There was a sickening feeling in my stomach at the thought. A feeling of helplessness, of hopelessness. We had been as prepared as we possibly could be, but what if we hadn’t been? What if the pink slip came as a shock? Even if our family had taken us in temporarily, we would have been homeless with our young children.
As I allowed myself to dwell on the thought, thankfulness replaced the hopelessness. We weren’t surprised when Papa got laid off, we had food and a place to go when we couldn’t pay the mortgage anymore. We were blessed.
But not everyone is so blessed. Not everyone has a warning or allows themselves to see the writing on the wall. What about the moms and dads who have no place to bring their little children?
(percentage of homes that are families with children – probably underreported, and what percentage were caused by job loss.
During the economic crash of the early 80’s, many families found themselves in a similar position. The Milwaukee Journal reported in 1982 that –
“The homeless in our midst are no longer mainly urban hobos and bag ladies. In recent months, joblessness has pushed heretofore self-reliant families into this subculture.”
Many people in low and high end manufacturing lost their jobs in the 80’s, and it’s happening again. What’s left for those in the middle class are low-income service jobs. Perfect for young adults starting out, but not a good way to pay for a mortgage you already have, or provide for a growing family.
The result, for those not fortunate enough to have family to take them in, are shelters and foster care. Several years ago I volunteered at a single mom and pregnancy support center. Some of the volunteers helped a family where the father was working at least two jobs, but they were still having a hard time paying for the heating, so the state decided to take their three young children for a month until something could be worked out. Never mind that it would have been cheaper to pay for their oil bill.
This incident is not unique though. While on my babymoon I read a book from the library called Rachel and Her Children. The author felt strongly (and I agree) that keeping homeless families together is of extreme importance.
“Parental love cannot be synthesized. Even the most earnest and methodical foster care demonstrates the limits of synthetic tenderness and surrogate emotion. So it seems of keen importance to consider anyways, and every way, by which a family, splintered, jolted and imperiled though it may be by loss of home and subsequent detention in a [shelter], may nonetheless be given every possible incentive to remain together.”
That’s easier said than done, when the system we have, in many cases, actually penalizes families who stay together (too many details in the book to give it all away here on why this is). In the past I had thought of the homeless as being largely single people, but in reality, families make up a large number of those who need a home. And they are high up on the list of those treated as though they somehow failed, even though the cause of their troubles in largely a failure of the entire economic and social system.
We are told that our current economy is in a state of “recovery”, but even though I hear this again and again, I look around me and I see yet more families without work, without home, without a place to belong. Is this what recovery looks like?
One woman among those interviewed for Rachel and Her Children made a lasting impression on me because I can relate so well to her beliefs about how the system works. I have emphasized key statements in bold.
“Kim [who moved into a homeless shelter with her children because she couldn’t afford to fix her broken furnace] is a lively woman with an angry and investigative zeal. But none of her anger is turned in on herself. It is turned out; and in that turning out, that venting of a well-defined and well-supported rage, she finds a fair degree of energy and health. Political anger isn’t high on any list I’ve seen as a solution to the ravages of homelessness; but it is notable that those who seem to hold up best under the pressures… are almost always those who have some kind of overview – a “lever” or an “edge”… Kim’s defiant sanity is an example of the energy that finds its nutriment in focused indignation. The consequence is not a better room or an exemption from continual assault by sometimes hostile overseers; but it does protect her from self-laceration and it also seems to have protected her from the despair that leads so many people in this building to collude in their own ruin. It’s also interesting to me that Kim is one of the few people here who doesn’t demonize her landlord. Her evenhanded comments on Mr. Tucelli, salted with a bit of irony and humor, demonstrate some capability for balance. Political awareness seems to rescue her from hate and self-hate both. She voices anger at injustice, not contempt for individuals.”
In Kim’s own words ~
“why don’t people in this [shelter] complain? Because they’re so damn scared. If the city will [house them in an unsafe building], they think, it might do something even worse… There’s a woman on the seventh floor. She’s like a broken stick… so timid and afraid. She thinks all of this is something she deserves. Some kind of punishment from God.”
And in reference to the city ~
“Imagine all the decent things you could do with just a little common sense if you were not thinking of this situation as a penalty for failure.”
This summer, as a I mentioned in this post, I want to do a service project with the kids. We are limited in money, but not in love and care. So I have decided to use a little bit of Kim’s common sense, and direct our family service project toward caring for the homeless.
Not sure just where to start, I used Google to search for ideas and found this article which listed 35 ways to help the homeless. I wanted to find something we could do as a family that reflects our skills and values, but since I didn’t have any brilliant ideas or much time to dwell on it, we’ll start by contacting a local agency that provides shelter to families and see if we can donate clothing and toys to families they know could use them.
But that is just a start. If I can get us connected with a shelter in the area, I would like to set up play dates (one idea listed in the above article) to give a few homeless children a chance to be with other kids their age, who might not otherwise have the simple joy of play. Who knows, maybe I’ll meet another mom or two who I could encourage and inspire to make the most of what they have.
Helping a homeless mom touches a personal note for me, since we have been in a home limbo ourselves. I think this is a good place for us to start, a good opportunity for the kids and myself. Perhaps you might find something to offer the homeless in your area as well.