Yesterday when I stopped for lunch I happened to meet a young couple with a young child. The gentleman was perhaps late twenties. The young woman was in her early to mid twenties. Their child, a beautiful little girl, couldn’t have been more than a year or year and a half old. From the amount of personal belongings they were toting around with them I could see that they were homeless.
I stopped and spoke with them for about 15 minutes. I asked about them: how long had they been homeless; did they know about the homeless shelter or were they sleeping "rough"; did they have any family in the area who might help them – even if only temporarily; had they applied for government assistance, and so on.
They were both courteous. Relatively well spoken. But their eyes gave them away. I could see it: the stress; the nervousness; the fear; the uncertainty. It was the haunted look of folks who didn’t really know what their future holds for them – or even if they had a future.
When it was time for me to be on my way, I reached into my pocket and took out whatever money was there and gave it to them. It wasn’t much. It certainly wasn’t going to change their lives. But, if nothing more, it would allow them to buy themselves something to eat. With that I wished them well and went about my business. But, in the hours that followed the one image I couldn’t get out of my mind was the face of their daughter.
Because I know what it’s like to have been homeless, seeing a homeless person fills me with mixed emotions. I’m well aware that there are those who choose to be homeless, or have chosen – through their own inaction – to remain homeless. Then there are those homeless who cannot seem to get enough of a break to escape it. However, of all of the homeless faces I have seen, those of children are the ones which cause me the greatest personal distress.
A homeless adult is one thing. Even a homeless couple is something I can deal with on an intellectual and emotional level. However, seeing a child who is homeless is, to me, a slap in the face to the ideals on which this nation was founded. The very notion that there will be some 1.35 million children who will experience homelessness this year is an affront to the "good and decent" people we like to think we are.
I can understand how we can feel that an adult who is homeless may have been the cause of their own homelessness. I can also understand how we might think that if the homeless just went out and became employed that they might be able to turn their lives around. I can most certainly understand why we might be reluctant to give money to a homeless when they ask for spare change – after all there those homeless who would use the money to get drunk or high. I can even understand why we continue to hold onto so many misconceptions about homelessness.
However, what I fail to understand is how we can seemingly continue to ignore the reality that there are children who are forced to live on the streets of our nation and we aren’t in an uproar over it.
For some reason, we seem to have come to some sort of acceptance that our elected leaders are doing absolutely everything they can to reduce the numbers of homeless in our communities. We see the headlines about a "10 year plan to end homelessness" in our cities and we believe that great strides are being made. As a result, we have allowed ourselves to be lulled into a false sense of hope that some time in the near future there will be no more homeless. So, we comfort ourselves, secure in the knowledge that our leaders have everything under control and we ourselves don’t have to do anything except sit back and wait.
The reality however is this: our elected leaders do not have everything under control – particularly with regards to reducing the numbers of homeless. The homeless population has been on a steady increase year after year. And, despite HUD’s most recent claim of there having been a reduction in homelessness, the latest "hard" data has shown that the numbers put forth by HUD have been negated by the surge in the numbers of homeless due to the recent economic crunch and the foreclosure crisis.
More and more families are becoming homeless. And these "new" homeless families most times have young children.
According to the National Coalition for the Homeless fact sheet, Homeless Families with Children,
- 23% of all homeless people were members of families with children
- Families, single mothers, and children make up the largest group of people who are homeless in rural areas
- 4.2% of children under the age of one year were homeless
- At least half of homeless children are under the age of 5
- Homeless families are most commonly headed by single mothers in their late 20s with approximately two children
From the comfort of our own living rooms it’s easy to believe that everything humanly possible is being done to help the homeless children of our nation. But, out on the streets, the view is quite different.