“Maria” didn’t want to cry, but she did, in front of me, a semi-stranger and probably her only friendly listening ear at the moment.
I met her last week as I lurked in the parking lot outside a Honolulu family shelter. The staff told me that most families staying at their spartan, hotbox of an overnight facility hang out in the shady and breezy parking lot adjacent to the shelter. Can’t say I blame them.
Maria didn’t want to be on camera, but she was more than willing to share her story and thoughts for use in the documentary I’m filming about families and youth experiencing homelessness in the Aloha State. She had plenty to share.
She’s got 3 boys — 11, 8, and 5. Her other “boy” is “Sam,” her significant other and the father of the children. They’ve been together 12 years. They’ve been homeless since mid September when serious medical problems shattered their fragile budget and they were evicted.
They had been living on the north end of Oahu, but the shelters are south, so they shoved their stuff into storage, losing much of it because they could only afford one unit. The overflow, well, they just kissed it goodbye. They kissed their life as they knew it goodbye, too.
I can guarantee, from decades of experience with families in homeless situations, that their relationships — parent-parent, kids-parents — will be severely tested by this unhealthy situation. It’s not just their instability and high mobility, but that’s a huge factor. Homelessness — for kids or adults — is horrific.
I’ll skip the sociological discussion about homelessness (here’s one of my previous posts on that) and get right to why I’m damning it.
Maria and Sam had problems this weekend, so Maria took off in her car, leaving Sam with the 3 kids — a task he’s used to when she works. When I talked to Sam Saturday afternoon he was despondent because they had a fight and Maria left. I didn’t want to interfere so I offered some kind words and slipped away.
This afternoon I swung by and saw Maria’s car, then saw her. I could tell she was upset. We walked a bit and she shared with me the source of her agony.
Most immediately, their oldest son is acting out, typical behavior for preteens, but this is way worse. He’s exploding at Maria, in the hurtful way kids can do. Then he took off, and his parents spent hours searching. He finally returned — safely, but still explosively angry. He told them he called CPS — the dreaded Child Protection Services — because he figured it would be better to be placed in foster care. Unfortunately this could make things far worse — for all.
I just finished a slew of interviews of kids who were in the CPS “system” and they could tell you that unless your parents are horribly abusive — and from what I sense Maria/Sam are not — sticking it out with imperfect parents is the wisest option. Maybe not pretty, but better than being stuck in foster homes.
So this rightfully angry boy is unleashing the nuclear bomb on his family.
Sure, it could turn out just fine. But from what I know, in general and specific to this family, it likely won’t.
The other 2 boys will probably be placed in foster care, too. From recent experience when another family I knew had their kids wrongly yanked, it takes months and lots of effort to undo the foster care sentence, if ever.
These separations, just as what the families from south of our border are enduring, are brutally traumatic for kids. That’s not the equivalence of a skinned knee. It’s more like a busted appendix. Toxic. And can be fatal.
Now, both parents are upset — with their situation, feeling inadequate as parents, hurt with/by each other, and now face a pending brutal run-in with CPS. The kids are upset, because their parents are upset and because of their fear of CPS.
And when I say “upset,” it doesn’t mean just a little. These kids have lost everything and are now stuck in a strange environment with strangers. Their parents have let them down and seem powerless. Their world shattered.
The only stability they have — school. For now, they’re in their old schools. Maria and Sam knew it would be best to keep at least one segment of their lives intact.
Tomorrow they return to school after this week’s fall break, if CPS doesn’t snatch them first.
Maria or Sam drives the 2 younger ones way up north to their old school. The oldest boy takes a public bus. Imagine what’s going to be on their minds as they try to focus on school. Imagine what they’ll be worried about as they leave school to return to this damnable existence.
The damning reality — this family is about to get sucked down deeper into the vortex of homelessness. With enough resilience and assistance, they may survive. But their family could likely shatter.
They could end up like the thousands of decrepit women and men on the streets of Hawaii, discarded like worn flip-flops strewn along sidewalks and gutters. Damn. Damn. Damn.
Because some readers might wonder — what could have been better than letting this family fall into the abyss of homelessness? For starters, preventing their eviction would have been cheaper and certainly less traumatic. We could point to bankruptcy-causing medical bills as a villain. And the cost of housing. And the lack of childcare. And…well, don’t get me started.