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Homeless With Children

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Kevin Ryan's recent Huffington Post blog about homeless children was a call to arms -- a call to get behind an effort to have the Department of Housing and Urban Development recognize families who live in motels, or double-up with family or friends, as officially homeless.

Such a change of policy, such recognition, would open up, for countless children, HUD programs that are now unavailable to them. The fact that there is even a question about "motel" or "doubled-up" children being qualified is further evidence of a continuing lack of understanding of the homeless in general, and homeless families, in particular.

The Ryan article conjured up, for me, vivid, personal memories of homeless families, and it served as a reminder that many Americans think of the homeless as only men and women. The fact that thousands upon thousands of the homeless are children doesn't seem to register with a lot of folks.

As one who is not that far removed from being homeless myself, I have come to know that children suffer and struggle in a variety of sad situations.

There are those who stay -- usually short-term -- in motels, or who endure the crowded, often-contentious conditions of living doubled up. These children usually attempt to hide their misfortune, too embarrassed to speak about it with teachers or classmates.

Such was the case at Key West High School in the autumn of 2008. Back then, I was promoting my book and I had just completed a radio interview when a call came into the station from a teacher.

Jane McGill asked if I would speak to the student body about homelessness. She explained that there was an unknown number of homeless students attending classes -- some who were open about their housing, or lack thereof, and some who were not so open. The purpose of my visit was to further awareness and understanding of homelessness among all students -- the fortunate as well as the not so fortunate. But sadly, cancer surgery took me away from Key West before I could fulfill my mission.

It was about that same point in time that I met Fred. It was at a bus stop in Fort Lauderdale, and I let the bus I was there to catch pass on by so I could hear, in full, the story he was telling. Fred was on his way home from the market, loaded down with three paper bags full of groceries. He had spent all of the $30 he had earned mowing lawns.

Fred was 38 at the time -- married with three children and nearly always broke. Two years earlier he had received the dreaded pink slip. Then he exhausted his unemployment insurance, while unsuccessfully pounding the pavement looking for work. Poor health didn't help in his job search. Eventually, his automobile was repossessed and his family was evicted from their home.

Fred's odd-job earnings, and his wife's minimum wage job, didn't allow them to make ends meet, so the family was forced to move in with Fred's sister -- doubling up with her and her husband and their three children. Where Fred's teenagers once had their own bedrooms, they were now all crowded into one small room.

But for Fred, seeing his kids living in such cramped quarters wasn't the toughest part. What bothered him most was having to remind them to go easy on the milk, to make it last as long as possible.

It's a difficult life for children like Fred's, in and out of motels, or doubled-up in near impossible conditions. And they certainly qualify as homeless beings deserving of the aid given to the more visibly homeless. But there is something far worse than inadequate housing, and that is no housing at all. As difficult as it is for some people to believe, there are children who live the homeless life in the truest sense of the word -- without a roof over their heads.

I have seen firsthand a family with children enduring such an existence. The time was April, 2009, and the place was the roadside of I-25 in Montana. I was on a bus, between Cheyenne and Billings, when the driver, Dian Giesick, called my attention to a Native-American family encamped just off the berm of the road. Spring had not yet come to the high plains and the night was frigidly cold.

The quick glimpse of the huddled family stayed with me until the next time I passed by a few weeks later. Dian was again the driver and she alerted me as we got close. In the time between trips, plywood had been added, serving as a makeshift windbreak and limited protection from the rain. But by the next time I passed by, the family was gone.

The mental image of the children, and the fact that the camp was on or near the Crow Reservation, led me to call on the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Billings. My inquiry went unanswered, but I was told by area residents that what I saw is not uncommon.

And in today's America, homeless families with children are far from uncommon. Out of every 45 children, there is one who is homeless.

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