Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Heather Lyons talks homelessness - (reposted)

Heather Lyons talks homelessness
(reposted from STREET ROOTS)
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March 9, 2010
Ending homelessness starts at home. And, my most consistent home this month has been an airplane. As I write this, I am on a 5-hour and 17-minute flight from D.C. to Phoenix, where I get to sit in the airport for an hour and a half. Then, I get to sit on another “bus in the sky” from Phoenix to Portland.

I was eyeing the empty row next to me when I saw the last couple came on, with a baby in tow. I am positive their ages combined do not equal my age. Their baby, who I learn is named Bryson and is fourteen months, is very cute. Before we took off, he was flirtatious and full of smiles. But unlike a lot of kids that I see on airplanes, Bryson has an old baby t-shirt and pants that are dirty and stained, and not just little fruit juice stains. The parents, barely adults themselves, look worn, weary, and reek of cigarette smoke. The father has acne that goes on for days; the mother looks like she hasn’t been able to wash her hair in over a week. As they struggle to figure out how to use the seatbelts and ask me if they can use their cell phone after the plane takes off, it’s clear this is the first time they’ve flown.
I have a strong feeling that my petty little problems of not having extra elbowroom and travelling for nine hours paled in comparison with whatever Bryson’s family faced.

Coincidentally, I happened to be reading an article in the Atlantic about the jobless recovery, and the reason I was travelling from DC was because of a meeting to help shape the national strategic plan for ending and preventing chronic homelessness. While it may not be obvious, particularly the chronic homeless part, I believe the two are inextricably part of Bryson’s family future.

Later in the flight, I strike up a conversation with Bryson’s dad, who talks about his life very openly. I have a feeling that he has talked about his situation so many times it seems normal to share so much to a complete stranger. Turns out that he isn’t Bryson’s “real” dad, and that he was in foster care for 10 years. Because of that, he wants to “do right” by the kid because he was left on his own too much. Sadly, this means when Bryson gets just a little cranky he says even louder to him to STOP and pats him hard on his rear because, as he tells him, “he is almost two and needs to stop being coddled.” I ask if they want a break, and take Bryson for a walk, and they say no. I realize they probably don’t want a stranger holding their kid. Though, I’m almost positive that 90 percent of the women around them wanted to grab Bryson and do the same.

And then the dad tells me they are going to Anchorage because that’s where his mom is and when I ask where, he says he doesn’t know but that it’s about four hours from the city and he is looking forward to it because at least he hears there are jobs there. He had dropped out of school, so he needs to make money, and he says again, “to do right by my family.”

The Atlantic article on the jobless recovery has this to say about chronic unemployment in young families – “… the stresses and distractions that afflict unemployed parents also afflict their kids, who are more likely to repeat a grade in school, and who on average earn less as adults. Children with unemployed fathers seem particularly vulnerable to psychological problems.” And this – “By the time the average out-of-wedlock child has reached the age of 5, his or her mother will have had two or three significant relationships with men other than the father. … This kind of churning is terrible for children — heightening the risks of mental-health problems, troubles at school, teenage delinquency, and so on – and we’re likely to see more and more of it, the longer this malaise stretches on.”

At the meeting in D.C., a group of us, when asked what we thought it would take to end chronic homelessness, responded resoundingly — supportive housing. It’s a no-brainer. Then we were asked what prevents chronic homelessness, a little more difficult. One answer resounds with me as I think of Bryson. Norm Suchar from the National Alliance to End Homelessness said, “If we want to prevent homelessness, then we need to make sure that every person who exits the foster care system is guaranteed not to be homeless.” Exactly. Though, clearly not easy to implement, it’s a good starting point. The foster care system is the best intervention point we have for preventing homelessness, including and especially chronic homelessness.

Bryson’s dad takes him to change his diaper, and I look over and see his mom who has a few minutes alone for the first time and who has said maybe five words this whole trip. She’s put her head in her hands and she is crying.

It’s hard to hold hope when faced, head on, with one of the overall contributing factors of homelessness, poverty. Not just poverty of money, but poverty of people’s promise, and children’s promise like Bryson’s, and earlier, Bryson’s dad, and probably Bryson’s mom, too.

The 10-year plans to end homelessness that so many communities embraced, including Portland, focused on ending chronic and street homelessness. While there were many provisions to open the door for ending family homelessness, the solutions, save for a few, generally did not, and do not, get to the heart of the problem.

I think of 10 years and sometimes think how arbitrary that seems now. Especially as Portland and other communities are looking at mid-term updates to plans to end homelessness. Then I think of Bryson’s dad, and imagine his 10 years in foster care. Then I wonder when people who lead, politically and bureaucratically, will make the connections and do the right thing and not the expedient thing. When will people start making systemic changes to give chronically poor, un- and underemployed, and unhealthy families opportunities so that Bryson does not have the same experience that his “now” dad had? If that doesn’t happen, no matter the greater economic issues of our time, we will never prevent future generations of homelessness and chronic homelessness.