Judy’s words haunt me still. She is eight years old, a third grader in a Rust Belt state whose parents lost their home after a bank foreclosed 18 months ago. Her mother had been a school teacher and her dad a mechanic; both lost their jobs in the recession and haven’t been able to find steady employment since. Occasionally, they stay with relatives but, mostly, Judy, her five-year-old sister and their parents have lived in an old, converted van they bought with cash they generated from a yard sale where they sold many of their possessions before being evicted.
She doesn’t like living in the van.
“I hear noises at night outside and I get scared sometimes,” Judy told me. But a raccoon scrounging for food isn’t the worst of it. “If I wake up to pee, mommy takes me outside and I go in a jar.”
She and her sister Cathy sleep together on a small cushioned bench while her mother and dad unroll sleeping bags on the floor. It’s not an easy place to get decent rest.
“Daddy snores too loud!” Judy giggles.
I found Judy because I wanted to tell one child’s story about being homeless. While staggering, statistics alone are impersonal; indeed, the bigger the number, the easier it is to feel detached from the reality they reflect.
Understandably, organizations helping the homeless are wary about exposing anyone to possible embarrassment, especially youngsters. Moreover, even when I’d find a parent with a phone and explained what I wanted, they wouldn’t let their child be interviewed. I can’t blame them; I probably wouldn’t, either.
Judy’s father agreed only after I agreed to three conditions: Her last name couldn’t be used, I’d only identify where they lived in general terms, and if she didn’t want to answer a question, I wouldn’t push it.
“When the policemen came to our house, I was mad,” Judy says, recalling the day when a pair of sheriff deputies showed up to evict the family from the only house the girl ever knew. She reacted the way any child might when confronted with something they didn’t like, let alone understand: “I told them they were stupid. Then I tried to push one of them out of the house.”
Still, her mom and dad tried to make what was happening seem like an adventure for their two girls. As they piled into the van and drove away, Judy remembers her dad saying they were going on a camping trip, something the family enjoys.
“At first it was kind of fun,” Judy admits. Then, pausing for a long moment, she adds, “But it isn’t really like camping.”
There’s a lot that Judy doesn’t want to talk about. When asked if her school friends know that she lives in a van, she doesn’t really give an answer, saying only “Sophia invites me to her house sometimes.”
Judy’s reluctance to reveal how she feels is common among homeless young children and pre-teens.
In fact, youths like her often develop numerous emotional problems because of the way their family lives. The National Center on Family Homelessness developed a curriculum for schools, Head Start programs and other social service organizations that work with kids. Called PEACH – which stands for Physical and Emotional Awareness for Children who are Homeless – it helps youngsters cope with their situation, teaching them how to stay physically and psychologically healthy.
Homeless children pick up on the constant stress their parents are under. As Judy explains, “sometimes, it makes me feel bad when mommy and daddy can’t find a job.”
A reported 1.6-million American kids were homeless at some point last year, and half are under the age of six. That’s roughly the number of people in Philadelphia so imagine everyone in the City of Brotherly Love sleeping on the streets tonight.
Ellen Bassuk, president and founder of the National Center on Family Homelessness and an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, bluntly states that the figures reveal “an emerging Third World in our own backyard.”
Activists like Dr. Bassuk think the number is low because homeless families often don’t report their situation.
“I’m afraid the county might take the kids away if it discovered that we’re living in a car,” one homeless single parent in Iowa said. “I know of a half-dozen other families who won’t tell the school because we’re worried a teacher might report us.”
As a result, the true number of homeless children is believed to be at least three times higher, or equal to the population of Los Angeles.
The excuse trotted out most often to explain this horrid situation is that there’s no room in state or federal budgets to fund more housing for the homeless. But if governments raised taxes on people such as Mitt Romney, who owns multiple homes, there’d be plenty of money to help families who have no home.
As Nobel Prize winning economist, and New York Times columnist and blogger Paul Krugman has written repeatedly since the recession began, the United States doesn’t have a spending problem, it has a revenue problem. More revenue from people earning million dollar salaries means more could be spent on everything from homelessness and hunger to schools, teachers, roads and bridges.
Judy doesn’t think in those terms. What she wants is pretty basic: “I want my own room in our house.”
Author and journalist Charley James’ next book is about his experience becoming homeless. When published, Charley will donate a percentage of his advance and royalties to homeless organizations.
Follow Charley on Twitter @SuddenlyHomeles.
Posted: Saturday, 7 July 2012