Ask the Question — Why Do You Live Like This?
In every community, if you look, families struggle to survive. Why do we ignore them?
We drove by the mom, dad and 2 small children perched on the slightly shady patch of grass on the edge of the big box store parking lot. The mom was holding a sign asking for help. My friend asked, “Wouldn’t you like to get their story?” Truth be told, in addition to not wanting to prey upon a family that had to be “down on their luck,” the 100+ temperature dimmed my normal curiosity for this story, but yes.
I recently heard from “Tom,” the father I knew as a little boy from my shelter-running days. He is now a husband and father of four, homeless. The family moved from an economically-ravaged state to come home because of a parent’s health crisis. The rub — this family of 6 moved into the small camper where his mother and father lived. An untenable situation at best.
People need to hear these stories. That’s the premise behind my one-woman nonprofit HEAR US Inc. that I started back in 2005.
Having run a shelter for 15 years, having worked for decades to help educators understand the educational rights of homeless kids to attend school, I can say without a doubt, many don’t get the issues of homelessness, particularly as it impacts children.
We’re seeing a saga of outrage and deflection over the atrocious way our country has treated thousands of children and parents, mostly mothers, who are fleeing violence from south of the border (and a variety of other countries).
Maybe if what’s happening to these caged, traumatized children finally calls attention to the plights and rights of children — those living in our country and those lacking a safe existence in their countries — we can move forward. Maybe.
And vulnerabilities too depressing to list…people are astounded to learn that millions — upward of 6 million — children and youth, with families and not, in this country experience homelessness. They ask questions but couch them with what they think are solutions. My stock “no” responses to their dumbfoundedness include:
- No, adoption is not the answer for the bulk of the families in this situation.
- No, foster care isn’t taking care of the need (in fact, it causes more homelessness than most would know).
- No, returning to orphanages is not a good idea.
I want to share the stories I’ve heard in my past 13 years on the road. I’ve chronicled countless situations, stories directly from families and youth experiencing homelessness, that speak directly to the multiple, and complex, causes of family homelessness. (Here’s the link to my short videos. Please share!)
Camping seems to be one “answer” to homelessness, at least theoretically feasible during less than freezing temps. Tom and his family acquired a small camper for cheap near his parents. He and his wife are working 3rd shift jobs, saving for an apartment, relying on a fragile arrangement for childcare while they’re at work. Plenty can go wrong, or maybe they’ll luck out and get on their feet before winter hits.
Ismael, an ambitious student at UC Berkeley, is counting on a lot of luck, in addition to his determination to crawl out of the hole of 20' hole of poverty with a 10' ladder. Camping with his siblings, caring for them like a parent, fending off eviction and the very real challenges of living in a camper in a camper-unfriendly urban community, he’s focused, and fragile.
As he cooks breakfast, the smell of scrambled eggs and ripe sewage combine. There is no sewer hookup so when the storage tank is full, as it is this day, everyone holds on until they can get to a nearby gas station.
Having lived in a little van for the past 13 years, I spot stealth campers in communities of all sorts — ritzy to ratty. I understand the challenges of this unconventional lifestyle. Mine’s by choice. Theirs by reality of our horrendous lack of housing options and all the perks of poverty.
The answer to the question: the American Dream is really the American Nightmare for millions.