Jay Shaft: Concrete Is Cold And Hard At Night
Concrete Is Cold And Hard At Night: The Children’s Voices
By Jay Shaft - Coalition For Free Thought In Media
Part three in a five part series on the alarming increases of homelessness, poverty, and hunger in America.
For Further Details of Family Homelessness see:
Voices Of The Lost And Forgotten - Part One
Voices of the Lost and Forgotten - Part Two
The Invisible People: The Precariously Housed and Doubled Up Families
WARNING: THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS CHILDREN USING HARSH, OFFENSIVE LANGUAGE AND RELATING VERY GRAPHIC DETAILS OF LIFE ON THE STREETS.
(Authors Note: This series was started in August, 2004. Due to a severe illness I was unable to finish working on it until now. The children in this article were interviewed between November 2004and January 2005.)
This series of articles is an outlet for the people who are living through an overwhelming crisis. They want to tell everyone how bad it really is, and how terrible their day to day living conditions have become. Their voices will reveal the true depth of despair that many working class and low income people are living with on a daily basis.
I have spoken to over 300 families that have lost permanent housing. They tell horrifying tales of not being able to find emergency shelter for weeks or months at a time. They tell of the long housing list waits of two years or more, and how in many circumstances they don’t even qualify by HUD’s definition of homelessness.
It was really hard to hear the families talk about the fear of reporting their true situation because they are afraid their children will be taken away. Many families are losing custody rights after a state agency removes their children when they tell the truth about being without adequate shelter and access to food.
These are some of the voices of the children lost in a world of poverty, homelessness and despair. Their voices are the most painful to listen to. Everyone needs to hear their stories to fully understand the nightmare of homelessness and poverty from a child’s perspective.
A Brief Overview on Homeless Children and Families
Every night there are approximately 1,500,000 homeless children in America. Over half of all homeless families have been without shelter for over six months. Nationally families with children make up approximately 40 percent of the overall homeless population, with 42 percent of homeless youths being children under the age of five. Approximately 85 percent of all homeless parents with children are single mothers. The average homeless family is composed of a young single mother and two children under the age of six. (National Coalition for the Homeless, US Conference of Mayors, Urban Institute)
Homeless families are the fastest growing segment of the homeless population and account for almost 40 percent of all newly reported cases of homelessness. Homeless children are hungry more than twice as often as other children, and two-thirds worry that they won’t have enough to eat. Nationally, one in four people in a soup kitchen line is a child. In 2003 60 percent of all newly reported cases of homeless were single mothers with children. (National Coalition for the Homeless, America’s Second Harvest)
A severe lack of affordable housing in the United States combined with growing poverty is largely responsible for a major rise in the number of homeless and precariously housed families over the last few years. Affordable housing is defined as a person paying no more than 30 percent of income for rent or mortgage payments. No where in the United States does a full-time minimum wage job enable a family of four to pay fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment
There are now record numbers of families and single mothers reporting that they are sharing overcrowded or inadequate accommodations with others. At least 7.3 million people described themselves as precariously housed when applying for food stamps and other forms of public assistance in 2004. (USDA, HUD)
According to recent member agency surveys, the National Coalition for the Homeless estimates that there are at least 10 million children living in conditions that qualify as fitting the government profile for precarious housing. Children often appear among the precariously housed population because parents who become homeless may place their children with friends or relatives in order to avoid literal homelessness for them.
Nearly 40 percent of American children live in families with incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty level, the amount needed for most families to be economically self-sufficient. Low-income families face material hardships and financial pressures similar to families who are officially acknowledged as poor.
Today more than 28 million people, about a quarter of the workforce between the ages of 18 and 64, earn less than $9.04 an hour, which translates into a full-time salary of $18,800 a year, the income that marks the federal poverty line for a family of four.
For most of the 1990’s the number of children in poverty was declining. Then between 2000 and 2002, there were an additional 546,000 children who slipped into poverty. In 2003 at least 500,000 more children plummeted into poverty, and additional 300,000-400,000 children were listed as being at the borderline of poverty. In 2004 it is estimated that 550,000-600,000 children slipped into poverty, and at least 400,000-500,000 more were at the boarderline.
Here is something shocking that should really give you an idea of how truly pervasive the poverty problems are in America. In 2002 about one in three people in the US was poor enough to be classified as living in poverty for at least two months of the year, according to recent data from the US Census Bureau. Overall, 63 percent of U.S. families below the federal poverty line have one or more full time workers.
The Children Speak
Sara is 12, and has been homeless for almost a year. She moves from motel to shelter to parking lot with her mother and her three sisters. Her mother lost a job in February 2004 and since then they have not had a place of their own to call home.
“I’m old enough to know how bad this really is,” she says with a hardened look. “My sisters are pretty young, but I think they know that this isn’t like vacation anymore. When we first lost our house they thought it was some big game. Now they are scared Santa won’t be able to find us this year.”
“We sleep in our car when we can’t find a shelter, we’ve been in eight cities and my mom is thinking about going to another one” she says with a frustrated sigh. “I haven’t been to the same school for more than three weeks. I wish we could find someplace to stay for good, just so I could get some friends and stay in one school.”
When asked if she has gone hungry she just got an exasperated look, like it was the stupidest question she had ever heard.
“Duh! What do you think?” she asks with some irritation. “I am hungry all the time, even when there is enough food. I am afraid to eat till I’m really full because we might run out of food if we’re little pigs. I ate as much as I could on Thanksgiving but that was the only time this year I’ve been really full. I ate six pieces of pie and had three plates of turkey. I wish we had that much food all the time.”
“We’re almost out of food again, because mom went to every place she could find that gave out food” she explains. “You can’t go to most places more than once a month, so we try to get all the food we can when we get into a new town. We eat at soup kitchens and I know my mom gets some food from grocery store dumpsters. I don’t tell my sisters because they wouldn’t eat any food if they knew that.”
She has no clear idea of what the future will bring, and the fear and doubt show in her eyes and the lines in her face. It was sad to see a twelve year old with worry lines on her face. She has a look of age beyond her years and knowledge of how to survive that no child should have to acquire.
“I am so scared they will take us from my mom. It’s not her fault that we are homeless, but she can get in big trouble if they find out we’re living on the street,” she says with a fearful look. “They would break us all up and I might never see my sisters or my mom again.”
Her dream for Christmas is to live in a house again and be able to have three refrigerators full of her favorite foods.
“I stopped believing in Santa a long time ago, but I wish he was real. I all want is to be able to sleep in my own bed and have mom cook our favorite foods,” she says with a wistful expression. “I want to eat until I explode, then I’d eat more. I want my family to be safe and warm in a house, that’s my Christmas wish. I don’t want anything else, just that.”
Maccanon Brown is Director of Repairers of Breach, a grassroots homeless outreach in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She can recite endless facts and figures, but says that is only a brief glimpse at what is really going on with homeless children.
“Our biggest failure as a society is to have children living on the streets in deplorable conditions. Our biggest sin is turning our backs on them and pretending that they don’t exist!” she exclaims adamantly. “Everyday more children become homeless or lose stable housing, and it just devastates them. Their whole lives become a nightmare that they can’t begin to adapt to.”
She says she sees many children who are experiencing emotional or mental problems after becoming homeless.
“Do theses kids know what’s going on in their lives? Yes! Even the very young ones seem to be able to figure it out to a major extent,” she says. “They know that they are homeless and it is tragic to see what the knowledge does to them. It changes their entire life and they will remember it for the rest of their lives. The average stay on the streets is increasing and the longer they are homeless the greater the emotional damage. It’s the children who have to carry the stigma of being homeless throughout their entire lives.”
Her anger with the fact that the number of homeless and hungry children is going up while most people seem to be ignoring it is a palpable thing. You can feel her disgust and irritation as she describes the perils and plights that the innocent children have to suffer.
“We see children who are malnourished and missing meals, here in this land of plenty. To deny a hungry child a meal is so tragic. Even if it’s done out of ignorance it’s still wrong, but people have to be able to see what’s going on. It’s in every city and on every corner. How can people not see it?”
“I just can’t believe that the bigger this problem grows, the more people try and ignore or minimize it. We must face up to this and try to get as many children off the streets as possible,” she says with great passion. “That’s one of the hardest things about working with homeless families. You know most of the time there is not a lot you can do but provide a temporary solution. It tears your heart out having to look into the child’s eyes and know that the odds are stacked against them.”
Meagan is 7, and lives in an abandoned building with her mom and three year old brother. Her mother has fixed up their space with curtains and bright wall hangings, but no amount of effort can hide the fact that they live in horribly dirty and depressing conditions.
“I hate living here, I miss my house so bad. I want my toys and my TV, but mom says we’re lucky to have running water,” she says with an uncomprehending look on her face. “It’s not fair that we have to live here, it’s yucky and it smells. I see rats and roaches every day, ewwww, they are nasty. I miss going to school and playing with my friends.”
When asked if she understands why they are living in the abandoned building she hesitates and then starts crying. She seems to be able to grasp many of the harsh realities, but is upset by not being able to understand the whole situation.
“My daddy left, then mommy said we had to move. She said the bill man came and took our house,” she says through her tears. “I only got to take one bag of toys and some clothes. I had to leave all my big stuffed animals and my games. Mommy won’t really tell me what’s going to happen, but I know it’s bad.”
She says she wants her daddy back, and then she wants to go home.
“I asked God to bring my daddy back and let us go home. I miss him so much, and my dog Spots, he went with daddy,” she explains. “I told mommy I would be good for a whole year if God brought daddy back, but mommy won’t tell me where he is. I just want us to be together again and a happy family like before.”
Homeless families are sixteen times more likely to relocate than the typical American family. A child needs four to six months to recover academically from a change in schools. Among students who miss 20 or more school days a year during first, second, or third grade, 66 percent will drop out of school. (Institute for Children and Poverty, National Coalition for the Homeless)
Katherine Preston is the executive director of the Georgia Coalition to End Homelessness. She says that many of the children they see are emotionally and physically harmed by being homeless or in unstable housing conditions.
“Unless you see it first hand you would not believe how much being homeless affects the children. It scars them for life and seems to change something in them,” she explains. “When they are constantly moving from motels to shelters and back to motels it fundamentally damages them in ways that are often hard to see at first. Without stable accommodations and a steady source of food their entire lives turn into a giant question mark. The lack of knowing what will happen next can tear a child apart.”
She says that many children just can’t cope with the pressures and begin to develop severe emotional detachment and depression.
“It is so sad to see a small child who doesn’t know what the next day will bring. Children need to have a sense of safety or they compensate by withdrawing or making up their own reality. We do our best but it is often too late to reverse the damage that even a month or two of instability can cause. Imagine some of the children who have been homeless for a year or two, or even worse, the ones who have never had a stable home life.”
“Many of the kids are missing meals or constantly hungry, which is another major cause for concern. Even a simple thing like a hot meal is often denied them,” she explains with an air of sadness. “Imagine the lack of proper food and shelter at a young age, pretty scary, huh? It’s hard for a lot of adults to cope with that, much less a child. They just aren’t equipped with the capacity to deal with it, even though they are generally aware of the situation they are in.”
When asked if she thought that the situation could be changed she just sighs with exasperation.
“Yes we can change the situation but it will take a massive amount of work. The way things are going right now it is only going to get worse,” she says with no small amount of aggravation. “It doesn’t seem to be a big priority for Bush and the current administration; they are doing everything they can to make it worse when you look at the overall picture. With all the recent HUD cuts, TANF cuts, budget cuts to food programs and all the other agency cuts they can’t make it any better in the near future.”
“It will take a massive effort by the general public to make any headway and that doesn’t seem to be very likely. America must make this their biggest priority instead of trying to hide it from view,” she says. “This must become a reality, to get these kids of the streets, or we will damage a large part of our next. We can’t sit back and wait for others to fix it, that just doesn’t work.”
Danny, 13, has lived on the streets with his mother and father for almost two years. His older brother ran away and his younger brother is in foster care. The family lives in a motor home in a vacant lot.
“My mom and dad try to get us a house, but they can’t get enough money for rent. I know they love me a lot because they cry all the time,” he says. “We live in this box, but I knows some people who ain’t got no house or nothing. I ain’t got but one pair of shoes and a few pairs of nice jeans. Got no flash clothes, and sometimes I get pissed because I see all these kids runnin round in FUBU and Tommy, sh.t makes me mad.”
He looks around the old decaying motor home and starts crying.
“Looka this here sh.t, the roof leaks, fridge don’t got no food in it, my mattress all fulla holes, sh.t man this ain’t right. I wish I had a house to live in like my friends,” he says while tears run down his thin, pinched face. “We been parked here in this vacant lot for a while now, coupla months, so we steal power from that pole over there.”
He points to a city owned street light and laughs through the tears. It takes him a few minutes to get his breath back because he is laughing so hard. You can tell it is a rare thing for him to find anything to laugh at, so he really takes a much pleasure from it as he can.
“Hey we jackin’ they shit pretty good, gotta love that, man. We gots the cord buried in the ground so theys can’t see it. Sometimes we have to move around so they don’t try to take our house; we got to keep the man from seein’ us, that’s what my pop says.”
When asked if he gets enough to eat he just gets a pained, desperate look on his face. “I eats at school, ya know, breakfast and lunch, but I can’t always get to school. Bus don’t come pick me up so I gotta walk about a mile. I go mostly cause I gets to eat and so I get in some A.C. I check out books from the library cause we ain’t got no T.V.”
The subject of state foster care causes him to become extremely angry. His younger brother has been in state care for over a year now, and his older brother ran away from a foster home and has not been seen for more than ten months.
“You better not tell on us motherf..ka!” he screams. “They ain’t f..kin’ takin’ me like they did my bros, f..k that! I’ll run away just like my big brother did, I ain’t gonna stay in no foster home! My folks love me, else they’d let the state f..kers take me in. They lie and say I live with their friends so I can go to school. This shit, how we livin’ may look bad, but we still together. ”
He refuses to say much more and you can see the fear in his eyes.
“You can go head and tell people bout me, how I live, but you don’t tell ‘em where we at,” he exclaims, adamant that his story is told, but scared of the consequences. “I gots no one else to take care of me so leave us be. They’ll come and take me away, then my momma and pops will go to jail. Don’t try to help us, we alright the way it is now!”
The sad thing is he is probably right, and the fact that he knows it is truly heart wrenching and tragic.
Runaway and discarded children
The homeless/runaway youth population is estimated at 1,500,000 each year. In the last year significant increases in the number of 15-17 year old runaways have shocked and astounded many agencies who work with at risk and homeless youths.
Michael, 15, has been a runaway for the last year. He left home because his parents were abusing drugs and alcohol, and getting arrested for various criminal activities.
“I just got f..king sick of it, all they ever did was sit around and get high and drunk. They would beat each other up and then start in on me. Whoever was awake after they fought would come and beat my ass, I guess because it was their idea of fun,” he says with a distant, brooding look. “It sucked ass so bad I didn’t think it would be any worse to be on the streets. I look old for my age so I don’t usually get hassled by the pigs.”
“I work a few hours a day for a guy who doesn’t give a sh.t how old I am. I think he knows I ran away but he needs me to work so he doesn’t say anything. I make enough to stay drunk and high so it’s not so bad. I live in squat with a bunch of other kids and we all go out and panhandle to make extra cash.”
When asked why he is drinking and doing drugs in light of his parent’s behavior he just laughs. The fact that they might be worried makes him incredibly happy.
“Yeah, I’m doing exactly what they did, but I don’t have a kid. They were total f..king a..holes and I hope they f..king die,” he bitterly spits out. “All they ever did was f..k up my life and beat each other up. F..k them! I hope they are worried to death, but they probably are glad I’m gone! They didn’t love me anyway.”
Chance Martin of the San Francisco Homeless Coalition works with homeless families and youths on a daily basis. He says San Francisco has a severe problem with runaway and discarded youth, as it is a destination for many youths after they leave home.
“You just wouldn’t believe how tough and violent it is out there on the streets. What some of these kids have to do to survive is just horrifying and would probably kill most adults,” he says with agony in his voice. “I just wish I could let the kids know that this city is not a place to come to, it isn’t a resort or a fun time like they think. I see so many kids just get chewed up and spit out; they never have a chance to make it. The sad thing is that a lot of them will die on the streets before they ever see 18, they die such horrible deaths it makes me cringe.”
“Being on the streets is not the way to go, but sadly for most of these kids there is no where else to end up. They wind up being prostitutes or working in virtual slavery for someone that just uses them and gets them hooked on drugs,” he states. “Once they get on drugs it’s all over for most of them. They get stuck in an endless cycle of use and abuse that is just nightmarish.”
He reports that many runaway youths end up eventually killing themselves due to depression or metal anguish. “They end up losing all their dignity and self respect and then a lot of them end up dead. They get where they don’t care whether they live or die, they just do so many drugs to escape the pain and misery. I see so many of them overdose or commit suicide after everything goes to hell, they just give up. If they work the streets for very long they get AIDS or some other disease and die from that. It’s just so frustrating and such a waste of young lives”
Sara, 14, has the look of a typical rebellious teenager. Her hair is cut in a multi-spiked orange and green mohawk and her face is dotted with multiple piercings. She has been on the streets for almost two years and her daily life is one of constant struggling to survive.
“My mom and dad got divorced when I was eight. My dad hauled ass and I ain’t heard from that f..ker ever since. My mom started doing crack and me and my sisters got taken away by the state,” she explains with a street smart attitude. “My mom never even really tried to get us back, that stupid bitch! She just kept smokin’ crack, suckin’ d.ck, and f..kin’ up. She never even tried to visit us, f..kin never even called us on the phone or nuthin.”
She tells about how she got on the street with a jaded air of someone much older than her age. “I stayed in foster care till I got sick of it, then I got the f..k out of there. That was almost two years ago when I was twelve.”
When asked how she survives on the street she just gives a look that seems to ponder some people’s stupidity and ignorance.
“Jesus, how f..kin’ clueless are you? How do you think I get by?” she asks with exasperation and anger. “What, you think they hire kids like me to be secretaries or some thing? Who the hell is gonna give me a job when I don’t have no I.D., hell I’m too young to even work any place. So how do you think I get by? With my good looks asshole! I try and rob and steal but I do the sh.t I got to do. I mostly hate it, but if I go back to the state I’ll be in a group home, they’ll never let me get out of that.”
She explains that she was placed in a home for troubled girls after she started running away from several different foster homes.
“They put me in that place when I was twelve, f..k going back to that sh.thole. Yeah I ran away and know I got to do what it takes to have a place to stay. Yeah I find guys to stay with, my mom taught me that much, pretty much the only thing she ever showed me,” she says with a dead, vacant look on her face. “I gotta give up some ass, but I get a place and food, maybe drugs if it’s a sweet hookup.”
Her next words are really shocking to hear, but it is an all too common story on the streets. I heard a very similar story from several runaways that I spoke with while interviewing kids for this article.
“I stayed with this one guy; he was like 28 or 29, pretty old for me. He bought me clothes and jewelry, all the bling I wanted, all the drugs I needed, got me drunk, all that good sh.t,” she details with no shame whatsoever. “For a while there it was party, party, party, all the time. Then he went to jail for slingin’ dope so I lost that hookup and had to look for a new one. I’m stayin’ with two different guys right now, and I got a third one just can’t wait to get a piece a this ass.”
Her candor and lack of shame was truly remarkable for someone so young. To hear this and know it is a common story among runaways is very depressing and burdensome. The fact that this goes on everyday across the country is even more depressing, as people seem to be ignoring the problem or pretending it doesn’t exist.
“At least I’m not on the corner trickin’ and smokin’ rock,” she says, while missing the irony of her statements. “If I gotta give up my ass I’m gonna do it my way. If I don’t like a guy I’m stayin’ with I just find another one. Lots of guys out there would kill to have a fourteen year old livin’ with ‘em and givin’ up ass.”
She has a dim, wistful look on her face when asked if she has plans for the future. Her eyes tell a tale of broken dreams and promises that her words never can.
“I want to go to school but that sh.t won’t ever happen. I’m gonna get my G.E.D. when I turn eighteen, but I don’t know what I’m gonna do with it,” she exclaims sadly. “I just don’t f..kin’ know, I’ll just try and stay alive till I’m eighteen. I’ll do what I got to; I’ll do okay, least I’ll party a lot. I try not to think about it too much, it just pisses me off. I’ll get by, I have so far.”
She sighs and gets a haunted, forlorn look in her eyes as her shoulders sag in dejected awareness of how hopeless her future really is. As she disappears back into the darkness of the night, she joins countless other children who can tell a similar tale of misery and the struggle to survive.
The voices in this article represent a growing portion of the youth in this country. It should not have to be this way, but the problem continues to grow alarmingly with no end in sight. Despite rosy forecasts of more jobs and economic recover, the children continue to suffer and pay the price of our ignorance and refusal to face the facts that are staring us in the face everyday. The children are innocent victims, but the consequences of our failure to help them will affect them for the rest of their lives.
For detailed surveys, fact sheets and information that was used to write this article please see:
USCM-Sodexho USA Hunger and Homelessness
Hunger, Homelessness Still On the Rise in Major U.S. Cities
27-City Survey Finds Requests by Families for Food and Shelter Increasing
Issue Paper 3: Child Hunger
Key Data Concerning Homeless Persons In America -- July 2004
NAEH: Ending Youth Homelessness
Runaway/Thrown Away Children: National Estimates and Characteristics
National Fact Sheet 2003 America's Children At-a-Glance
Housing and Homelessness: Facts and Figures on Children
Homeless Families with Children
Out of Reach 2004: Housing Costs- a side-by-side comparison of wages and rents in each state
HUD Fair Market Rents 2005
State of the Nations Housing 2004
Working hard, falling short: Millions of Working Families Struggle to Make Ends Meet
The Cruelest Cuts: As Congress haggles over food stamp cuts, soup kitchens fear longer lines
Hunger and food insecurity in the United States children
Trapped in a motel way of life- Part 1
Part 2 http://www.npach.org/06dec04.htm
Homeless Young People Die in Street
Jay Shaft is a freelance writer and the Editor for an independent news group Coalition for Free Thought In Media http://groups.yahoo.com/group/CFTMGroup. He has covered numerous issues, including homelessness and poverty, human rights, the use of cluster bombs and depleted uranium, civilian deaths in the ongoing US-led wars and occupations, and civil liberties and freedom.
Jay has conducted many interviews with homeless people and families and he was the former director of a homeless outreach. He is a community outreach advocate for several grass roots groups working to end homelessness and poverty.
Contact Jay Shaft at firstname.lastname@example.org