I walked down Fifth Avenue, thinking about Obama's latest plan to aid homeowners suffering through the foreclosure crises when I passed a church and saw a family huddled on the steps. A boy around twelve years old held out his hand begging for a buck. They had a cardboard sign that read, "Homeless. Please Help."
Twenty-five years ago, that was me and my family.
Like so many families around the country today, my single mother and twin sister never dreamed we'd be homeless. We were budding ten-year-old actresses performing for free in off-off-off Broadway plays. We were also home-schooled for religious reasons, although Mother found it difficult to teach us during the day and work the night shift. Most days, she ranted and raved or crawled into bed and cried. Rent checks piled up, notices from housing court, too, and within a year we were evicted by the city marshals.
My family joined the long lines of mentally ill, prostitutes, and crack addicts at the welfare office. We were deemed ineligible for the Section 8 housing voucher program because we didn't have the right documentation. It was like we didn't exist and very little has changed for the nation's 1.6 million homeless. New York City now issues one-way airline tickets for homeless families to other cities as long as they promise not to return. Mayor Bloomberg vowed to slash homelessness by two-thirds, but since he took office the number of homeless people using city shelters has increased by 45 percent and a recent audit by the city's comptroller states that the Bloomberg administration has turned a blind eye on monitoring nonprofit agencies and given more than $152 million in "handshake deals." In addition, according to a study of 9,000 families in six cities by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, it costs nearly twice as much to house a family in an emergency shelter than it does to provide permanent housing.
Two decades ago, I remember spending eight hours at the welfare office until a case worker handed us a check for a couple hundred dollars for one night in a Bronx hotel. It was midnight by the time we arrived at the front desk. A man with a prostitute said he was only going to pay for one hour. We heard banging on the wall and slept about three hours in a mold-covered room.
The next morning welfare gave us the address of a shelter on Forty-Sixth Street and Broadway. We watched a woman with lice scratch her head and slept another three hours. At 6:30 in the morning we left. Pimps and drug dealers lined up outside, waiting to find their next customer. We just kept walking.
My twin and I played our musical instruments on the city streets for cash and prayed for a miracle. For one year we slept in shelters, subway cars, and strangers' beds. Then one day, a charity organization found us a railroad flat in Hell's Kitchen and our days of traveling were over.
I was lucky; I survived and today I'm a mentor for at-risk teens at a non-profit organization. But one in six homeless children suffer emotional problems that can last a lifetime. What about the newly homeless children since the foreclosure crisis? Will more families get caught up in the bureaucratic obstacles that make it difficult to qualify for state services? Will more children be found huddling on the church steps or perhaps on your corner? To the mayors of the cities: reduce homelessness by offering better programs before at-risk families lose everything. Or better yet let's all find a solution to end homelessness and help our neighbors keep their homes.