Dying Homeless

As the Babes in the Woods story signifies, asking for assistance from those who can't or won't help, too often leads to desperate action. Recovery takes time and effort.
11/24/2014 08:58 am ET Updated Jan 24, 2015

Eighty years ago three children were found wrapped in a blanket on South Mountain in central Pennsylvania. The blanket did the girls no good. Even if the overnight lows were average for that time of year -- mid 30's -- they never felt the cold. The children were already dead.

The woodsmen who found the little girls didn't recognize them. No one in the area reported any missing kids, so the authorities brought the sisters to nearby Carlisle, hoping that someone there might identify them. Local historian, Joe Cress, wrote that the unidentified "Babes in the Woods" -- as they came to be called -- became "the biggest crime mystery since the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and murder."

The coroner examining the children in the county morgue discovered that the three had been gently smothered. And, after determining that their bellies had been empty for quite a while before their deaths, many speculated that the starving girls' parents could no longer stand their suffering. It's believed that a frenzied father -- who found killing the children gently to be more humane than letting them starve -- slayed the "Babes in the Woods."

You can read more about the crime in Cress's book Murder and Mayhem in Cumberland County. You can grab any history book to read about the crime of children all across the nation going hungry and homeless in the 1930's depression era. And you can go online and get a copy of America's Youngest Outcasts, A Report Card on Child Homelessness to read about history repeating itself now, 80 years later.

It's 2014 and soup kitchens and shelters are filled to overflowing. America's Youngest Outcasts indicates that today's modern day Hoovervilles are inadequate to the task of feeding and housing all the "babes" in or out of the woods. As the report reveals, the scope of the problem is not acknowledged or understood by the authorities that half-heartedly treat an urban problem considered to be 15 percent of its actual size. Consequently, child homelessness is pervasive throughout the nations cities, suburbs and rural areas. The rural south has the highest levels of homelessness and the poorest infrastructure for dealing with it.

According to the Associated Press, The National Center on Family Homelessness -- the agency that commissioned America's Youngest Outcasts -- reported last week that the "number of homeless children in the U.S. has surged in recent years to an all-time high, amounting to one child in every 30." In case you're no good at math, that's 2.5 million children. Additionally, the "comprehensive state-by-state report blames the nation's high poverty rate, the lack of affordable housing and the impact of pervasive domestic violence" for these huge numbers.

When you go to The National Center on Family Homelessness website and you check out the state by state breakdown you'll notice one thing -- or you would if you had spent the last decade of your life traveling the nation speaking with the homeless -- their frightening statistics still aren't high enough. Some of the states get better marks than others because they do such a lousy job assessing and reporting the problem. California and New York get grades as low as Texas and Alabama, not because they similarly lack a network to distribute necessities to the poor, but because they are better at counting the poor and understanding the scope of the problem in their respective regions.

If you read last month's report by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) then you mistakenly believe that homelessness is down. Thankfully, The National Center on Family Homelessness has issued a report that relegates HUD's point-in-time count of stereotypical hobos under overpasses and those herded into mass shelters to the dustbin and uses the far more accurate statistics collected by the Department of Education. And still those numbers are artificially low, because parents fear losing their children if they are identified as homeless and children fear bullying and reprisal if their peers find out that they have no home.

As the Babes in the Woods story signifies, asking for assistance from those who can't or won't help, too often leads to desperate action.

Recovery takes time and effort. Failed President Herbert Hoover proclaimed, "Economic depression cannot be cured by legislative action or executive pronouncement." His successor proved that legislative action and executive pronouncement were the exact remedies to the crisis of poverty, starvation and unemployment.

Sadly for the little girls found on South Mountain, November 1934 was only a year and a half into Franklin Roosevelt's first term. It took nearly a decade for his reforms to pull the nation out of decline. Roosevelt addressed the ills by knowing what they really were not by pretending they didn't exist. Not with Hoovervilles but with housing, not with soup lines but with paychecks, and not with false theories espoused to justify corporate greed but by empowering his agencies to collect accurate data and leading a dialogue based on the true scope of the problem.

Roosevelt knew that a nation starving in the woods or living in the streets is a failed nation. HUD claims the U.S. isn't such a nation. This new report by The National Center on Family Homelessness sets that record straight.