When you think of the homeless who do you see? Most of us envision a middle aged man who is either an alcoholic or mentally challenged. Or, perhaps a woman of indeterminate age pushing a grocery cart filled with bags of who knows what. But did you know that most homeless are families? In fact, sixty percent of the homeless are children. This fact I learned while working at Human Solutions, a nonprofit in Portland, OR that helps families prevent homelessness and helps to house those who are already homeless. I retired from Human Solutions in 2009, but still serve on its finance committee. Agencies such as this are at work in all major cities and some smaller ones. They are always looking for volunteers to help.
The number of homeless children in the U. S. has surged in recent years to an all-time high, amounting to one child in every thirty, according to a report issued in November 2014 by the National Center on Family Homelessness. It calculates that nearly 2.5 million American children were homeless at some point in 2013. This includes nearly 1.3 million children and youth who were identified as homeless by public schools. Sometimes families with children stay in motels, temporarily with others or in cars so are not quite as visible.
Why are these families homeless? For many people in America today, homelessness is just one paycheck away. What if your job was suddenly down-sized and you couldn’t find another soon enough to prevent eviction from your home? What if you or your spouse got sick and couldn’t work for a while and you didn’t have extended, paid sick leave? Very few of us do. What if your car broke down and you couldn’t get to work? Circumstances that might be a blip in the road to some are devastating to others.
I remember one such family. The father was down-sized from his job. He found another, but was soon down-sized from that one as well. Then, he fell ill. Mom also worked and was able to hold it together for a little while until her job too was down-sized. It seemed they just couldn’t get a break. At the same time doctor bills accumulated. Do you pay the doctor or the rent, and is there enough left for food? The family ended up being evicted from their home. They were living in their car (which didn’t do Dad’s health any good) when they heard about our nonprofit. They applied for help and were placed into our homeless shelter.
This gave the family a bit of stability. Dad concentrated on getting well, the children were able to go to a local school, and Mom worked with a social worker to find temporary rental assistance and a job. Before long, they were in permanent housing. Mom did find a job, and Dad followed suit as soon as he was well enough. What I remember most about this family is that at Christmas their names were put into a giving program where they were “adopted” by another family who provided gifts for the children and even something for Mom and Dad. The following year, I was working at the gift distribution center when Mom, Dad and the kids all came in with big smiles on their faces and bags of presents for the family they had “adopted”. Mom happily told how good it felt to be able to give back to another family in need what they had so generously been given the year before. There wasn’t a dry eye in the place as she told her story.
In many homeless shelters around the country families can stay in the shelter during the day only. At night cots are provided by local churches at their facilities, and the families are transported to one church one night and another the next. These shelter networks, provided by compassionate and caring church members, give families safe and warm places to lay their heads at night. They are by far preferable to the alternative of sleeping in a car, a makeshift tent, or on the street. The service they provide is priceless.
Still, I wonder how it feels to be a child in this situation. How does it feel to a little one to be housed with a group of strangers? How does it feel to be bussed to a different place every night before you can go to sleep? How do you concentrate on homework? How do you concentrate on anything when you know Mommy and/or Daddy are so worried and distracted all of the time? How does the lack of privacy feel to a teenager? Are they embarrassed about their family’s situation? Do they try to hide it from their peers? Are they stressed out? And, remember, these are the lucky ones whose families have found shelter. Many homeless youth are not with their families, for whatever reason. They live on the streets and have more to worry about than loss of privacy or what their friends might think. Other families are homeless due to a parent’s alcoholism, drug use, gambling addiction or mental issues. In those cases, more help than just housing is required, and the stress on the family, including the children, is increased. All of these children and youth face real harm, including negative emotional, educational, and health outcomes. They are at high risk of physical and sexual abuse, trafficking and perhaps even suicide.
The Winter 2015-2016 issue of For the Love of Life, which addresses these issues of “Children in Distress”, may be seen as rather dark. The editor, Ananya Sri Ram Rajan, and I discussed this when we contemplated its theme. We determined that, just as Barbara Hebert in her very fine article on child abuse states, “We cannot turn a blind eye to the situations around the world in which children are suffering. We must find the strength within us to look at the reality of our world and then use that strength to take action, to alleviate suffering.” Barbara, who is the Vice-President of the Theosophical Society in America, is also the Director of Children’s Advocacy Center – Hope House in Covington, LA. Roger Breisch’s article on suicide is absolutely outstanding and is written from years of experience, and Adelle Chabelski addresses how extreme poverty, and lack of empathy, contribute to the unimaginable but real brutality of modern-day slavery responsible for destroying the lives of millions of children, women, and men today. Theosophical Society members received this issue in late December. It is also available on this website. We hope that you found, or will find, it enlightening and helpful as you continue in your work of service to humanity.