01/16/2014 04:00 pm ET Updated Mar 18, 2014

Out of Sight, Out of Mind?

Recently, as the mercury dropped to record lows, compassionate Illinoisians could not help but wonder what it would mean for the 10,171 homeless individuals throughout our state. Indeed, we saw a rapid emergency response to the immediate needs of the homeless, and, for a few days, increasing societal empathy toward their struggles.

Now the temperature has returned to the mid-thirties (what Chicagoans might deem "balmy"), and I have to wonder how we might sustain this compassion and consciousness? All I have to do is think about the 1 in 3 American women, who either live in poverty or are on the brink of it.

When I think of these women on the brink, I can't help but think of Leona. We met Leona while visiting one of Chicago Foundation for Women's grantees, Deborah's Place. Until recently, Leona was a resident of Teresa's Interim Housing at Deborah's Place, which is a four-month temporary housing program that provides up to 10 women a safe, structured community where women and staff work together to meet goals such as housing, employment, family reunification, improved health and education. Today, thanks to Deborah's Place and their proven program, Leona has found permanent housing and is on a pathway out of poverty. But, she took a lot of twists and wrong-turns getting there.

As a child, Leona was sexually and physically abused. She says that her teenage mom wasn't around much and her alcoholic grandmother didn't protect her from the abuse. After a miscarriage at the age of 14, Leona finally ran away from home in hopes of finding that better life. For a few years, Leona lived in hallways and survived by "doing strange things for change," anything to survive. She depended upon abusive and drug-addicted boyfriends to keep from having to live on the streets. Eventually, she became homeless.

Although homelessness affects people of all ages, races, ethnicities and geographies, there are certain groups of people who are at higher risk and, at one point or another, Leona has presented many of these risks: people living in "doubled up" situations, people discharged from prison, young adults leaving foster care, and people without health insurance. Whether it was when she was a child of a teen mom suffering from abuse, during her teen years as a runaway, during her struggles with substance abuse, or following her incarceration -- she regularly presented warning signs she was headed toward homelessness.

When the temperature suddenly plummets, when a tornado ravages a town, we tend to coalesce around the emergency. This gives me great pride and hope. We enthusiastically give of time and treasure to ensure there are more beds at the shelter, emergency assistance at the disaster site, and more cans of food on the pantry shelf.

But, what happens when the problem is not a tidal wave, but rather, seeping and pervasive. What happens when a person, like Leona, spends more than a decade teetering on the brink and still falls through the cracks? How can we collectively intervene and mobilize to prevent poverty rather than wait for it become an emergency for us to rally around?

If we are to truly win the war on poverty, impact homelessness, and build secure families and communities, we must focus on the systemic barriers standing in the way. For me, there are many issues that need our attention, but where better to start than with the needs of those that make up the majority of our nation's poor: women and children. One solution is to grow the Earned Income Tax Credit to respond to the the rapidly growing income gap between our nation's richest and poorest (and, for a more politically palatable option, I'd settle for a nationwide minimum wage increase). These solutions will help not only women, but all families on the brink.

We need so much more, but it all begins with a shift in focus to the things we cannot immediately see, but are just around the corner, waiting to be the next inevitable crisis.