One afternoon two years ago, after the rest of the kids had left tutoring, “Steve” stayed behind. He said he had another assignment to work on, but I could tell he had something else on his mind. We listened to a little Halestorm (back when he wasn’t too gangsta for rock) and he finally looked at me and said, “Miss, do you sleep on a bed or on the floor?”
Now, I’ll be honest. At first the question made me nervous, I mean, it could lead to any variety of conversations and he’d never asked me a personal question before… so I cautiously replied, “I have a bad back, I can’t sleep on the floor anymore.”
He nodded slowly and stared at his desk. I waited a minute and said, “Why do you ask?” He shrugged, “‘Cuz.” Then he just blurted out, “I sleep on the floor. I’d rather sleep on the floor, I’m used to it.” It was clear he hadn’t meant to say any of that and he changed the subject.
I didn’t fully process the conversation until I got home. It was at this point that Steve started making more sense.
I knew his older sister lived with her boyfriend. I knew that Steve lived with his auntie, but his mother lived in town. I knew he was coded “Residency” by the district, but I always assumed that meant he wasn’t a citizen. I’m sure other districts have other codes, but few (if any) will have a “Homeless” code. For us, “Residency” means the student does not have permanent housing.
Living with a relative (not legal guardian), moving around to various relatives and friends (even with parents) all signify “Residency.” This means that it is also a definition of homelessness:
This was news to me and then I felt stupid. Why? Because by the 2nd definition, I was homeless for four years: the first year, I was getting my teaching certificate and the fourth year was my first year as one of Steve’s teachers. I’d always assumed that “homeless” was defined as “living on the street,” and I think most people would agree. It is so much bigger than that.
While I fully understand how temporary and unstable home environments can disrupt someone’s physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual life, I experienced this as an adult. My childhood, teen years and into my twenties were very stable. Students like Steve have never known stability.
The thing about homelessness is that it is usually caused by poverty and coexists with abuse. Not that homeless people are abusive (I really hope that explanation was unnecessary) but because it intensifies desperation and desperation increases a person’s chances of exposure to predators of every kind.
So, what does this mean? I firmly believe that Gandhi was right, we need to “be the change” we want to see in the world. Even if he didn’t say it, it’s still true.
I am confident that one of the major reasons we have poverty, abuse, homelessness etc. is because we have lost our sense of responsibility for our neighbor. As we turn a blind eye to what is happening next door, communities disintegrate. As communities fall apart, so do families. Individuals begin to be displaced in large numbers. Because communities and families are falling apart, churches do, too. So, the government has to step in – but the government cannot do everything. Instead of criticizing the government for being ineffective at something it’s not supposed to be doing anyway, neighbors, communities, and churches should feel shame for allowing it to get this bad. I don’t care if it’s been a problem since the dawn of man; that is not a good reason. That is a shit excuse.
It’s easy to tell someone to get help or to find a job. But help cannot always be found and jobs are not always available. I won’t quote statistics or give you links to other people’s stories. Here’s mine.
Five years ago I lost everything. I won’t go into the details, but I ended up with no money and all of the debt. I was forced to live with friends. I had no idea that that would mean that I’d have to move every six months for the next four years–one place I had to leave after 2 weeks. I had several jobs during this time, mostly waitressing and tutoring. Plus I was a substitute teacher. But I couldn’t get the hours I needed to pay any of my bills because I was in too much debt. I was desperate but so ashamed when I called for state assistance using the last of my cellphone minutes only to be told that I made too much an hour. He wasn’t interested in the number of hours I worked. He did ask me one personal question, “Do you have any children?” I told him no and then there was an awkward silence. I asked him “if I went out and got pregnant tonight, would you be able to help me tomorrow?” There was a longer awkward silence and then I hung up. I should’ve tried again, but I didn’t. I got another job and continued to try to make ends meet as I lived in other people’s basements and spare rooms. I drove a hoopty that kept me from work and cost me more money.
And the worst thing, I couldn’t see the end of it for years even though I was doing all the right things: working the equivalent of three full time jobs, applying to hundreds of jobs a week (I kept count one summer), plus I had a college education and a teaching license. My students have a different experience, obviously, and the biggest is that their life is completely dependent on someone else. The child didn’t lose a job, didn’t lose the house or apartment; the child isn’t the one who can’t find a job. But it is the child who has to grow up with the consequences of these.
It is fortuitous that while I’m writing this, PBS’s Frontline is airing “Poor Kids.” Find a way to watch this episode, please.
In closing, I want to leave you with some additional information and resources:
- Schools have a homeless program, usually called the McGinty-Vento Program. Sometimes the coordinator is called the “Homeless Liaison;” check with your district’s Student Services. They can do amazing things to help students; ours was able to pay for Steve’s sport fees as well as his graduation fees and provided some school supplies. Sometimes they offer scholarship opportunities, too.
- The National Coalition for the Homeless gives some staggering statistics and destroys a lot of our stereotypical views of homelessness; the biggest: it is not just an urban issue.
- 46.2 million people are in poverty
- The odds of being poor are between 1.2 to 2.3-times higher for people in non-metropolitan areas than in metropolitan areas.
- Homeless people in rural areas are more likely to be white, female, married, currently working, homeless for the first time, and homeless for a shorter period of time.
- The number of homeless students in U.S. public schools is at an all-time high, according to new data.
- HUD is one resource for homelessness assistance.
Be sad. Be pissed. But please, be the change.