In early December I began this post, then hesitated, thinking what could I possibly add of value to address a topic, which multitudes of experts from academia, to philanthropic agencies, to churches on to public officials consider a problem too big to solve. So, today being brave of heart, here’s an attempt to talk about homelessness in America, another one of those “insurmountable obstacles” in our land of plenty…… yes, especially plenty of excuses.
We all know how these heart-wrenching stories go about homelessness, written to pull at our heartstrings by focusing on children, of course. In December 2013 the New York Times ran a lengthy piece, replete with lots of photos and even a few videos of a young black girl in New York City’s shelter system titled, “Invisible Child, Girl in the Shadows: Dasani’s Homeless Life”. This 12-year-old girl, Dasani, lives in a squalid room with her stepfather, mother and six siblings in one of the worst shelters in the city.
The reporter, Andrea Elliot, began interviewing this girl and her family in 2012 and while she presents this family’s plight with an overabundance of empathy, she veers off into blaming political and economic forces as the cause for this little girl’s plight, when clearly having two drug addicts for parents would be the place to start heaping the blame. Ms. Elliot treats the drug addicted parents to heaping doses of understanding, instead of stating the obvious – they’re unfit parents. These poor children will have little hope if they remain in the care of two addicts, who can’t even take care of themselves, let alone 7 children. Okay, call me a cold-hearted, judgmental, racist white lady, but thems the facts folks. Certainly, read the piece, because it’s truly worth reading and if you can bear with me for a few more paragraphs, I’ll revisit Dasani’s life in more detail.
Also, in December 2013, Kevin D. Williamson, National Review’s roving reporter, wrote a piece about intractable poverty in “white” America titled, “The White Ghetto”. Williamson wrote his piece from a keen tourist perspective – no children as political props to be found in his piece, where he travels to Kentucky, the heart of Appalachia and describes what he finds, “If the people here weren’t 98.5 percent white, we’d call it a reservation.” Williamson wades through the history, demographic realities, economic travails and along the way debunks many of our preconceived notions about our social ills. Williamson is a superb writer, so please read the piece, despite my less than spectacular description of his work.
Now, I’ll tell you a story about a homeless young black man I met at the end of last summer. One bright, late summer morning when I arrived at work, some fellow workers from the lawn and garden department told me they had found a boy sleeping on one of the porch swing displays on the patio when they got to work. Now being a store that is open 24/7, customers come and go at all times of the day and night.
Most irritating to me have been the customers who come in during the wee hours of the morning, dragging along small children, who should be at home, sleeping in their own beds. Thankfully, I only work overnight rarely for major resets of shelves, so I bite my tongue during these encounters, because without fail, these poor tykes are crying or screaming, while the clueless parents meander along, oblivious to their offspring’s misery. Some ignore the cacophony, others add to it by screaming at the poor kids. Finding a homeless boy, well, this was something new, like a scene out of that Billie Letts novel, “Where The Heart Is”, about a pregnant young woman living in a Wal-mart in a small Oklahoma town.
I walked out to the patio, where this boy was still sound asleep on the green porch swing, with his small backpack beside him. He opened his eyes when I approached, furtive and tense. So, I asked him what his name is and he mumbled, “Trey.” Being a curious sort, I started talking to him and asking him questions. He told me he was 18, but I think he told a fellow employee he was 19, not that it matters much – he was past the age where getting help is easy, as you’ll see.
His story was that he lived with his uncle in a nearby tiny town and his uncle decided to leave and go drive trucks for a living. He said he was on his own now and had nowhere to live, no family to help him. I referred him to a private charity here that offers food assistance and I also gave him cash to be able to eat for a few days, because when I asked him when was the last time he ate, he hesitatingly told me, “yesterday.” I didn’t know if that was true, because this poor kid looked awfully thin. And I gave him my name and phone number. Now, when I asked him what his plans were, naturally his were totally unrealistic, given his circumstances. He was dirty, has no home and he told me he would like to find a job. No employer is going to hire some dirty, homeless kid, with no means to get to work and no means to come to work clean and presentable.
I called that private charity and the lady told me to send him to them and they have referrals to help and she advised me not to give him cash, because cash might be used for drugs, alcohol, etc. Over the intervening months, I saw Trey occasionally in the store and I gave him money for food a few times too. Each time I talked to him, I urged him to go to various places where he might get help. I told him to go to the police. He told me he went to them. He said he went downtown and was given a motel room for a month under some program for the homeless, but his time was up there and now he is on a waiting list for housing. He said there’s a shortage of housing, so he’s back to being without a place to stay.
I urged Trey to try some churches, because for a small town, we’ve got four pages of churches listed in the yellow pages and probably dozens more that aren’t listed. You can’t go a quarter-mile here without running into several churches – we’ve got loads of “white” churches, loads of “black” churches, loads of “mixed demographics” churches and due to a large Korean population, we even have a lot of “Korean” churches too. With so much Christian zeal around, you’d think finding a helping hand would be easy and you’d think we wouldn’t have homeless kids wandering around. He told me he stopped in one church and they told him they can’t help him. Now, whether he really did seek help at all these places, I don’t know, but listening to him, it became obvious what he needed was an adult to take him by the hand and guide him. He doesn’t seem capable to find his way to being self-sufficient, in the socially acceptable sense, on his own. He mumbles, he avoids eye-contact, he seems to have some emotional or perhaps learning disabilities. During one conversation he told me he was expelled from school in the 9th grade, so he’s very limited with opportunities. He carries a notebook and seems to like to draw pictures though.
The week before Christmas, I saw Trey sitting in the shoe department sleeping one evening. The weather had gotten cold and he had on a coat, but was wearing the same shorts he had on when I first met him. I asked him how things were going and not much had changed, although he looked thinner and more desperate and he looked hopeless.
An elderly cashier asked me if he was okay and I gave her a bare bones summary of his plight. She insisted she would call her daughter, who works for the department of family and children’s services here. I told Trey I was getting off from work in a few minutes and then I would take him to the McDonald’s at the front of our store and get him something to eat. I told the elderly cashier that is where we would be. She met us at McDonald’s and her daughter gave the same referrals – the police, the private food charity, churches. She explained that her daughter said it’s really hard once kids turn 18, because there aren’t many options. She left and I sat down with Trey to eat our meal. I could see him withdraw as the elderly cashier repeated the same referrals that he had tried. He told me at one place they told him there’s a shelter in a city that’s not all that far away (but it’s too far to walk in the cold wearing shorts) and he doesn’t know anyone there, so he didn’t want to go there. He ate one of his burgers, but I knew he wanted to keep the other one for later. I gave him some more cash, but I had to get home to my husband, who is disabled and can’t be left too many hours unattended.
I had thought about bringing Trey home, but hesitated, because my husband is no position to defend himself, if I had misjudged this boy’s character. I sought advice. I asked a kind-hearted, black lady, who is an assistant manager at work, if she knows of any churches that might help. I asked a black department manager, whom I know is a lay pastor in his church. I emailed my friend, Gladius, who is always a reliable source for great advice. The kind black lady told me that black churches aren’t all that they should be and in her opinion mostly they want your money. The black lay pastor, agreed with that assessment, but he told me that he would ask around. Gladius advised me not to bring Trey to my home, because it’s too risky and he told me not to tell him where I live, because he might lead others, who are a threat to my home. I hadn’t even considered that. Gladius gave me a few more places to check into. And Gladius told me white churches aren’t all they should be. The lay pastor got back to me a week or so later and told me of a lady who runs some sort of small private place for the homeless, but he didn’t know much about it.
I didn’t see Trey for a while, but recently he returned and he avoids me. I assume he’s given up on anyone ever really helping him and one of the security guys in my store pointed him out to me as someone they are watching, because he’s shoplifting frequently now. It seems likely that Trey will become just one more statistic of a young black man making his way through the criminal justice system, but if I had been better at helping him, this could have been avoided. Sure, it’s easy to say, it’s not my problem, or that I did all that I could do, but the truth is he arrived in my town, with only the clothes on his back and I know he needs help. I keep thinking I should have done more to help him, because that’s what neighbors are supposed to do.
It’s easy to stereotype, based on our perceptions of various ethnic and racial cultural situations, but at the end of the day, Trey is a kid – he’s not a man by any stretch of the imagination. He doesn’t know how to find a way to a productive, happy fulfilling life on his own. And I wonder how well I would have fared if I found myself with no family or friends to turn to, hungry and alone with only the clothes on my back at 18 or 19 and coming from his type of home environment.
In the urban plight piece, the little girl, Dasani, has dedicated teachers and the principal of her school, mentoring her. She might make it, despite having unreliable parents (drug addicted parents are not reliable – sorry, they’re not).
In Williamson’s report from the “white ghetto”, it’s not out-of-wedlock births that’s the issue, it’s the cascading effect of scarce jobs, crushing generational poverty, drug and alcohol addiction and a litany of bad personal money-management skills that seem almost a genetic trait among America’s poor, which truly is the case among America’s poorest, regardless of race and ethnicity. A barrage of more government programs, replete with state of the art “referral capabilities” and federally subsidized hand-outs won’t change the culture that produces this sort of human misery and hopelessness.
Solutions start with people, not with more government intervention.
Local folks trying new ideas and more people offering a helping hand would surely provide many more needed ideas and potential solutions. I felt pretty useless with my first attempt at helping a homeless person, but I’m still thinking about ways to help Trey and I keep hoping that he doesn’t end up in jail.
At Christmas time I hesitantly mentioned Trey to my younger sister, fully expecting another of her oft-repeated lectures over the years, about how I need to quit adopting stray people and their problems and how I can’t save the world. This time she surprised me and told me that locally back home they’re trying to get a program going for kids like Trey, who reach adulthood and aren’t eligible for programs for children any longer. These kids still need a place to live and adult guidance to avoid becoming statistics of young people passing through the criminal justice system. Local efforts sure appeal to me more than federal behemoths that always come with endless mazes of red tape and multi-tiered bureaucratic hoops to jump through. None of this is helping Trey and I wish I had just brought him home, but I didn’t know enough about him to risk my husband’s safety.
Does one more kid falling through the cracks matter?
He should matter in America.
I wonder how much money is raised through private charities and allocated through government sources in America. I wonder how many homeless people there really are in America and then I wonder how much money per homeless person that all comes out to. While talking to the lay pastor at work, he asked an elderly black lady, whom we both know is very active in her church, if her church has a program for the homeless. She told me they do a walk every year to raise money for the homeless.
As with most things in America, I suspect the answer is that we’re good at raising money and awareness, but not so stellar at using that money and awareness to effectively reach those in need. What Trey needs is parents who care about his well-being and in lieu of that he needs some adults who care about him. Government programs don’t offer caring – they excel at referrals. And yes, I failed him too and I’m still worrying about him, especially when the temperatures dropped last week. What if he got sick – no one would even know.