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Joel John Roberts Headshot

A Family That Lives Together, Stays Together

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When I was a child, every day at six o'clock in the evening, my family of six sat at our dinner table for our ritual end-of-the-day meal. Each of my siblings would rotate saying the simple family prayer. The unspoken family rules for the meal were simple: arrive on time, eat everything on your plate, keep your mouth closed while you chew, and, at times, share what happened during your school day.

I guess you could say we were the poster family for the saying, "A family that eats together, stays together," and for those of faith, "A family that prays together stays together." Today, all of my siblings and my mother live within just a few miles driving distance from each other.

This past week, I learned a new adage -- "A family that lives together stays together."

The talk for the last few years in the world of homelessness, was that the economic recession hitting our country has been striking families hard. Heads of households are losing their jobs and, after spending through a pittance of savings and competing with hundreds of other unemployed, educated job-seekers for the same job, many families teeter on homelessness.

Where do these economically-tattered families go once they are evicted from their homes? After a few months of surfing the couches and floors of willing family and friends, a homeless mother of three children just can't walk up to a traditional homeless shelter, filled with unknown homeless adults, and ask for a bed. In most family cases, there is no room at the homeless inn.

For many families without a home, the last resort before ending up literally sleeping on the street is huddling their children together into a van or RV. It makes sense. If my family faced homelessness, I would desperately fight to keep us all together during such a dreadful time.

The outreach workers from the agency I lead are seeing the tragedy of family homelessness occur too frequently in Los Angeles.

Hidden on a side street on the Westside of Los Angeles last week, was a gray GMC van that looked to be more than ten years old. It fit well into the impacted neighborhood of working-class family homes that were being gentrified by higher income couples wanting to live closer to the beach.

The van's windows were covered by cardboard -- a sign that this vehicle was not used by your typical soccer mom chauffeur. Instead, tucked between parked cars on the block, this van was home to a family of six who had been struggling with homelessness for the past year.

Mom was a veteran of the U.S. Navy. Dad lost his right leg because of a heart-wrenching infection five years ago. Their four children ranged in age from 17 years old to six months old.

Last Wednesday, the social service community in the area jumped into action like a compassionate rapid response team. The PATH outreach team took them to the New Image homeless agency to get a motel voucher that would give them temporary housing, which is a bit more dignified than a cramped van.

Then, they enrolled the family into a long-term transitional housing program called Upward Bound House, a place they could stay until a permanent housing voucher could be secured.

With the coordination efforts of local Los Angeles Councilmember, Bill Rosendahl, the family was on a path to access permanent housing.

It all reminded me of how this country desperately needs to respond to homelessness. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a community to end a family's homelessness. Neighborhoods can fight over whether homeless persons should be able to park their RV in front of homes, or they can work together to help people get into permanent housing.

A family living in a van was not a fluke. Just a few weeks earlier, and a few miles away, another family -- with seven members -- was found living in their vehicle.

It is hard to imagine stuffing six or seven family members into a cramped van. What do you tell your children when they ask, "Are we there yet?" How do you organize the sleeping arrangements when a vehicle was designed for sitting, not sleeping? Where do you take your young child when he wakes up in the middle of the night and says he has to go to the bathroom?

How do you arrange family dinners?

The hope in such desperately sad family situations stems from picturing such families sitting around a proper dining room table, like the one I sat at when I was a child. They are all laughing about some funny event at school, with meatloaf and mashed potatoes still steaming in the middle of the table.

This Norman Rockwell-type family scene only occurs when we can help them access a permanent home for the whole family, because the adage is true -- A family that lives together, stays together.