10 Insights About Family Homelessness

Homelessness Cheat Sheet for Candidates and Others

Mom, dad, 4 kids. From stability to homelessness. Photo Diane Nilan

1. If a bank customer tried this, they’d be in jail.

One minute her rent money, her son’s disability check, was safely deposited in the bank. The next minute it was gone, leaving Melissa at a loss as to how she was going to pay lot rent where her family’s trailer is parked.

Fearing a return to homelessness, an edge she’s teetered on for several years, she contacted her bank and found out that a past-due debt triggered their unannounced “recovery action.” No recourse or due process. Money. Gone.

This stalwart mother and grandmother begged for help and at least got enough to cover the rent. But then she stared at the shut-off notice from the electric company and looked at the pile of bills that haunt her monthly. With her meager bank account cleared out, she has no clue as to how to pay them. Homelessness right around the corner. Again.

2. Having a bank account is essential, but for some it’s useless.

In Melissa’s case, when her son’s disability payment hit the bank, it triggered the bank’s robbery. To get disability payments, you pretty much need a bank account. That can be almost impossible. Or it can be detrimental, as it seems to be the equivalent of a cookie jar for the vicious debt recovery industry.

You can bet those in the upper economic echelon don’t have their money snatched by these bottom-feeders.

Almost 30% of households in America are unbanked or underbanked according to an FDIC report. Reasons for being unbanked include

“More than half (52.7 percent) of unbanked households cited ‘Do not have enough money to keep in an account’ as a reason for not having an account, the most commonly cited reason. This reason was also the most commonly cited main reason for not having an account (34.0 percent).”

The good news about not having an account — the debt collector vultures have to look elsewhere for victims. The bad news — you can’t do much of anything without a bank account/debit card.

2. Working is impossible without transportation.

It’s not like Melissa doesn’t work, or doesn’t want to work. She lives in a rural area far outside any transportation system, the only place she could find to relocate her family’s trailer, their home since Hurricane Ivan in 2004.

Her 2002 Kia Spectra, bought used from a friend last year, has had a slew of mechanical problems rendering her car-less and her family without transportation.

Her autistic son needs to be driven to/from school. Her granddaughter, who lives with her, needs rides to after school activities. Melissa would be doing odd cleaning jobs for a friend but she needs transportation. Her dead car sits like rotting roadkill in her driveway.

Of course, once she earns money, the bank will likely snatch it, so what’s the use?

4. Affordable car repairs — a nightmare for the income-challenged.

Here’s a place where social justice entrepreneurs could meet a huge need! Since impoverished vehicle owners can’t afford regular maintenance, much less the unexpected major repairs on their cars, RVs, motorcycles, etc., how about a minimally-priced repair operation that pairs volunteer mechanics with mechanic-wanna-bes?

Talk about a win-win! Vehicles would be in safe working order. Our environment would be better. People would be able to get to work. Auto mechanic training would be the gateway to good paying jobs.

5. Another “legal” robbery strategy — housing application fees.

Application fees for apartments, $50-up for each adult in the household, act as barriers for those trying to escape homelessness, even with a housing voucher in hand.

Behold another “cookie jar,” this time for nefarious property managers wanting to make an easy buck. Take the fees, deny the housing application. Cha-ching! Next…

Especially in this tight housing market, the competitive nature of acquiring a rental keeps even slightly tainted candidates out of consideration.

People with limited incomes need to be exempt from application fees. Public housing authorities issuing these vouchers could provide the pre-screened application. Or something besides letting desperate house searchers be gouged.

A 63-year-old disabled grandmother recently shared her story with me. A responsible tenant for years, the owner sold the property putting Sandy out on the street with her 12-year-old granddaughter who lives with her while mom copes with her homelessness. Sandy has a housing voucher. But each time she applies for consideration, she must pay an application fee upwards of $50. That is impossible on her limited disability income. Besides, housing vacancies are almost zero. So she’s living in her car, granddaughter farmed out to friends. Another story for another time.

Without money you are evidently nothing. Photo Diane Nilan

6. No money + physical/mental health issues = pariah status.

Explain it to me — how does an individual or parent who has zero income avoid — much less escape — homelessness? They don’t. And the stress of living in a money-less situation for more than a day or two will quickly wear on you.

Sleep, hygiene, nutrition, and general wellbeing become a distant memory, replaced by survival. If you don’t have income, you don’t have a bank account. No bank account, no way to get whatever benefits you might be entitled to. You need a bank account/debit card to pay utilities.

Unbanked people might as well just disappear.

7. High mobility, high risk of families losing vital Medicaid benefits.

I can’t keep track of my mail. Imagine being homeless with kids, and moving from place to place. No reliable mailing address. And Medicaid mails a request for verification of your ongoing need and status. It misses you. Good reason to cut you off, making your kids ineligible for medical care.

“History has shown that when states require more paperwork from Medicaid beneficiaries, more eligible people fall through the cracks. Medicaid beneficiaries tend to move often; to have unstable hours and incomes; and to have literacy challenges that can make it hard to submit detailed renewal packages or verify their incomes frequently.” (NYT, 10/22/19)

For some lucky ones, irregular medical care ends up being the best they can get. Photo Diane Nilan

8. Homelessness is an urban problem (says no one who knows ever).

My recent travels across Rt. 20, the first leg of my HEAR US 2020 VisionQuest venture, found me in rural communities where homelessness seems to baffle officials and residents. The community of bucolic sounding Sweet Home, OR are cracking down on homelessness, even as their town crumbles further into oblivion. Despite no shelter for the handful of adults in this tiny town, police there have ramped up persecution of homelessness by issuing tickets to those who set foot in lifeless downtown. That violates the Constitution, but no matter. Friends of mine witnessed the tail end of police there traumatizing a young pregnant woman. Not sweet.

If this is Oregon at its best, start over. Photo Diane Nilan

Suburban Naperville, where I hail from (sorta-kinda), is an effervescent community of about 150,000 people about 30 miles west of Chicago. It’s got more homelessness, including families, than many know.

Lisa Schwarz-Barry, an official from a Naperville area school district, recently commented in a Naperville Sun article highlighting the work I do,

“I’ve met people who said they never thought it would happen to them. It can be for so many reasons, from domestic violence to losing your home in a fire, a medical event that uses up all your money or even weather-related. We do see families move here to live with family after losing their homes in other parts of the country due to hurricanes.”

9. Those who really know are those who live it.

Sitting at a community dinner talking to a chipper young mother with an exuberant 6-year-old son, she drew me a diagram of how she and her son arrange things so they can live “comfortably” in their car. She was so matter of fact about it that I almost forgot that families aren’t really supposed to live in cars. But it’s rampant in this community (western OR) and elsewhere, even places where weather is a brutal factor.

Safe child care, affordable and flexible, is vital for families struggling to gain and maintain housing. Photo Diane NIlan

Brittany goes to school, training to be a mental health worker. And she works. She astutely pointed out that our country needs more child care, especially non-traditional hours. Of course, it has to be subsidized, or free for parents like her. She knows more of what’s needed than most presidential candidates.

10. Congress needs a more accurate picture of homelessness.

This article, one of the worst I’ve seen, perfectly illustrates how distorted the homeless census is. From Spartanburg, SC:

“While the point-in-time count identified 229 homeless people in Spartanburg, the actual number for Spartanburg is closer to 1,200 when adding data from other agencies, Crowl said.

Factors linked to homelessness were loss of a job, drugs, domestic violence and poverty.

More than anything else, she said, is a lack of affordable housing.”


Enough of this confusion!

A bipartisan bill, the Homeless Children and Youth Act will, among many good things, straighten out the definition of homelessness so we don’t get these confusing statistics thrown at us.

You can TAKE ACTION in just moments to urge your Member of Congress to cosponsor this bill. Really. Do it. You’ll be surprised at what can happen.

I have a plan, @TeamWarren. Contact me. Any other candidate can too. I’m happy to connect you with the true experts.

Anyone experiencing this growing lifestyle feel free to add to my very initial list.

Founder/pres. HEAR US Inc., gives voice & visibility to homeless families & youth, ran shelters, advocate, filmmaker, author, 15 yrs. on US backroads.

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