For many families in the United States, this will be the first Christmas they are not spending at home. No, they are not off at a beach resort or on a skiing vacation. An ever-rising number of American children will be spending Christmas on the streets, in a shelter, in their car, or in a cheap motel that they may no longer be able to afford tomorrow. In fact, child homelessness in the United States has increased 38 percent since 2007 and last year there were 1.6 million homeless children in the country.
The number of people who could slip from living paycheck to paycheck in a somewhat comfortable home today to living on the street tomorrow is staggeringly high. According to the U.S. Census Bureau around 48 percent of Americans are currently living in poverty or on low incomes. Alfredo Brown, deputy director of the non-profit Champman Partnership, told the New York Times:
I see it every day. I see so many children and mothers that are homeless and sleeping in their car or an abandoned building, an old bus. It’s a sad situation that we live in a country that has so much and many people have so little.
San Francisco Chronicle writer Jill Tucker tells the story of one such family. Tung Nguyen and Sophorn “Julie” Sung and their two boys, 3-year old Danny and 10-year old Rudy, are homeless. Tucker writes:
Rudy Nguyen, 10, still doesn’t have a real home.
But after spending two months sleeping with his parents and 3-year-old brother in a San Francisco bus station, or on a park bench, or on the linoleum floor of a crowded drop-in shelter, Rudy and his family are currently warm and fed.
They are staying, for now, in a spare bedroom that an Oakland family of four offered up after reading about the homeless fourth-grader in a Chronicle story three weeks ago.
It can happen so quickly and unexpectedly to regular middle-class families that seemed to be doing quite well. The New York Times tells the story of one such family:
Highlighting the shrinking middle class in America, a reporter found Tracy and Elizabeth Burger and their 8-year-old son, Dylan. The Burgers said they once earned nearly $100,000 a year combined but saw their middle-class lifestyle evaporate when Tracy lost his job in audiovisual system sales.
Unable to pay rent, they were evicted from their apartment in early 2009 and had to move into a motel. In March they moved into a cramped converted garage at Elizabeth’s mother’s house in Los Angeles.
Elizabeth, a former medical assistant, said she has less than six weeks left on her unemployment insurance and was anxiously watching this week’s standoff in Congress over extending those payments, along with the payroll tax cut for 160 million Americans.
On her blog, Tales from the Driver’s Side, Carey Fuller tells the stories of homeless people and writes in poetry and prose about her own life as a homeless single mother. In a post last month called “Is your criticism based on reality?”, Fuller wrote about the criticisms she faces from people who seem to think the worst about her and other homeless people. She writes:
Many homeless folks face criticisms from people who think their perspectives apply to the reality homeless people actually live in. I find this to be true everytime I get an email or comment from someone who accuses me of being selfish for not going to a shelter system I can’t even get into and believe me, I have tried. See the video attached to this blog for a small example of what I’ve been dealing with for several years now. I’ve heard everything from suggestions to dump my kids off to Foster care to turning custody over to other family members. Interestingly enough, these comments tend to come from people who THINK they know my situation and others like mine. First of all, if relatives WANTED to take custody of my kids when they knew I was going to be homeless, I imagine they would’ve have done so by now. Secondly, many of my relatives can barely afford a roof over their heads so taking on more mouths to feed is out of the question.
I find criticisms to be interesting insights into other people’s ignorance about homeless parenting.
In her video, Fuller chronicles what happens when a homeless mother tries to find help for her family.
According to the New York Times, families like Nguyen’s, Burger’s and Fuller’s, used to account for around one percent of homelessness in the United States and they now account for around one-third. The recession, the shrinking middle class, and the increasing income and wealth disparities in the country mean that more and more families are struggling, whether permanently or temporarily. It is the new, and very unacceptable, reality.
Photo credit: Don Hankins on flickr