Maybe it’s because I have a long history of being involved in Girl Scouts. Or maybe it’s because of the way New York Times former religion/education writer Samuel G. Freedman wrote about Nikita Stewart’s new book, Troop 6000, the story of an inspiring Girl Scout Troop at a New York City homeless shelter. Or maybe he and many others need enlightenment about the struggles of single parents.
I came out of my blog-fog to respond.
Mr. Freedman started out patronizing Giselle Burgess, “She is a loving and devoted mother, and nothing short of a brilliant crisis manager in navigating the family’s journey through the homelessness bureaucracy.”
Then he did the clueless guy thing. “The nearly fatal flaw is Burgess’s choice of men. She has five children by three fathers. One has vanished entirely and another lands in jail after Burgess breaks off with him because of his violent outbursts.”
My first reaction to his assessment was frothing at the mouth. I’ve calmed down enough to point out a few realities to Mr. Freedman and others who fault (income-challenged, Black) mothers for, gasp!, having children, and living disorderly lives.
Without a doubt, few would hold up to face the challenges that Ms. Burgess had coming at her 24/7, even before homelessness. I wouldn’t.
Abject poverty takes a toll on even the strongest person. I was exhausted with just one episode of her life. What she has managed to do — as a working mother and as an avid Girl Scout leader — goes far beyond human.
The trauma that this stalwart mother experienced as a child (also experienced by her mother, and I’d suspect generations before her) has a major impact on her physical and mental health. That didn’t stop her from being the best mother she could be.
Relationships are complicated. Rich people also struggle with finding the right mate, endure unplanned pregnancies, and make plenty of poor life choices. They have resources and options, so their struggles might not look as brutal as what Ms. Burgess endured. It should be no surprise, given what we know of Ms. Burgess and her childhood, that she stumbled with her picks.
Having children — this would be a long, nasty, feminist rant if I went into that topic deeply. Suffice to say she loves her children, and does all she can to care for them. It shouldn’t be so hard to provide the basics.
Other realities of this family’s life (and that of countless others):
- Poverty. In 2018, 34% of households in New York City experienced material hardships because they lacked basic necessities like housing, heat, food, and medical care. (Robin Hood Poverty Tracker)
- Homelessness realities. Very few people, including well-meaning journalists, know much about homelessness in general, much less family homelessness. I wrote this blog in January to point out 5 reasons it’s not the families’ fault.
- Homelessness realities, Part 2. In my February 28 blog, I offered more enlightenment about this issue.
- Trauma and homelessness. Researchers have amassed tons of data on the impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and mental/physical health. It’s a big thing. Check out this blog and the copious links that will explain things like,
“Two-thirds of Americans report experiencing Adverse Childhood Experiences. These include obvious sexual and physical abuse, but also stressors that many consider to be normal — growing up with divorced parents, living with a depressed or alcoholic mom or dad, having a parent who belittled or humiliated you — or simply not feeling as if your family had your back.”
- Impact of homelessness on families in the CoVid era. “Families crammed into shelters get exposed to the virus. Homelessness traumatizes kids. Landlords may blacklist any evicted tenants from future rentals, creating what housing advocate Staci Berger calls ‘a cycle of displacement and despair.’” (Star-Ledger Editorial, 6/21/20)
- Lack of affordable housing. Not just NYC, but yikes! Wrap your mind around this competition, as described in this 6/13/20 NYT article:
“For many New Yorkers, the most desirable jackpot is not the New York Lotto, but to be selected in the city’s extraordinarily competitive affordable-housing lottery. Tens of thousands of people, and sometimes many more, vie for the handful of units available at a time. Since 2013, there have been more than 25 million applications submitted for roughly 40,000 units.”
Maybe Mr. Freedman paid attention to the Burgess family’s (lack of) housing options. Frankly, it was painfully hard to travel along with them as they shoved stuff into storage and black plastic bags. Countless times.
The availability of decent places to live for families with limited incomes makes finding the right place about as easy as finding the right mate.
What We Should be Upset About:
“Despite a return to housing, formerly homeless students continued to experience instability at rates significantly higher than their housed classmates. This suggests that homeless students experience factors that impact their education beyond the lack of a permanent address — family instability and violence, lack of sleep, food insecurity, physical and mental health challenges, lack of appropriate childcare, financial insecurity — and that services beyond housing assistance may be necessary to erase the impact of homelessness.”
Institute of Children, Poverty, and Homelessness Report on Housing Stability, 7/31/2019
I could go on and on and on. Mr. Freedman, an esteemed journalism professor at Columbia University, is not the first journalist, or person, to criticize a mother for having too many kids. I was dismazed at his unenlightened, yeah, sexist comments.
And, as an author and filmmaker who has spent 30+ years working with families experiencing homelessness and the past 15 years chronicling their lives, I found his comment about Ms. Stewart’s disorderly writing more than annoying. He said,
“The instability of homelessness presents a challenge to any journalist or author portraying it. How does one accurately depict incessant disorder without the writing itself turning disorderly? Stewart has not solved that problem.”
Neaten up, Ms. Stewart, and Ms. Burgess, and all you mothers out there whose lives are too messy for these orderly men who have missed the fact that they might be a big part of the mess that’s out there.