By Vivian R. Howard
What do you think a typical homeless person looks like? An older Caucasian male with tattered clothing and an overgrown beard, who smells of liquor? An African-American male (same clothing) who is high on crack cocaine? Can you tell a homeless person when you see him on the street? Did you know that the average age of homeless people is a teenager? Families are the fast growing population of homeless people in the country. The City of Cleveland reported a 20% increase in requests for shelter in 1998 among families.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with a group of single mothers who had become homeless for various reasons. The impression that I got from this conversation with that county agencies (and the policies that govern them) often contribute to the growing number of homeless families. The women cited reasons such as interference on the part of the Department of Children and Family Services, sanctions from the welfare department (Department of Human Services), a weak child support system, and waiting lists for subsidized housing at Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority or Section 8 housing. One woman, “Alice” noted that, after being sanctioned by the welfare department, she was unable to buy food and necessities for her family. A “friend” reported her to the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), who took all but one of her children.
Her welfare entitlement was then reduced, causing her not to be able to pay rent. Alice was then forced into the shelters downtown, from there it takes years on average to get back into a home. She is now being told that if she can secure housing for all of her children, they will be returned to her. “How am I supposed to do that?” she asked. “They have taken all of my money; I can’t get it back until my kids come back. I can’t get my kids back until I get enough money to get a place. I can’t win for losing.”
Kids are being hurt,” says another woman, “Jill.” “Welfare reform is not taking into the account the fact that some people are not going to be ready.” Another recipient, Beth said, “ A lot of people need to catch up in the areas of education and training, and three years is not enough for some of the people who will be affected by the final bell of welfare reform after three years.”
Other women began to chime in, “Allow people to go to school before you cut them off! Why not go after some of these fathers; the child support system is weak.” Yet another woman said, “The rules are not even for everyone; I still know people who sit at home and do nothing, and sill get a check,” The woman also spoke of caseworkers who seemed to look down on their clients and who have “forgotten where they came from.”
Then Tara Harris, age 19, who specifically asked that her name be used, joined the conversation (when previously asked, she declined to speak with me). “The real deal is that I was just lazy.” I never thought that I would be homeless. “Homelessness was a reality check for me. Now I have a job and am about to get a place. I am telling you this because it will happen to another young lady.”
So, it is the fault of Cuyahoga County agencies, or the fault of the affected persons themselves that cause homelessness? The reality is that both Tara and the other women were right. The policies of some county agencies seem to be both contradictory and mutually exclusive. How can you get a job with a living wage if you have no skills or education? How can you attend school, go to parenting classes, get a job (that doesn’t pay enough to even hire a baby-sitter), improve your skills, and meet with your caseworker every week, all at the same time?
Many of us who are blessed to have been able to get an education could not do all of this simultaneously, let alone someone who is experiencing extreme hardship. On the other hand there are some people who do not take responsibility for maintaining their households. When the consequences fall, some of them become homeless. The truth is, we must establish a balance between entitlement and responsibility in order to make a dent in the growing number of homeless families and children.
Copyright Homeless Grapevine Issue 36 July - August 1999