10 Questions about Helping Homeless Families in Your Community-

As Billions in Federal Assistance Roll Out, Who’s Thinking?

Unprecedented. In the three decades I’ve worked in the field of homelessness, I’ve never seen the outpouring of federal housing and homelessness resources that have been unleashed under the American Rescue Plan. I’m delighted!

The devastating impact of CoVid-19 combined with record-breaking homelessness, pre and post pandemic, makes the timing perfect. If implemented, not only will millions of people be rescued from thousands of dollars (each) of past due rent, but affordable housing will be created to begin to ease decades of reductions of public and private housing, greatly easing homelessness across the board.

Hold On a Moment!

But, as I read articles of how communities are implementing steps to get assistance to ravaged households and desperate houseless individuals and families, my cynical hackles have been bristling.

News accounts of gleeful local elected officials drooling over millions coming into their communities concerns me. Take Charlotte, NC, for example. They’ve been busy making plans for their millions of pandemic aid. According to the Charlotte Observer,

Charlotte leaders also plan to provide The Salvation Army with $700,000 to lease a hotel for July through December. This will provide shelter to 400 families.

“It’s good to know that we are intentionally and deliberately working to work with the homeless population,” Councilmember Renee Johnson said.

Who is advising the Council on these decisions? No one in their right mind would put 400 families, most of whom have experienced severe trauma and a host of other difficulties, into one hotel.

I ran a shelter with a dozen or two families, and that was crazy-making — for the staff and families. The much disparaged public housing high-rises in cities across the country, torn down because they were not healthy environments for families, remember those?

Chattanooga, TN, another southern city that up until lately didn’t seem to care too much about families in homeless situations, is busy making plans that will funnel hundreds of thousands to a motel in return for “housing” one hundred families, temporarily, for 90 days. The story reported by WRCBtv indicates,

District 8 City Councilman Anthony Byrd told Channel 3 the decision was made after City administrators met with East Ridge leaders and businesses and decided the property was not the right fit for the group they were trying to serve.

“If we move them to a place that was unstable then we’ll have to move them again, and right now their lives are so unstable, we don’t want to have to keep uprooting this community so we had to make sure that we give them something stable and we thought that area would be stable when we made the decision,” Byrd said.

East Ridge community members had expressed concern about the area’s safety if the homeless population moved into the Budgetel Inn and Suites, an extended stay hotel.

Community “concerns” about safety? Or well-being of hundreds of families?

Motel Homelessness 101

Click to learn what motel life means Photo © Diane Nilan

I invite those concerned civic leaders and anyone else wanting an inside story on what it’s like for families to live in motels to listen to Jamie, an enlightened, courageous mother I met in Raleigh, NC, who shared what it was like for her family to be staying in a no-tell-motel for months because of homelessness.

This 12-minute film I made earlier this year features Jamie schooling viewers on the realities of motel-homelessness. She wasn’t coached at all on what to say. She couldn’t say it any better.

I have 10 questions about these efforts to house homeless families:

  1. Who is advising the decision-makers? I suspect most of those involved have very little knowledge of family homelessness. They need quality input or this will be more of a disaster than ever.
  2. Are these decisions being made out of concern for the well-being of families? Or are they just knee-jerk reactions to spend millions of federal money?
  3. Who is monitoring how these plans unfold? Who is supervising the staff needed to make sure these motels aren’t turned into a disaster of another level? I’m not disparaging the intended motel dwellers, but I’m pointing to the human nature factor. When you get a bunch of families that have been through hell and back, and you plunk them into tiny rooms with limited facilities, with no privacy, no sense that they’ll be escaping to permanent housing…well, it could get dicey.
  4. What are the long-term plans for helping to move families into permanent housing? Have you looked at the dearth of affordable housing in your communities? The Out of Reach report put out each year by the National Low Income Housing Coalition is a good place to start.
  5. For the high percentage of families with flawed records as renters — with evictions, court records, inadequate income, and other issues — what accommodations will be made for them?
  6. For the hard-to-serve families, with physical/mental health issues and “Other Stuff” as my helpful chart will point out, what happens to them?
  7. Are you involving school personnel who work with families, you know, the McKinney-Vento liaisons? School stability is guaranteed by federal law, and needs to be factored into these location plans.
  8. What about nutritious, realistic meal strategies for the families in motels? Cooking in motels, even those with kitchenettes, is challenging. And expensive. And not so pleasant. Jamie mentions this. The increased pandemic food assistance plans helps with access to food, but cooking and food storage, much less clean-up, needs attention.
  9. Are you making arrangements for virtual learning? Do families have access to technology? Does someone help them when they run into the inevitable tech glitches? New York City sure illustrated the how-not-to provide technology access to families in shelters. What will be different in cities across the land?
  10. And, last but not least, what’s the motivation behind all these plans? You’ve had scores of homeless families in your communities for decades. They’ve suffered mightily, with little help to escape this hellish existence.

    Are you going to ramp up efforts to stem family homelessness after this cash flow? I’ll give you one good, although not altruistic, reason. Many of those homeless today in families can end up homeless as adults unless steps are taken today to mitigate the many effects of homelessness.
books about homelessnss
books about homelessnss

Let me humbly suggest you pick up a copy of my new book, Dismazed and Driven — My Look at Homelessness in America. It’s an engaging read that lets families share their stories of homelessness. By far, it’s not the be-all in homelessness manuals, but it will open your eyes. For a more in-depth read, pick up a copy of Changing the Paradigm of Homelessness, a book I helped write.

I can respectfully guarantee you need to know more to be making the decisions that will have a lifelong impact on those depending on you. How about making these decisions like you’d want people to make them for your family?

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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