to escape DC’s homeless shelter,” WashingtonPost.com, 04/05/14
Image by ArcGIS.com
We indured looks of disgust by church tour groups 2 see the homeless people, our belongings were publically riffled through as we signed in. Constantly treated like we were ungrateful & chastized publically, phones unplugged & doors locked preventing one from getting police help if needed….
There was no protection for your belongings that were not allowed in. Those that left anything outside was stolen by morning & only if you were silent and compliant with all rules U get a referal to another shelter when your time at this 1 is up. Each time U R refered 2 another shelter it’s 1-5 towns away. Kids R uprooted from school at least 3 times a year….
I would stay awake @ night watching over my children, sleeping in parks at their school.
There isn’t a lot of documentation for this collection of sentences, excerpted from a letter in the comments section of a 2009 Change.org article about people who shun homeless shelters, an article that isn’t even online any more. We don’t know in what city the experiences of anonymous writer K K occurred, but the best thing to hope is that her description was of a very rare worst-case scenario, and that somehow things have changed enough in the past five years to bring improvement to such dismal shelters.
K K speaks of the difficulty of protecting her children from mentally ill inhabitants, and even from sexual advances. If one child had to use the restroom, the whole family went along for safety. The moldy shower stalls offered no privacy. At meals, adults would shove children aside to get at the food — which had roaches in it anyway.
Like most shelters, this one expelled everyone in the morning and they had to figure out some way to survive out in the open, regardless of rain, snow, or heat. Of course, all possessions had to be packed up and taken along. Even that much is hard to imagine — everything you and your children need, in bags that have to be carried around all day and guarded every minute.
A minimalist existence
With overnight shelters, this is just the way it has to be. Nobody gets to homestead a little corner for themselves. You take whatever space you’re given, if you’re lucky enough to get in. Why does anyone worry about the small percentage of people who refuse shelter when there aren’t enough beds anyway? Even in the best possible circumstances, in the most enlightened city on the continent, living in a shelter with children is traumatic for parents and kids alike.
Aside from shelters, or squeezing in with relatives, kids and their single parents live in cars, garages, tents, and squats. Pat Reavy and Marjorie Cortez reported on an incident in Salt Lake City in which police, fire authorities, and the Health Department converged on a self-storage company and found people living in at least five of the units. Storage cubicles of course have no plumbing and only minimal access to electricity, and it is strictly illegal to live in one.
A-1 Storage manager Christie Andrews told the journalists that in the previous two weeks she had turned away between 10 and 15 prospective renters of storage units whom she suspected were intending to take up residence inside. For at least six months she had tried to deal with the situation, kicking people out when she became aware that they were actually occupying the spaces. In one storage unit, a mother and father lived with their 3-month-old baby. Andrews said simply, “They’re homeless and they don’t have anywhere to go.”
That was in mid-2012, and as we know, Utah is a state that has made amazing strides in just the past couple of years. Around the same time, another story originated from Midvale, which counts as part of the greater Salt Lake City metro area. LifeStart Village is there, a place that, under the auspices of the Family Support Center, houses 54 single women and their children.
On that occasion, in honor of Mother’s Day, Vidal Sassoon-trained hair stylist Yoshi Shiraki offered free haircuts to all the mothers at LifeStart Village and got so many acceptances that he had to schedule appointments for the Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday of that week. LifeStart Village still thrives, providing a reliable and safe environment, with a multi-staged program that leads the residents to self-sufficiency.
In the affluent Silicon Valley area of California, Mark Emmons wrote a story for Mercury News about a father raising his 10-year-old daughter at “Hotel 22.” This is the colloquial name for the Valley Transportation Authority’s #22 line that runs between Palo Alto and East San Jose, the only bus route open 24 hours a day. The unemployed father, who didn’t give his name, told the reporter that for five months, he and his daughter had spent every night the same way. From early evening until morning, they rode the bus, then got off and waited for the return bus to go the other way. He didn’t expect this way of life to go on forever, because they were on the waiting list for a family shelter.
According to 2012 statistics, this area had the third-highest number of chronically homeless people in America, along with the country’s highest percentage of people experiencing homelessness with no shelter at all. Emmons wrote:
A one-way fare costs $2, but monthly passes can be purchased for $70, and VTA also has a program offering some free, quarterly transit passes to homeless and those in risk of losing their housing…. VTA officials make clear that homeless have just as much right to ride as anyone as long as they obey the rules such as no smoking, eating or drinking.
The complex problem of homelessness is a hot-button issue in Silicon Valley at a time when the high-tech economy continues to fuel the expensive home and rental markets — widening the divide between the haves and have-nots.
Source: “Why I Choose Streets Over Shelter,” Change.org, 06/03/09
Source: “Tenants evicted from South Salt Lake storage units,” DeseretNews.com, 04/27/12
Source: “Homeless single mothers get special style,” ksl.com, 05/12/12
Source: “Homeless turn overnight bus route into Hotel 22,” MercuryNews.com, 10/31/13
Image by Scott Meyers