A handful of folks sat under the overhang near the front door of this, one of western North Carolina’s few homeless shelters. Each offered me a friendly greeting. Signs on the locked front doors warned masks were required and outlined stringent safety procedures. Staff admitted me, accepted my small bag of what I knew to be helpful donations, and went to find Tina, the long-serving director of this respected facility.
Frankly, I was surprised she was available. I wanted to give her my new book, Dismazed and Driven — My Look at Family Homelessness in America. She welcomed me as graciously as our masked, social-distancing selves would allow. Standing in the hallway we got caught up on the important stuff. She told me they’ve managed to keep the pandemic at bay, an accomplishment that seems impossible to me, a former shelter director.
People who work in various challenging front-line jobs have my deep respect and appreciation. Tina, and the countless unsung sheroes and heroes running shelters, have endured hell over these past COVID-marred months. Tina and others doing this labor of love want to keep people alive, and help them get back on their feet if possible — against impossible odds and with scarce resources. They see the beauty in people — kids and adults — typically discarded without a thought. Assisting homeless adults and kids on a good day is unbelievably challenging. Factor in a long-lasting pandemic and its many brutal realities, it becomes a logistical nightmare.
When the coronavirus hit last March, I had just wrapped up my ambitious HEAR US 2020 VisionQuest, a 9,000 mile cross-country pilgrimage to explore and expose family homelessness along Rt. 20 in the northern part of the country and I-20 in the South. All the driving between gigs gave me time to finally decide what kind of book I’d write — a combination memoir of my travels and social narrative about family homelessness, reader-friendly instead of academic.
The CoVid-19 lockdown gave me the perfect opportunity to attack this task. I parked in a friend’s Kansas driveway mid March and stuck my nose in my laptop, happy for the solitude offered in my little van. The finished product (published by the Charles Bruce Foundation), following a hefty dose of feedback and polishing from friends, is a book I’m extremely proud of, one that will enlighten readers about the invisible issue of family homelessness.
My book has already created a stir:
- a lively book gig,
- an extensive spread on a popular media site, and
- an enthusiastic article in a prominent book review platform.
With a dearth of books on this topic, and with my unique perspective and approach, I can safely say it’s a one-of-a-kind book that gives families the opportunity to share their stories. You can even watch short videos featuring families I wrote about.
FIVE THINGS PEOPLE DON’T KNOW ABOUT FAMILY HOMELESSNESS
Dismazed and Driven is filled with stories I gathered from families across the nation in my 15 years of chronicling non-urban family homelessness under my one-woman nonprofit banner of HEAR US Inc. I chose non-urban to illustrate the broad scope of this issue, and to shine a light on invisible families in communities who often lack shelters and services. These invisible families are homeless, and most are in dire circumstances. Without a burst of enlightenment, compassion and resources, things will get worse. And the sad thing, most people — including our elected officials — don’t know much about family homelessness.
Here’s my starting list:
- The federal government has conflicting definitions of homelessness that confuse Congress and communities about the extent of family homelessness. HUD’s definition misses over 80% of families and youth experiencing homelessness. They estimate 54,000 (children and parents) were homeless. The U.S. Department of Education has identified 1.5 million school kids experiencing homelessness, which doesn’t include babies and toddlers, older youth, or their parents. HEAR US suggests, based on available research and observations from experts, that the number far exceeds 7 million.
- These millions of kids, with parents and without, lost housing and have nowhere of their own to stay, and most don’t stay in shelters. They’re at the mercy of others — family, friends, acquaintances, law enforcement, property owners, motel operators, child welfare authorities, and more — for places to stay. No stability. No predictability. No place to keep their stuff safe. No neighbors, childhood friends or pets. No place to hang when they get sick. No quiet, appropriate place to study.
- No one plans, or chooses, to be homeless. Especially kids. But it often paves the way for them to be homeless as adults.
- The risks of COVID make homelessness worse. Those staying with others can be considered risks, or might need to move out so the host family’s relatives can move in. If the family had been staying in a motel, perhaps working to keep this meager roof over their heads, chances are COVID impacted their job, jeopardizing their place to stay. Shelters have cut back on capacity, not always able to find suitable arrangements for families needing a place.
- The challenges of home-schooling kids rises exponentially for parents/guardians without homes. Besides the obvious — equipment, internet access — finding a quiet place for a student to participate in online classes for hours at a time becomes almost impossible.
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
I could keep going on with this list. What I’d suggest, if you have any interest, is to get a copy of my new book and learn from those I met on my travels.
Here’s plenty of info about my book, where to buy it, reviews, and short videos I made featuring families in my book.
- If you want to take extra steps, give copies of Dismazed and Driven to your legislators, community leaders, college/university professors, religious leaders, and anyone else in a position to make a difference locally or systemically.
- Educators can combine Dismazed and Driven with a more academic look at family homelessness I helped write — Changing the Paradigm of Homelessness (Routledge, 2019).
- To learn what you can do locally, The Charlie Book: 60 Ways to Help Homeless Kids is filled with a range of activities (HEAR US Inc., 2016).
- To delve into my first book about families I met in my shelter days, Crossing the Line: Taking Steps to End Homelessness (Booklocker, 2005).
- Help us change HUD’s definition of homelessness to a more realistic one. Take action on www.helphomelesskidsnow.org.
The growing number of kids and adults who end up homeless and desperate can be collateral damage of a society run amok, or we can turn this ship around, and rescue the treasure we’ve discarded. Without a massive change in direction, most of us slide closer to the edge of homelessness, a circumstance that folks sitting outside the shelter could tell you is worse than you could imagine.