Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Homelessness in the U.S.

 As those of you who visit here frequently know, I don't usually write extensively on any particular subject. Even my passion for art and culture fail to motivate me to write long posts. My passion for art is, in fact, a deterrent to writing about it. Because I read so much on these subjects, I don't feel that anything I write could possibly do them justice. But I don't intend this post to be about what I call my permanent writer's block. Instead, it is to finally write something, from my own experiences and perspectives that is talked about by most of us but rarely confronted. That topic is homelessness.

I've also been thinking a lot about the blog description in my header: art, love, peace and justice. There is a lot of art, of course. There is a lot of love, as this blog is a labor of love and I try by example to be a loving human being, who not only concerns herself with the blog content but also with caring about the people who comment here, whom I consider to be my friends, albeit for the most part, virtually.

But lately there's been no talk of justice on this blog. That doesn't mean I no longer believe in justice or think about it; I just don't usually write about it. I haven't since a couple of years ago when, from mostly a personal point-of-view, I shared what happened in my family when my older daughter fell in love with her wife in their junior year of college and they eloped to San Francisco in the few months after California made marriage equality the law and before they trashed it by passing Prop 8. I am beginning to think that I have to have some practical experience with the issue and a passion for doing my part, in order to write about it with any conviction. For me that doesn't happen with too many topics. I am not an artist, for example, so my passion for art is visual and I love to learn about it but I can't say I am able to write about it with any authority. Thus the extensive links to those sources better versed than I.

This is a lot to read for this blog and I know of at least one person (both in the "real-meet" world and the blogging world) who visits here frequently and has told me he doesn't have the attention span for long posts - one reason he likes my blog. I won't hold it against him (or anyone else), if he skips it. Though I hope no one does, of course!

With the exception of a couple of transitional periods where my family and I lived with people who cared about us, I have never experienced homelessness firsthand.

What I have seen for the better part of my 32 year career, are many of families who have been officially homeless sometime before or during their connection with me, either as their child's teacher or as as the family's social worker; professional roles I have performed for Head Start, Massachusetts subsidized daycare programs and the Massachusetts and Vermont public school systems.

My current interaction with the homeless is as a volunteer "play-pal" with a fantastic Massachusetts non-profit organization, Horizons for Homeless Children. Once a week I visit my local homeless shelter and with two other volunteers, play for two hours with children from infancy through about age seven, in a room that is designed as a play space, with age-appropriate, educational toys, art materials and books.

 I once visited a couple of families in this very shelter years ago, when I worked for Head Start. When a family is homeless, they and their children depend upon routine more than ever and being enrolled in a program like Head Start means their services continue even when there is a lack of permanent housing.

Families living in shelters are the luckier ones who qualify; often those with young children. There is a staggering number of homeless people without shelter who want and need it and for several reasons, some of them complex, are not able to access it.

I'd like to tell you a few statistics and provide some basic information that may put things into perspective if you are not in touch with this issue at all or if you live in another country and are only vaguely aware of the homeless problem here.

First of all, to deflate the myths that surround homelessness. Who is the typical homeless person? There is no such thing. Individuals range from single people with mental health or substance abuse issues to a nuclear family with young children who are homeless due to a job loss, an illness that has depleted their resources or foreclosure on a mortgaged home. There are, however, groups of people who are at higher than average risk for homelessness:  young people aging out of the foster care system, people living in over-crowded situations and those just released from prison, to name a few.

While the numbers for homeless family households is not as large as that for individuals,  nationally, approximately 500,000 children ages 0-5 experience homelessness in the course of a year. That is from a study by the Urban Institute in 2000. That number has surely gone up as the economy has deteriorated and services for the low-income, the unemployed and the underemployed have shrunk or disappeared altogether.

Here are some of the stories I've heard and impressions I've formed from my interactions with homeless people.  Because I have always worked with families (largely single-mothers) and my volunteer work is at a family shelter, my stories are about them. There are more specialized shelters for people who meet the criteria for addiction and there are shelters for women victimized by domestic violence. ( I volunteered eons ago in one in an urban area of Mass) In those shelters there are a combination of individuals and families, providing services that attempt to meet the needs of all.

Many years ago, I provided services to a woman with two young children who became homeless when, after months of physical abuse, her partner smashed all of the windows in their house in the presence of the children and then set the place on fire. I drove by the condemned house every day, as it was close to the building where my office was. She and the children went to a shelter for victims of domestic violence (battered women is no longer politically correct) and within a couple of months, she had gotten back on her feet and had an apartment for her family. That shelter no longer exists in my community. It had to close due to lack of funding. Some services are still provided for women out of an office somewhere.  Women in crisis have to seek shelter at a location outside of the county now, often taking their children out of school and away from any supportive people they may have in their lives. Often, they are forced to seek work in that new community because they lack the transportation and/or the financial means to commute.

Another story is that of a young woman and her three-year old daughter who were literally thrown out on the street by relatives whose house was already over-crowded with other people who had no place to live. Before the eviction, when I visited there for the first time, I had to endure six smokers playing cards at the kitchen table and the stench of a ferret "condo" in the same room. Neither the card players (nor the ferrets for that matter) gave a care that I was there, which is something I got used to working around after the initial shock. This young mom of about twenty ended up not in a shelter but moving back in with her boyfriend into his trailer. She told me she'd rather put up with the filth of the place and his abusive comments (he was not the child's father) than to go live with people she didn't know in shelter. Eventually, she moved out of that situation and into another overcrowded one and quit the my program, so I don't know what happened to her.

At the shelter where I have volunteered now for about six months, I have met several families. My role there is not as a social worker, so I don't pry. Sometimes families will tell you their stories or after a while, one surmises a bit about what is going on.

One family - two married parents and two very young children - have left the shelter. They found a place to live and are surviving on part-time jobs. The father served in the United States army. They relocated to Massachusetts from California, where he was stationed. I never learned anything else about them, except that they took impeccable care of their children, who appeared healthy and well-adjusted. In Massachusetts, health coverage is  mandated by law, so it is likely that they, or at least their children, are insured through the state. Before this law, a family in this situation would lack insurance. There are flaws in this system. National health care it is not but it is at least an attempt at covering everyone.

For several months and through the holiday season, I played with two adorable siblings - a boy and a girl, ages four and six. These kids were intense, with the typical "acting out" behaviors that a good percentage of traumatized children exhibit:  hitting each other hard and constantly, yelling and screaming angrily, grabbing toys out of the hands of other playmates and having miniscule attention spans. I had to ask their father to take one of them out of the play area once and the only way he could manage this six-year-old was to pick him up and sling him over his shoulder, the boy kicking and screaming. While I have the skills to handle that type of behavior, it is not allowed by volunteers. Not to mention that I don't miss having done that the occasional times the situation called for it, nor filling out the paperwork that ostensibly protected me from liability.

A family currently at the shelter, a father of, I'm guessing, less than forty years but looking in very poor health is the household head. There are two children, a fifteen year-old girl who gave birth to a son when she was just fourteen and her younger brother, about ten years old. While this very young mom adores her child and appears to take very good care of him, I worry about this family the most. While a cute, cuddly baby of nine months is a joy, he will grow up and need a lot more than a diaper change and cute outfits. I hope that she continues to raise him well and belies my concerns.

(I have more stories but I went with those that stood out in my mind the most and committed them to the keyboard before I had a chance to chicken out of writing this post.  :-)

To qualify for shelter services, people must meet Mass. DTA criteria; the same or similar criteria that renders them eligible for food stamps, for example and is based on the current federal poverty guidelines established by the Department of Health and Human Services. Take a look at this table. The information may come in handy the next time you're called upon to talk to someone who thinks that welfare recipients are abusing the system or that homeless people are some sort of bazaar subculture. The complex packet of information and documentation one is expected to provide for any service they may receive is mind-boggling.

2011 HHS Poverty Guidelines
in Family
48 Contiguous
States and D.C.
Alaska Hawaii
1 $10,890 $13,600 $12,540
2  14,710  18,380  16,930
3  18,530  23,160  21,320
4  22,350  27,940  25,710
5  26,170  32,720  30,100
6  29,990  37,500  34,490
7  33,810  42,280  38,880
8  37,630  47,060  43,270
For each additional
person, add
   3,820    4,780    4,390

SOURCE:  Federal Register, Vol. 76, No. 13, January 20, 2011, pp. 3637-3638

 I invite you to take a few minutes to hear one NYC woman's story, which is a fairly typical one, in the video Hanging by a Threat ,on The New York Times website. Her problems are exacerbated by the notoriously high cost of living in that city.

 When I visit the shelter, what I see are people who have certainly been beaten down by the blows of life but I also see a tremendous resilience and a will to survive. If a parent is taking a break when we are there, which they are welcome to do, it is probably the only break they've had all day. Some parents use the play time session as a time to make dinner for their family, as this is done in shifts in a rather small kitchen, considering the capacity of the shelter. They are generally appreciative of the break we give them and the attention we heap on their children. Some are quiet and reserved about their situations, others sometimes come in and want to chat a bit. All take a great deal of interest in and show concern for their children. Most frequently come in the room throughout the session and check that their kids are doing okay.

When I see a mother with children somewhere out in public and she is yelling harshly at them, I try to remind myself that perhaps she's living in poverty, is possibly the victim of trauma herself and that she is very, very stressed. It is far too easy to be judgmental and I am sometimes guilty of that. There is a quote I and other adults who work with children say frequently but perhaps not enough: "All behavior is a form of communication".  This goes for the coping strategies of adults in crisis as well.

I don't have answers to this multi-layered, complex problem, but with awareness sometimes comes action and solutions. If I can't solve the problem, I can help to make life a little better for people,  two hours a week. I am hoping in the future to do more.

Information and Resources


  1. The need in our own backyard is huge. Thanks for this post.

  2. Bet you are a great player!

    Aloha from Honolulu

    Comfort Spiral




  3. This is a fascinating post. Homelessness (and the family structure) involves such a wide spectrum of people and it's wonderful to know that someone is trying to help.

  4. I was having a conversation just a few days ago about homeless people and the why of it. we didn't know if the majority were mentally ill or had gotten there via crises. this post is a real eye-opener. there but for the grace of God go I sort of thing. it can happen to me, to you, to any of us, in the blink of an eye really. the problem is so complex, as are the solutions, that it's easier to pretend it isn't there, or real. thanks for this post Gina. and for your compassion.

  5. Excellent post sphinx. There but for the grace go many of us

  6. I cannot imagine being homeless, and I have great sympathy for those who are. I hate hearing that shelters have been closed for lack of funds.

  7. This is a beautiful and heartfelt piece of writing, Gina. It's a very sad comment that our society is so unequal that homelessness grows more common rather than less. The world would be a better place for everyone if only we could live up to the words of this portion of the preamble for the UN Declaration of Human Rights which was signed in 1948:

    "...recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world'

    The US Constitution has similar wording but the 'pursuit of happiness' part has been misconstrued to mean 'grabbing as much as you can'.

  8. Great post, Gina - you should write more!

    Looking from the outside, I am frequently - to put it mildly - bemused by the USA. This is one of the richest countries (certainly the most powerful) in the world, a country where the majority of its citizens seem to be convinced that they are living in the best kind of society ever developed by humanity - so much so that some are prepared to advocate its worldwide spread by missionary or even military means. And, at the same time, in this oh so wonderful society, such stories as you tell (and the background structures they reveal) abound.

    I live in Germany - in "Old Europe" as Rumsfeld once sneeringly titled it. The level of wealth is comparable to that of the USA. It is not (despite what many right-wingers in the USA claim) a "socialist" country - far from it. And we do have homeless people, most of them people suffering from chronic substance abuse of one sort or another, occasionally people with mental health problems, some single adults who have simply lost their way and can't find it again without help.

    But we also have a long tradition of social welfare - even if neo-liberal influences have been trying to whittle away at it for the past 20 years or so. No one here has to be homeless, certainly not children. Anyone earning less than the minimum for existence (and that includes, unfortunately, many who are working) has a right to supplementary social welfare. And a right to housing. In a reform a few years ago (one of the few positive aspects of that reform, but that's another story), the option was opened for the social welfare authorities to pay the rent directly to the landlords - and it has had very good consequences. Landlords are now quite willing to rent to welfare recipients because they know the rent is secure.

    It's not luxurious; welfare will only pay a rent at the average level for the district in question - for around 350 sq. feet for one person, 500 sq. feet for 2 people and so on. Welfare also pays the cost of heating. But no children need be homeless, and hardly any are, apart from shelter residents for victims of domestic abuse, who have fled their homes - and these shelters are short term, because one of the first things the people running them do is to organise permanent rented accomodation for their clients.

    Housing, like medical care, is a right, not a privilege in any civilized society. It's time the "land of the free" woke up to this fact.

  9. This is an initial comment, so that you know that I am in there reading your words.

    I shall comment further when I have re-read and absorbed and followed it all through.

    I am overwhelmed that you have taken the time and trouble to address this.

  10. Sandy - our own backyard is always a good place to start when we want to help a huge problem but feel overwhelmed by its immensity. Thanks for the comment!

    Cloudia - yes, I am! I could go for some sand castle building on a sunny Hawaiian beach, too!

    Spangle - thanks. I do it because it's easy and it doesn't feel like nearly enough.

    Becky - a lot of people are hanging by a thread, most of them are in poverty but each has different circumstances that have left them in a vulnerable position. There is no excuse for children to be homeless. None. That's why the homeless are themselves blamed, so that the consciences of the rest of us can feel more at ease. It's an ugly problem and no one wants to take a look.

    Susan - The Declaration of Independence - essentially an American myth.

    Francis - yeah, you commies over there in Germany really vex a lot of Americans! ;-) Americans love to point their finger at countries who are faring better than we by calling then socialists cuz it's a dirty word. The last national election really brought that point home when Obama was accused of being a socialist! That's when I realized that things will never change here.

    Regarding housing, people here can wait years for their name to be called for subsidized housing. The welfare reform laws are such that when people find work and are just getting themselves off the ground, they lose benefits that sometimes land them right back where they started from or in an even worse position.

    I've seen a span of thirty years of poor children who've grown more anxious, violent, more at risk for addiction and mental illness, more often abused and neglected. In part,we can thank welfare reform for that. I don't know the numbers but I wonder how allowing a mother on welfare to remain there until her children are a little more autonomous compares with spending on rehab programs and prison sentences.

    Oh, and thanks! Since I am awed by your writing, I'm glad that you found my post worthy of reading and commenting.

    Jams - yes!

    Kenju - it is a pity, especially in a time when domestic violence is up due to economic stresses and lack of opportunity.

    Steve - you're welcome but I'm really preaching to the choir, as they say. I guess I needed to get it off my chest.

    Sending love and peace to everyone.


  11. Gina, thanks for writing this. Thanks for having a heart and for doing your compassionate part. My view on this subject is close to that of Frances. The (general) American penchant for making the poorest pay for the transgressions of the richest (read: Wall Street tanking the economy, getting bailed out, and still lobbying for tax cuts, while demanding cuts in social programs) - with nobody calling them on it - perplexes me. And the American fixation on the false notion that poor people in need of help are all leaches focused on bleeding the system appalls me. More people with your compassion would change that cultural landscape. Keep doing what you're doing.

  12. Your post spurs my mind to wander in many directions:
    My mother's stories of coming of age during the depression.
    My mother's tales of her work as a clinical social worker when mental hospitals were closed and the ill turned out to fend for themselves.
    Neighbors who say "those people" are getting services they don't deserve. When asked where they get their information they say "e-mails from our representative(R)

    It is a sad commentary on our so-called "Christian" nation.

  13. Francisca - it's a persistent myth in the U.S. that welfare recipients are bleeding our society dry. It's important to note, and I failed to do so in the post, that many of our nation's poor are living *below* the fed's guidelines! Many working poor have to piece together multiple minimum wage jobs with no benefits just to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table.

    Martha - you said about the representative mailings to his constituents doesn't surprise me. Republicrats have been ruthless with welfare reform.

    While I can see welfare reform as a positive thing, to take away all safety nets and let people fend for themselves without education and training, with poor paying jobs, minimal or no subsidized daycare and take away their housing subsidy, is criminal. It shows a real disdain for the less fortunate.

  14. Congratulations my friend on a wonderful - Heartfelt Post.

    If you email me I will send you my Feather in your cap for an outstanding Post.

  15. Stewart - a feather in my hat from you is an honor indeed! Thank you!

  16. I congratulate you on the volunteer work. It's a shame that homelessness still exists in the 21st century! And do you see an end to it? No way... Life, in a general way, seems to be harder and harder these days.

  17. And so continues what seems like a lifetime of you awing and educating me.

    I know that most of our homeless are single mothers with children, people with substance abuse/mental health issues, and veterans with various levels of PTSD, but the specifics in this post have me in tears. It's an ugly and shameful situation, and if my read on current politics is accurate, bound to get much, much worse.

    Your compassion is exemplary, and the actions you take to make a difference, more so. All of us are concerned, but most of us aren't really that involved.

    Thanks for being a guiding light and setting the bar up where it ought to be, my dear friend.

  18. This is for the third time of trying ...
    I have visited all the links in your post and am impressed by the four 'I Believe' statements, also with the video 'Hanging by a thread'.
    It is so comfortable to just take in what operates on the same level as ourselves and heartrending to look at the existence levels below - because we are all exactly the same - human beings - with some of us having better fortune that others.
    I am so glad that you are there, working as a volunteer, as I know that interacting with you will be an enriching experience for those children. You may not ever know it, but the experience will be carried by the children and, in some way, will make a difference along the path of their lives.

    That you posted your thoughts and feelings about homelessness is important for you and for us readers. Thank you again for this post.

    I hope that, one day, we might meet in Reality, as opposed to Virtual Reality.

  19. JM - volunteering has become a family tradition. You should see my older daughter's list of volunteer service, including two years of Americorps. I wish traffic infractions could only be paid of through hours of community service! A great way to recruit volunteers, as some people don't know what they're missing when they don't contribute. On the other hand, the U.S. conservatives push volunteerism (remember Bush's points of light?) as a panacea for social ills because they don't to pay for it.

    CR - you can join me at GFI if you want to help! We have a shortage of male volunteers! And thank you. You heap more praise on me than I deserve.

    Aguja - I would love to return to Spain again. When I do, I will let you know, as I too would love to meet you!

    Hugs to all!


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