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Homeless Homelessness Experts Have the Answers

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Welcome to Texas

Last week I interviewed 4 Texas experts on homelessness.

Ira and Danielle, two inspiring 18-year-olds have moved more times than I can count. Dark clouds of dysfunctional families shadow their tumbleweed lives. Both have their eyes on the poverty exit door. Despite the epically horrible hands they’ve been dealt, they have had the fortune of crossing paths with tremendous mentors, including the homeless liaisons in their school districts. (I cannot say enough about the abysmally under-funded, exceptional McKinney-Vento Homeless Education liaisons who have extended support to these and so many homeless families and youth.)

These teens, on track to graduate this spring, are each pursuing college. Imagine walking across the stage’s solid planks to receive your high school diploma after teetering across the rotting timbers of nomadic family life. Neither teen is bitter. And both are focused on future to enable them to help others who need a hand up. They’re wise enough to realize that their experiences have taught them invaluable lessons, and far beyond their housed peers, they know what’s important in life.

Leia’s story was quite disheartening. How many women (and increasingly men) with children encounter the economic meat grinder upon the dissolution of a marriage or partnership? Leia did. And her 5 children’s lives have been shattered. They couldn’t even afford to move into motels, the 21st Century homeless “shelter system.” Their prospects for escaping their plight are slim.

After a period of too-expensive housing and health issues that decimated her waitress salary, with no family or shelter in Killeen to turn to, they began bouncing from pillar to post, doubling up with friends and acquaintances. They’ve figured out one critical strategy: stick together. They’re navigating the perils of living dependent on others: lay low, don’t touch food in the fridge unless explicitly offered, and don’t have friends over, even kids to study together. Without affordable housing, as scarce as water in the Texas wastelands, this family is likely doomed.

The “Good Auntie Award” could go to Sgt. Catherine, US Army, for lovingly absorbing her 13-year-old nephew into her household after his alcoholic father dumped him on a bus. The military has a few lessons to learn, because compassionate arrangements such as this bring a heap of economic hardship on Auntie and countless others in the same parade. For example, health insurance is only available to family members, and without paperwork that is impossible to acquire, every visit to the doctor is a hit on the NCO’s fragile budget. But she cherishes her Auntie challenge, and she wants to help the Army adapt to these current realities.

My HEAR US Texas “Worn Out Welcome Mat—TX” tour to chronicle the doubled up crisis in Texas is a Pandora’s box venture. Educators who see and hear these stories will be overwhelmed by the scope of homelessness in every community. It’s not a pretty picture. But it needs to be told…and needs to gain the attention of TX lawmakers.

These themes resonate in each story:

  • Education matters. School-age kids in highly mobile situations, aka “homeless,” are entitled to, and treasure, education. Here are the basics of how to make sure students in homeless situations get into school, and who to call if you encounter difficulties.
  • Poverty eradication efforts work. That’s why the uproar about the absurd, mean-spirited slashing of SNAP, or food stamps, and other assistance programs.
  • It’s the economy. Poverty is quicksand. Escaping it is possible, but it’s harder and harder to climb out of the swamp as poverty-stringent policies clamp down on the have-nots.
  • Work doesn’t pay. Paychecks don’t go far enough. Even multiple ones.

Pretending homelessness and poverty will go away, or that it’s OK to allow these debilitating conditions to fester, is simply not the answer.