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.

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