I saw a news program (sorry, I can’t remember which one and can’t find the link) that suggested homelessness is up by 60%. They also indicated that the face of homelessness has changed as well. Many of the newly homeless are intact families who had been working at jobs that paid the bills. The homeless population is not comprised of the old male drunks we see in the Salvation Army ads. The number of homeless children is growing and they need help. The problem is not going away. Over the summer, they have nowhere to go.
The following may help understand of the life of a homeless child.
Many years ago, I was working with a program that helped homeless children in grades k-5. It was a tutoring program. The school buses would bring the children after school to a designated school where we gave them snacks, provided activities and helped with homework or problems they had in school. Circumstances changed for me and I wasn’t able to continue, but the circumstances for homeless children have not improved for them. They have gotten worse.
We had about 100 children in the program. We could have easily had 500, there were that many eligible for the program. But the woman who ran the program would not take more than her volunteers could handle. Further, and she refused public money for this reason, there were a number of children in the age group who were already dangerous to other students and the volunteers, and she could not include them. It broke her heart but she could not allow her students and volunteers to be put at risk.
As I worked with the students, I got to talk to them. I also learned a great deal from the woman who ran the program. It was a major eye-opener for this formerly insulated woman. I learned:
- That the shelters close for the day at 7:00 am and do not reopen until 6:00 pm. That meant that without the program, the children would be on the street from the time school let out (2:30 to 3:00) until the shelter reopened. Even in extreme rain, snow and heat. Surrounded by pedaphiles, gangs, criminals, prostitutes and drunks. They had nothing to do but hang out. No wonder so many joined gangs and/or became mules for drug dealers. In the shelter, they didn’t even have a pillow that was their own.
- That many of the children had to get their mothers (rarely fathers) up, dressed, fed and out the door almost every morning because their mothers were hung over or in a drug stupor or just plain exhausted. Imagine, kindergartners having to feed and dress their mothers (and younger siblings if they were the oldest).
- That many of the mothers had had many partners because they would find a man to protect her and her children from the rest of the community. And when these men found someone else, the woman had to as well. That these men often beat the mother, but she stayed wso the children would not be raped or attacked. That is one reason why so many had half siblings from multiple fathers. When I hear GOPers affirm that women have lots of children so they can collect welfare it makes me want to beat them. Note also that many of these shelters are run by religious organizations who will not offer access to family planning counseling or contraceptics.
- That almost all of the children I worked with had been raped, molested and attacked so often they thought it was just part of life. A good day was a day without a beating. They were numb to it.
- That a mother (and her children) could stay 30 days in a shelter and then she had to find somewhere else. Between shelters, they lived on the street. Then the mother would find a shelter. Her 30 day clock started ticking. It took a couple days to register for the local school. The child would start classes. In 28 days, it was time to leave. The children had learned not to bond with classmates or teachers because they knew they would not be able to stay. There was no continuity to their education. Most not only did not speak English fluently, they did not speak their native language fluently because they weren’t around people who did. So they sat in class, but learning was nearly impossible. Today I hear an even worse story – when they try to enroll in classes and the testing mandated by No Child Left Behind is happening, principals are in a dilemma – do they allow these children in and their test scores to ruin the school average and risk their school and staff being put on a watch list or worse? Or do they deny a child a chance to be in school (which at least, even if they are not learning, is a safer place than the street)?
There is no way these children can get an education this way. I talked to my state senator about it, but he said we can’t help everybody. He also claimed that homeless children were children of illegals, of drug addicts and drunks. Many were, but that was not the issue. These were children. What he left unsaid was that many are racial minorities – African American, Latino, Indian, Vietnamese, etc. He was, of course, a Republican who wanted these mothers to snap out of it and be good mothers. (This is part of what made me stop being Republican.)
Since this experience, I have become, according to some, a bleeding heart liberal. But there are also practical reasons for my concern. Some of these parents were indeed bad parents – drugs, drinking, treating themselves and their children badly. Some did not know much better, others had given up. Today, with the unemployment rate skyrocketing and the high foreclosure rate, the many are families that have fallen through the cracks. How do you find work and get back on your feet if you have to worry constantly about the safety of your children? Our Republican corporate servants blame the parents for bad decisions or bad behavior (as if losing a job that causes one to lose a home is either a bad decision or bad behavior on the part of the one losing them). But regardless of the parents’ problems, it wasn’t the children’s fault. These children are truly being left behind by an indifferent society.
Today I pull another feather out of the featherbed as I look at what it means when Conservatives talk about “Those People.” Whenever I get into a conversation with Conservatives about programs that help the indigent, I get responses that begin with the phrase “Those People.” Whatever the situation, they seem to have some idea of what “those people” are and are adept at reducing anyone in need to this straw man. Who are “those people?” What does it mean to be one of “those people?”
I start with the homeless “those people.” To a conservative, a homeless person is a man over 30 who is a drunk derelict drug addict who would prefer to be homeless. When you give aid to “those people,” they simply go spend whatever they get on drugs or alcohol. They prefer to live on the streets. They are too lazy to hold down a job. We simply encourage their nasty habits when we give them assistance. We encourage others to become like them (say what?). Taxpayers work hard for their money and it shouldn’t go to people who are too lazy to contribute. It doesn’t help that the Salvation Army ad in the paper asking for help for the homeless over the holidays shows a picture of a derelict old man with no teeth. That is the face of the homeless to many of our fellow citizens. When you talk to them about homeless children, there are harsh words for their parents, but no concern for the children. When you talk about mothers who have lost their homes, there are harsh words about the mothers. “Those people” are living the lives they deserve. This is a lie. There are millions of people who have been hard working producers and taxpayers their whole lives who are one bad break away from joining the ranks of the homeless. And to me, it is never a child’s fault that he is homeless. There are the homeless veterans, their spirits broken because they served their country. There are the mentally ill homeless, forced into the streets because we have chosen to drastically cut services to help them. The ranks of potential homeless include you and me and our parents and our children and our brothers and our sisters.
The next set of “those people” are those who are still in their homes but unemployed. This set of “those people” are too lazy to go out and find a job. They are getting rich panhandling and living off the taxpayer dole. Conservatives seem to have this set of faceless examples of cases they heard about who simply prefer to panhandle and take entitlements to the discipline of working every day. They tell me about somebody who knew somebody who had a cousin who met somebody who was living in posh conditions off the money they get from us and panhandling. I ask them how somebody is getting rich off of what we provide in transfer payments. I am told that these people work the system and are able to live high on the hog. (Of course, there is a category of people I call the Professional Poor who do work the system, and know how to work others to get by without working, a loophole we should close.) I ask them if they know how much a person or family can get in assistance and if they have tried to live on that amount. Of course, they say no, but they know it happens. In fact, I have tried living on the amount people get in food stamps (an experiment because I wanted to know for sure), and it is no easy road. Even when you add up food stamps, unemployment and all other assistance it is really hard. When I point out that when a mother gets a job she loses much of the help and has to pay for child care, they are unconcerned. She should be working and she shouldn’t have those children. Conservatives tell me that “those women” just have lots of babies so they can get more welfare money. They would rather lie around all day having sex than work. Note that these are the same people who would deny a woman an abortion because she can’t afford another baby. “Those people” should get a job and if they can’t find one they should create one. Again, the ranks of the potential unemployed include you and me and our parents and our brothers and sisters and children.
An offshoot of “those people” is the elderly in poverty. “Those people” enjoyed the high life all their working days and are now indigent because they failed to plan. They suck up our social security and medicare money and are living off of us who are now working because they were so set on meeting immediate wants that they failed to save for their retirement. Never mind that the crash of 2008 wiped out a lot of people’s savings. Never mind that many companies have reneged on their pensions. Never mind that many never made enough to live on, send their children to college and still put away for today. Never mind that some never qualified for social security. Never mind that the cost of living skyrocketed faster than they could save. It is their fault and “those people” are living as they deserve. The ranks of potential poverty-stricken elderly could include almost anybody’s parents, and they are often one corporate decision to default on pension checks from being totally wiped out.
“Those people” include illegal immigrants who worked hard for many years and never had a safety net. “Those people” never bothered to get an education. “Those people” this and “Those people” that. The words “those people” separate the human faces of misery from the person doing the talking. But it has been my experience in working with “those people” that they are you and me with one extra piece of bad timing or bad luck happening to them. (When conservatives fall into the ranks of “those people,” somehow they are different and “those people” are taking money away from helping them.)
So the feather I am pulling out of the featherbed of lies is that there is a group of “those people” who live high off of the hard work of taxpayers. Conservatives sleep well denying them assistance because “those people” are not you and me. They are a different people, almost a foreign people, perhaps even less than human. That is a lie. In fact, “those people” are you and me in very hard circumstances. If you would wish for help yourself or would wish for it for your children, you should be happy to provide it to “those people.” After all, one of these days that “those people” label could refer to you or your children.