What’s Criminal? The Way We Treat Homeless Families

Neglecting families who’ve lost housing has tragic consequences.

Ignoring millions of kids, in families or on their own, is bad enough. Jailing parents and tossing kids into foster care because of homelessness is criminal.

The biggest casualty of the Joshua Tree family living in a box story will be families afraid to ask for help for fear of being jailed and having their kids taken away because of homelessness.

The Joshua Tree family’s pattern is all too typical. Their last rental housing was 4 years ago. Allegedly the owner died and heirs wanted Mona Kirk, Daniel Panico and their 3 kids out, so the family packed their belongings in plastic bins, rented storage units (common for many households), and took refuge at property they owned in the high desert adjacent to Joshua Tree National Park.

Five-acre parcels of land come cheap here, at least for now. Mona said she bought the property years ago at an online auction. Their plan was to build a dome home, a project her science-minded husband has been working on.

They stayed in their trailer eventually turning it over to their cats for protection from the coyotes. The family bounced around, staying with friends, in vehicles, and a variety of places temporarily available to them.

Inflamed headlines screamed about their kids being forced to live in a box. The recent incident of the nearby Turpin family, 13 children allegedly locked in rooms in their home for years, may have influenced the draconian intervention by the sheriff, abruptly jailing the parents and calling child protective services to take custody of the children before investigating facts.

Indeed, a 20’ long, 4’ high plywood structure exists, a warren of rooms with mattresses, bedding and toys. The box structure, built by one of the boys with his father’s supervision, was durable enough to withstand desert winds. Rooms were added as plywood became available. It was a fort, not a shelter or prison.

Kids well-nourished, healthy and clean, homeschooled by their parents, spent much time at the public library. They participated in local activities — scouts, music, ballet, sports — and their parents attended and supported them. The kids socialized with town families, many who have come forth to support, with money and picket signs, this maligned family. All evidence belies neglect.

Since no sex abuse was uncovered, feces was thrown around to awfulize this story. I walked around the property and failed to see or encounter any. Pit toilets had been dug to accommodate biological needs.

Trash strewn about was a combination of winds upending their bins from the storage units they could no longer afford, and trash that needs to be taken to the dump, which requires money. Many area properties I saw had similar piles.

The nearest shelter was over 70 miles away, and if they had openings they’d split up the family. The family didn’t want to ask for help, in part because they were proud, and in part, because they didn’t want their children taken away.

Homelessness, as the theory goes, is not cause to toss kids into foster care, another dysfunctional system that can do more harm than good. But, before investigating the parents’ fitness, the jail doors slammed on Mona and Daniel, and the kids were carted off to foster homes, putting the children at risk of adverse childhood experiences (ACE). For 5 days, the parents languished behind bars. The kids are still in care.

Media coverage raised family homeless to the limelight, albeit in a tarnished, inaccurate way, leaving key issues unexamined in this travesty of justice:

Affordable housing — in short supply everywhere, including the Morongo Valley, especially since short-term vacation rentals have become popular and profitable. Renters ousted, tourists welcomed. Subsidized housing here is so rare it doesn’t bear mentioning.

Income — it takes at least $46,000 to afford a 2-bedroom apartment in San Bernardino County. Paltry amounts for social security, disability, welfare and food assistance don’t come close. Employment, if available and feasible, fails to provide living wages.

Priorities — Although the County receives millions to address homelessness, their efforts toward families seem lacking.

Evictions act as barriers for re-housing, assuming rental housing exists.

Stuff and pets, are also hard-to-part-with barriers, comfort and security families want to hold onto, but shelters or landlords have limits.

Tragically, the death of a family of four living in a van in Garden Grove, (Orange County) CA, again calls attention to our nation’s abject neglect of families experiencing homelessness. But the attention will be short-lived, and families will continue to avoid asking for help because they fear the exact thing that happened to the Kirk-Panico family, the response that is not supposed to happen — kids get ripped from their parents, warranted or not — because they’re homeless.

That’s the true crime.

More About Family Homelessness

The scope of homeless families, a mostly invisible population, is unknown. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development, HUD, says 57,971 families were homeless (184,661people) nationwide based on their highly-criticized “point in time” count. The US Department of Education, based on actual counts, states 1,304,803 elementary — high school students in public schools are identified as homeless, correctly acknowledging many more are unidentified. Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago estimated that more than 4.2 million youth (13–25) experience homelessness in a given year, overlapping in part the DoE number.

These numbers do not include those homeschooled, like these Joshua Tree kids. Education census documents omit babies, toddlers and parents without a home. San Bernardino County, which includes Joshua Tree, has reported that 1,866 individuals were identified countywide in the 2017 HUD Point In Time Count, including 24 unsheltered individuals in Joshua Tree and 15 families countywide meeting the HUD definition of homeless. According to an email communication from County Commissioner Josie Gonzalez’s staff, SBC schools have identified approximately 33,000 students experiencing homelessness. (Multiple attempts have been made to speak with Ms. Gonzalez, to no avail.) The Morongo School District estimates about 450 students have been identified as homeless this year.

What To Do:

• Urge your congressional representatives to cosponsor the Homeless Children and Youth Act, bipartisan legislation to better align the definition of homelessness at the federal level.

• Explore your community for resources for families experiencing homelessness. If none, talk to local officials about what might be done. If some exist, help in whatever way you can.

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Abandoned homestead cabin, apparently with water. Photo: Diane Nilan

In the Joshua Tree area, homestead cabins dot the rural landscape. Many are abandoned, and some have hookups for electricity and water. Using these slabs for tiny houses is one inexpensive doable solution. About 20 years ago, a movement was funded to tear down these cabins. Repurposing them could ease homelessness.

• Check with your school district’s homeless liaison (every district is required to have one) as to unmet needs for students experiencing homelessness.

• Order a copy of The Charlie Book: 60 Ways to Help Homeless Kids (distributed by Diane Nilan’s organization HEAR US) and choose from a variety of activities.

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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