Where Am I?
That’s a legitimate question! Even I struggle to figure out where I am on a day-to-day basis. Since July 20, 2019, I’ve done more traveling than usual because of my latest endeavor.
As I finish up my latest project, 2020 VisionQuest, I decided to summarize it in words and photos so the world could know (as if the world cares!).
For those who don’t know, for the past 15 years I’ve been living full-time on the road, in a little van, chronicling family and youth homelessness as part of my work for my one-woman nonprofit HEAR US Inc.
I devised HEAR US 2020 VisionQuest for a number of reasons, all centered on giving voice and visibility to families and youth experiencing homelessness.
- I knew, with the election season heating up, homelessness would lose what little media attention it gets, especially family/youth homelessness. If I could be a lightning rod for communities to attract media attention to this issue, that would be great!
- Since I didn’t have a state-funded project, this seemed a good way to cross 25 states (some adjacent but close to Rt. 20/I-20), approximately 9,000 miles, and connect with people and places that rarely get attention.
- And I could do it without expecting people to pay for my presentations or videos, removing the money barrier.
This 2020 venture took me across the top of the US on Rt. 20 and across most of the US along I-20 from Florence, SC to past Pecos, TX. 20 20, get it?! My route usually ran about 1 hour N/S of the 20 route, except for a few detours. Crazy, I know, and sometimes I felt like it was crazy and didn’t matter. Such is the life of a solo nomad.
Not to give you a travelogue, but to share a sense of other good things that happened — people I was able to meet and groups I presented to include:
- In Boston, MA, I met with Drs. Ellen Bassuk and Jacki Hart, both of the Bassuk Center/National Network to End Family Homelessness. We share the passion of helping families experiencing homelessness and want to advocate for solutions. Plans made.
- In Syracuse, NY, Dr. Mary McLaughlin, an intrepid advocate for homeless adults suffering from brain injuries, invited me to speak with Syracuse city officials about youth homelessness and the high rate of youth suicides. Maybe some good happened there…
- In Lusk, WY, I met with a group of high school students who probably never considered the fact that millions of kids in America have no homes.
- In Sweet Home, OR, I spent time with a group of advocates and a reporter to try to get the real story out about homelessness, hoping to stave off the hatred that comes from ignorance.
- In Florence, SC, I addressed an audience filled with those involved with helping homeless families, youth and adults in that community. Maybe I fired them up a little…and this story nicely described the event.
- At the University of South Carolina in Columbia, I spoke to a class of advocates-in-training, and felt like our time together fired up their engines and mine. An unexpected visitor — Linda Mirabel Pace, the SC McKinney-Vento state coordinator — made the session even better!
- In Powder Springs, GA, I shared my experiences with a vibrant group of activists at the United Methodist Church in this suburban Atlanta community. They are a reminder of the good that happens beyond the public’s eye.
- In Dallas, TX, thanks to a friendship that started when I first visited TX in 2006, I was invited by Council Member Cara Mendelsohn to speak to a diverse group interested in doing more to help that community’s homeless families and youth. Interested to see how things happen…
- Midland, TX, my last presentation, came at the same time the oil industry is experiencing major market upheaval which will impact the lives of the workers and those who provide services to this vast segment of the industry in and beyond Midland. And the ever-growing Corona Virus panic is spreading like a virus. But my presentation went well. It was the debut of my “other stuff” banner, and those attending agreed it is a tremendous tool to illustrate the other issues that add to homelessness.
Besides the obvious good from the above mentioned stops, I was able to experience America as few do — driving across over 9,000 miles of mostly backroads, seeing city streets, neighborhoods, and rural areas in their splendor and ordinariness. I spoke with a variety of people — from convenience store clerks to mayors. I witnessed the deterioration of our nation’s housing stock and small businesses. I gaped at the beauty — of small creeks to infinite oceans, flatlands to glorious mountains, sunrises and sunsets, ribbons of highways to dirt roads.
All-in-all, it was a worthwhile project. Here are some highlights:
This trip did matter, particularly to those who were able to share their stories to the rest of the world. I filmed and produced 7 short videos of families and youth telling the rest of the world what it’s like to be homeless and what school means. Sharing the stories of these courageous, articulate subjects gives viewers a chance to enter a world that hopefully they won’t experience — that of being invisible because you have no place to call home, and few even see you.
- My first interview was in Michigan, with Nicole, the mother of a family stuck in a motel — not able to get help from HUD agencies because they aren’t considered homeless. That’s crazy. Her story resonates with countless others in that same situation. LINK
- Few would think of Idaho as having much family/youth homelessness. Surprise, sadly. One teen I interviewed, Alexa, was incredibly resilient, but struggled immensely with basic needs. Her dream job might just happen if things fall in place. LINK Alexa also shared some practical thoughts for educators and those working with youth on their own. LINK
- I was awed by a series of interviews I did in a very small town in rural Idaho — American Falls. 3 mothers, each with 3 children are doubled up in difficult situations, all knowing they have nowhere to go if things fall apart where they now stay. LINK
- Oregon has its share of family and youth homelessness, and not just in Portland. This homelessness mosaic gives viewers the human impact of not having a home. LINK
- The idyllic Oregon coast has an extremely high rate of poverty and homelessness. Intermingled with the coast-gawking tourists are families like “Sara” and her 6-yo son “Kenny.” They live in a small SUV and struggle to hang onto what for them is normal. LINK
- As I detoured from I-20, in Panama City, Florida I met Rosie who shared her family’s saga of being displaced by Hurricane Michael and how they’ve coped with the limited assistance available to those with few resources. LINK
Speaking of detours, let me share what they were and why they were so important.
First major detour was to Rutland, Vermont, where the Parent Child Center of Rutland County (PCCRC) wraps their loving arms around families struggling to survive poverty and homelessness. My friend, Mary Feldman, the center’s director, urged me to stop by. My short visit there was filled with awe — at their ambitious and wholistic mission, at the passion of her staff, and the uphill climb they face as they seek resources to do what they do best — love families so families can share their love. The bonus of my visit, their Member of Congress connected with them about the Homeless Children and Youth Act!
I was in “the neighborhood” of New Hampshire, so I was able to spend time with Professor Yvonne Vissing, Salem State University, who is the lead co-author of our Changing the Paradigm of Homelessness book. And I surprised my friends in the Rochester, NH McKinney-Vento office!
My next detour was Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Carlisle, home to my Babe of Wrath pal Pat LaMarche and many other fine people, continue to push their community to do more to care for those who lack the basics — you know, food, shelter, medical care, child care. In this case they are campaigning to have public restrooms open and accessible to those living on Carlisle’s streets. That’s crazy to think of not having bathrooms!
Because of what appeared to be flagrant disregard of impoverished families, Pat and I ventured over to Cherry Hill, NJ, one of the iconic lunch-shaming school districts in our nation. Every indicator points to this district needing to increase their awareness of and sensitivity to families and youth experiencing homelessness. Pat and I met with the district liaison and families impacted by deep poverty and homelessness. This article explains.
In mid-January, I made a major detour (flew) to New York City for the BeyondHousing Conference put on by the Institute of Children, Poverty and Homelessness (ICPH), where we launched our new book, Changing the Paradigm of Homelessness. Co-author Yvonne Vissing joined Pat LaMarche and me as we scrambled to respond to the adoring crowd. Read Pat’s spot-on post on ICPH CEO Ralph Nunez’s keynote. Besides all this, Hawaii McKinney-Vento’s state coordinator Toby Portner and I presented, sharing my Hawaii film on family/youth homelessness.
As I ventured into the southern leg of my journey, I-20, I detoured early on for a very good reason. Who is paying attention to the aftermath of Hurricane Michael? Not many. I headed down to Florida’s Panhandle, driving through the hurricane-impacted south Georgia area. I ended up spending a week in Panama City, a tourist area desperate for recovery from this category 5 storm. With incredible help from the overwhelmed PC homeless liaison, I witnessed plenty of damage and met tremendously resilient families and school staff who were also impacted by the storm. (My Medium post on this)
I was close enough to Milton, FL, so I paid a visit to Melissa Nason, one of the 7 women in our award-winning documentary on the edge: Family Homelessness in America. For those who have followed my FB and Medium posts, Melissa and her family swirled near the drain of homelessness again last summer as their trailer park was shut down by the health department. No way was Melissa going to be homeless again, but she sure had her work cut out for her. I was happy to catch up, and to see where she landed with her aging former-FEMA trailer. Our film, OTE, is now 10 years old! Which prompted my next detour.
I scooted over to Lafayette, Louisiana, where my film guru/friend Laura Vazquez and I spent a heap of time a dozen years ago interviewing women for OTE. I hoped to catch up with 3 of the women from that general area — Antoinette, Tonya and Angela. I couldn’t find even a trace of Antoinette. Sadly, I found that Tonya died 3 years ago. Angela, happily, was alive and well, and we had a great visit. She wants to have an OTE reunion, and I’m going to explore making that happen, maybe at the SchoolHouse Connection conference next Spring in Austin, TX.
Without a doubt, this trip didn’t happen just because I turned on my van’s engine. My feeble effort to thank people notwithstanding, here are those who made it possible:
- HEAR US board, for their support and their willingness to come out on the hottest day of the summer for our 2020 KickOff in downtown Naperville.
- Naperville community service groups, Naperville Noon Lions for their generous ongoing support and the Rotary Club of Naperville for a heap of donations of diapers and socks, our focus for the 2020 KickOff.
- Donors from the HEAR US Facebook family generously kicked in financial support of over $2,020, our goal.
- Those who let me park in their driveways, or arranged for places I could park/plug in.
- Those who arranged gatherings of students, government officials, community members and media to hear what I had to say. Special kudos to Ron and Lyna for the South Carolina “two-fer” in Florence and Columbia!