A Long Hard Journey

Posted: October 9, 2008 in Children, Employment, Family, Homeless Shelters, Homelessness, Housing

Over the last number of weeks the headlines have been full of news stories related to finances: the $700 billion bail out of Wall Street financial institutions; AIG needing the federal government to "lend" them operations money, then spending nearly half a million dollars on a frivolous gala; banks buying one another out; banks going under; insurance companies on the verge of insolvency; the national unemployment rate at an all time high; ten states whose unemployment funds are due to be completely depleted by early 2009; record numbers of foreclosures.  

The current reality is that the U.S. economy is in pretty bad shape. It doesn’t look as though it’s going to be getting better anytime soon, either.

The numbers of families who are finding themselves homeless is on the rise. The majority of these families have dependant children. All told, there will be about 1.35 million children who will have experienced homelessness this year. And, there seems to be no relief in sight.

I’ve written numerous posts about family homelessness: the different struggles they face; the lack of adequate services geared toward providing them with the types of assistance needed to get them back into proper housing; the difficulties that homeless children have at getting a quality education; what it must be like for these children not to have a home during the holiday season.

Until today though, I never thought about what it might be like to be a father of a newly homeless family. That changed when I spotted a homeless family of three. A young couple with a toddler, they were struggling along the sidewalk with what was probably all of their worldly belongings.

As I watched them go along the walk way I wondered why they were homeless. Had this young father lost his job? Was he receiving unemployment benefits? Had those benefits run out? Was he still perhaps working but unable to afford rent? Had they been living with relatives or friends and their welcome just run out?

The truth is that there was no way of knowing what the reasons were without actually talking with them. Yet, I knew that there are so many who would have automatically presumed that their homelessness was their fault; that they had somehow caused their own "downfall" into homelessness. And, while there are indeed instances when folks do cause their own homelessness, there are at least just as many homeless who are victims of circumstance – especially with the current economic atmosphere being as precarious as it is.

Suddenly, I wondered what their first day of being homeless must’ve been like. It must’ve been a disorienting experience – particularly with a small child.

As a father, his first concern would have been for the safety of his family. Worried about the various types of individuals they would be thrust in with. Perhaps he had certain misconceptions – similar to the misconceptions that so many have – regarding the types of persons who are homeless. He might have seen other homeless men as a potential threat. He probably would have been en garde to the possibility of someone harassing his wife and child. He would have been unable to relax. He probably didn’t sleep that first night – and perhaps for several nights afterward, either.

During the day, he would go through an internal struggle. He would know that he needed to find employment if he were going to get his family back into housing. But, he might have foregone looking for employment – not wanting to leave his wife and child alone and unprotected on the streets. Then, there would be the need to ensure that his small family had something to eat – especially his child. That would entail going to the various government and private agencies seeking assistance. However, the types of assistance available would be extremely limited.

Most of that assistance would come in the form of referrals to other agencies. He might find that he was sent to a food bank. But most of the food they’d receive would be geared for folks who had a place to cook. Some of the food would be perishable. With no place to keep it though, it would spoil quickly. There would also be canned food. But canned food is heavy to carry around all day. And then of course, with no can opener…

He and his family would most like as not been directed to the food stamp office. Perhaps, they were lucky and were eligible for emergency assistance and get their food stamps the same day. Then again, they might have to return the next day, or even the day after that. But food stamps also are geared for folks who have a place to cook. It isn’t as though he and his family could get food that was already cooked and ready to eat. Sure, they could buy a loaf of bread and some lunch meat, but what would they do with what was left over?

In the evening, they would head back to the shelter. Hopefully, they wouldn’t be turned away tonight. But with the record numbers of homeless in community after community, there simply as no guarantee. And, if they didn’t get in, what then? Where might they be able to find a relatively safe place to sleep? Getting sleep, for that young father, would be even more difficult out of doors. He’d have to worry some random act of violence against him and his family. If somehow he did manage to sleep it would be out of absolute exhaustion – and it certainly wouldn’t be restful sleep. This, in turn, would mean that come tomorrow he wouldn’t be functioning at his best.

Without the types of assistance that are specifically designed to help transition homeless families back into the community, this young father and his family are in for a long hard journey.

Although homelessness may not be entirely preventable, it certainly is remediable. All it takes is the willingness of the community to do the right thing for its fellow citizens.

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