Why So Many Homeless Families?

5 Reasons Why It’s Not Their Fault

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Families, mostly moms and kids, comprise the bulk of our homeless population. Photo Diane Nilan

Escaping homelessness, especially with kids in tow, requires a tremendous amount of effort and an equally immense amount of luck, which explains why so many families are homeless. (My 1-page list of reasons.)

And how do families experiencing homelessness get help? Sometimes it’s an unconventional process, as it was this weekend for a mom and her kids living in a truck in the Philadelphia area. (How hard is it to live in a vehicle with kids? My short video.)

A frantic message thread went from PA to Texas to North Carolina (my current location) back to Philly, as this family’s dire circumstances unfolded Saturday night. In the process, some key theories were reinforced and debunked.

“Ellen,” a woman I knew when she and her family stayed at the shelter I ran back in the 90s, reached out to me Saturday night via Facebook Messenger, concerned about a family she was in contact with on FB. After she shared the details, I agreed — something needed to be done, fast, so I reached out to my FB network familiar with the local scene.

Fortunately, I got connected with “Maggie” who works at a Philly shelter. She exhibited an extraordinary sense of compassion, not satisfied with just providing theoretical info. She stuck with me as we ferreted out the hypothetical from the real. Roadblock after roadblock. I’d call the hotline, try to explain the NC, TX, PA connection, and get told something not helpful at all. Maggie would then find another lead, and I would call. Repeat.

And then Maggie, in the middle of the night, set out to find this family with the scantest of details. We shared the concern that the mother might be suicidal, and Maggie wasn’t about to let something happen without going much further than the extra mile. In the meantime, Ellen kept trying to reach out to the mom via FB, encountering a frustrating long period of silence.

5 Lessons learned/reinforced:

  1. The ‘eye of a needle’ approach is the norm in the world of homelessness services.

    Gone are the days when a family would just show up at a shelter. Nowadays, a referral process is in place to ostensibly place the family in the right program. HUD, the main source of funding for shelters, has insisted on this protocol. Maybe good in theory, but it proved to be a barrier for this family.

    A family has to show up at the appropriate time and place to be evaluated. They need to prove that they’re homeless. Then they get assigned a shelter, not of their choice. Or turned away. Or put on a waiting list.

    The area where this family was, a county adjacent to Philadelphia (city and county), has a referral process that was closed until Monday, according to the emergency info hotline I called. I asked where they should go. The operator had no suggestions.
  2. Plenty of shelters are out there to help families. Not!
    Urban areas have more shelters, but they deal with a bigger population. Being turned away from a shelter is common in cities. In suburban communities, the options are even slimmer. And rural areas, almost nonexistent. Which is why some families end up far from their neighborhoods, away from what they’re familiar with, separated from family, friends and schools. Or they end up in unimaginable circumstances — doubled up in tenuous arrangements, sleeping in vehicles or places not fit for human habitation, or scraping up huge amounts of money to pay for motel rooms.
  3. It’s easy for families to access help, until it’s not.
    We may be in the age of 24/7 communication, but some have difficulties as mundane as lack of WiFi or dead phone batteries. Few pay phones, which often require plastic to use them, and limited access to public computers (libraries are often closed when a desperate person needs them most), keep the disenfranchised disconnected. Gas is expensive. Public transportation costs money, has limited hours and routes are often inconvenient. Getting a ride is not always possible. Showing up in person with the proper documentation, waiting one’s turn, managing restless (or sick) children, getting excused from work, being able to return to provide additional documentation…yeah. I couldn’t either.
  4. Agencies and services may not be geared to meet the needs of families in crises.
    In this case, and not uncommon, this mother was in crisis beyond homelessness. One of her children recently died. The circumstances which caused their homelessness weren’t known, but we guessed that she probably was under extreme stress from trauma. And when she mentioned feeling like jumping from a bridge, well, that made this situation even more dire. And in this case, with me making calls to screen possible sources of help — emergency hotlines, mental health services, local police department — I encountered extremely frustrating responses. “We’re just the answering service. The office opens Monday morning at 9.” “We have no emergency shelter.” “Intake is done Monday through Friday.” “We’re law enforcement. We don’t handle situations like this.” All I could think of was, what do parents in crises do when they get this kind of response? I have a charged phone, know-how, a local “guide” in the form of Maggie, a computer, and stamina.
  5. When experiencing the saga leading up to and including homelessness, you need help.
    Ellen provided essential support, from miles away, just by listening and responding compassionately. Her past experience undoubtedly inspired her concern. And her judgment of the seriousness of the situation that led to her reaching out to me was spot on. While I provided a link in the chain of help, Maggie carried the load. Going to look for the family, with the sparsest of details, was an incredible selfless act. Promising to follow up as further contact was made took her contribution to the highest level.

Realistically, this kind of help rarely exists. Most families must find help on their own, or make do with what they can scrape up. And that puts them in extremely vulnerable situations, causing them to disappear from sight, out of the range of agencies that might help them.

Millions of unhoused families blend into the blur of urban, suburban and rural communities, and they are not identified when the HUD Point-in-Time census takers spread out to count homeless persons, as they do at the end of January each year. HUD’s protocol misses the bulk of families experiencing homelessness which continues to mute our nation’s response to them.

HUD’s 2019 Annual Homeless Assessment Report Part I (AHAR) estimates that on a single night in January 2019, 53,692 parents and children were experiencing homelessness. According to HUD’s numbers, this is a 5% decrease from 2018, and a 32% decrease since 2010. However, other public systems report significant increases in child and family homelessness. (SchoolHouse Connection)

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Among the bulk of uncounted homeless persons — millions of babies, toddlers and bigger kids. Photo Diane Nilan

It’s easy to criticize a family for failing to take care of their kids and falling into the deep hole of homelessness. Do that “walk a mile in their shoes” thing. You’ll stumble too.

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Take Action: Urge your congresspersons to co-sponsor the bipartisan Homeless Children and Youth Act (HR 2001) which will align HUD’s definition of homelessness with other federal departments.

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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