Homeless in America
As the number of homeless families increases nationally, a mother struggles to find help among overburdened services
By Emily Shenk
Melissa Majors had been crying. A few quiet tears rolled down her dark brown cheeks and seeped into the blue collar of her Popeyes uniform. It was late, after midnight. She leaned forward, put her chin against the steering wheel of her 2005 Ford Taurus, and took a deep breath. She stared through the windshield at the empty parking lot of the Woodlawn United Methodist Church in Alexandria, Virginia, where she took her children to get a free meal every Wednesday.
Next to her in the passenger's seat, 12-year-old Admurel had fallen asleep, his long legs folded awkwardly in the too-small space in front of him. It was his sister's turn to take the back seat tonight. He was guarded from the cool October air by several layers of clothing, which he, his mother, and his sister pulled on around 8 o'clock each evening. He'd slept in the same pair of jeans most nights during the past two months. The sixth-grader also wore the coat his elementary school had donated when they found out his family was living in a car. He was not wearing his shoes, though. Majors made sure of that. She never let her children fall asleep with their shoes on, she says, because she wanted them to feel comfortable.
Vanessa, 9, was curled up under a blanket on the gray interior in the back. Tomorrow morning, Majors would take the blanket off her daughter, fold it up, and hide it in the trunk before dropping the kids off at school. She didn't want anyone peering in to see where they had slept the night before. After her children were gone, Majors would go through the car and clean it up, gathering crumbs left behind from the little food they'd eaten the day before and stacking extra napkins she'd saved from fast-food restaurants, just in case the kids needed something to use as a tissue or toilet paper.
At the restaurants, Majors would sometimes go without food for herself. On those days, Admurel would cut his burger in half, push one side toward her, and beg her to eat. "Mamma," he would ask, "are you all right?"
Last October, Majors was not all right. Nine months earlier, on her 47th birthday, she had lost her job with Fairfax County as a result of unreliable child care. She had worked as a transportation assistant for special needs students for nearly a decade, since before Vanessa was born. She counted on $7,000 in retirement money, plus child support and unemployment checks, to get her family through the following months. When the child support stopped unexpectedly and her unemployment money was delayed, she moved out of the townhouse she'd been renting and into a two-bedroom apartment for $1,200 a month.
As Majors searched for work, the bills kept coming. In August, she and her children packed up their possessions, keeping only a few sentimental items, and put them in a small storage space for $87 a month. They moved out of their apartment and stayed at friends' houses for weeks, then began alternating nights between motels and their car. A few weeks later, their car became their permanent home.
Admurel and Vanessa are two of at least 1.5 million-or 1 in 50-American children who experienced homelessness last year. The number of homeless families nationwide has been growing, and the Washington metro area where they live is no exception to this national trend. The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments reported last spring that a count of the region's homeless showed a 15 percent increase in the number of homeless families in the past year.
"At the time when the need for services is greatest is also when the availability is lowest," says Barbara Duffield, policy director at the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, noting that Fairfax County, where Majors first became homeless, had over a hundred families on a wait-list for emergency shelter this winter. "Everything from food banks to clothing closets-there's just a great demand."
Many of the families waiting to get into shelters are there because they can no longer afford adequate housing. As Majors came to find out once she got a job after several months of searching, even working five days a week didn't mean she could afford housing. Majors is one of 9.6 million Americans comprising the working poor, many of who struggle on a daily basis to keep a roof over their heads. As housing values plummet around the country, rent prices are still out of reach for many. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, an employee in the Washington metro area making minimum wage can afford a monthly rent of $393. Compare that to the average Fair Market Rent for a two-bedroom apartment: $1,288.
With the demand for affordable housing higher than the supply, some families, like the Majorses, end up living in their vehicles or doubling up with relatives. Corey Shdaimah, a University of Maryland professor and expert on the effects of policy on low-income families, says a broader definition of housing issues is needed in the midst of today's economic situation. As families face unemployment and foreclosures, she says, the idea of inadequate housing should expand from the traditional sense-such as living on the street or in shelters-to include living in the same home with another family, or living in a home in severe need of repairs. "To better reflect reality, we must recognize that people need homes not just because they are homeless but because their homes are not safe or are overcrowded," says Shdaimah. In May, Congress passed the Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing Act, which expanded the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's definition of homelessness to include some people living in motels or sharing housing with other families. The act, however, sets time provisions on these circumstances, and its new definition of homelessness applies only to HUD programs, according to the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth.
Majors and her children didn't have family to turn to when things hit rock bottom last fall. At age 17, following her parents' divorce, Majors left her hometown of Lawton, Oklahoma, with her mother and six siblings to move to Los Angeles. The family became somewhat estranged after Majors' 16-year-old brother was murdered in their Los Angeles neighborhood. "California changed me in a lot of ways," Majors says. "The death of my brother-the family never really got over that."
Homelessness Across the Country
The National Center on Family Homelessness ranked states based on the number of homeless children, child well-being, the risk for child homelessness, and state planning and policy related to child homelessness.
States with the best ratings regarding child homelessness:
2. New Hampshire
4. Rhode Island
5. North Dakota
States with the worst ratings regarding child homelessness:
47. New Mexico
States with the lowest percentage of homeless children:
1. Rhode Island
2. New Jersey
5. New Hampshire
States with the highest percentage of homeless children:
Majors stayed in Los Angeles for many years, and had her first son, Ahmad, in her late 20s. She was working toward a certificate in criminal justice when she found out she was pregnant again, this time with Admurel. After his birth, Majors decided to move her two sons-9-year-old Ahmad and 15-month-old Admurel-to Washington, DC, to get a fresh start. She didn't imagine she'd be homeless 10 years later.
When Majors and her two youngest children moved into their Taurus last August, she tried to maintain a sense of stability by doing activities they enjoyed before they were homeless. "I wanted them to still feel normal," she says. Majors took Vanessa and Admurel on nature walks during long summer afternoons, and paid the $1.50 each to go swimming at a public pool. "With the little money I had, I even took them to the movies," Majors says.
Majors was determined to find resources to help her family get out of homelessness. She found clothing and food, like the Wednesday dinners at the church where she often parked and at Sunday morning handouts at the Hilda M. Barg Homelessness Prevention Center in Woodbridge, Virginia. She picked up military food packages, along with blankets, at United Community Ministries in nearby Alexandria, and also used the agency's Workforce Development Center to update her computer skills and look for a job.
As Majors struggled with daily challenges like keeping gas in her car and learning which neighborhoods were safe to park in at night, her children's education took a back seat. "I got so low on gas that I couldn't move," Majors says, recalling a day Admurel helped push the car to a gas station, as Vanessa sat behind the wheel. Several weeks into the school year, Majors enrolled her children in Hybla Valley Elementary School in Alexandria. Though it was a new school, it provided a much needed sense of stability for her children. They did their homework before night fell, so they could use the daylight to see. When the kids would worry about finding a home, Majors told them it was their job to focus on school. "Things will come to those who work hard," she says. "I told them, things will change-just believe in Mamma.'"
Neither of the children have ever told their classmates they were living in their car, even to this day. "I think they would make fun of me," Vanessa says. Duffield explains this is common among children in unstable housing situations. "Kids do their best to fit in," she says. "And that's what makes it hard for teachers and other people to recognize."
Duffield says schools are facing challenges to identify and help the growing number of homeless students. She points to a national survey of public schools she co-authored last December, which showed a staggering increase in homeless students in the first few months of the 2008-2009 school year. One-fifth of the school districts responding had identified the same number or more homeless students between August and November as they had in the entire previous school year. Such increases have strained school resources, making it difficult to provide services to homeless students required by federal law, such as transportation to and from school. "They're really just doing this sort of triage mentality and not really able to keep up with the same level of service that they were able to provide before," Duffield says.
With Majors' children in school, she spent her time at United Community Ministries trying to find a job. The agency's connections helped Majors get a job at Popeyes. She received her first paycheck-$256-and paid off her overdue storage bill. "I ran there like lightning!" Majors remembers. It was not the stuff' there she was worried about-it was the risk of losing the few possessions that meant something to her children. The space held an 11-year-old PlayStation and television set, which Majors had purchased for her grown son, Ahmad, when he was a child. They were handed down to Admurel, and he relished having something that used to be his big brother's. It was that feeling of pride she was trying to salvage.
Though Majors finally had a job, she and her children still slept in their car. Majors tried to get into shelters all over Northern Virginia, but found herself competing with other homeless families for limited spaces. "I wanted to be that special one to get picked, even though I knew I wasn't the only homeless person," she says. "A week seemed like an eternity-just one week-because I had to go day by day." She used a pay phone to call area shelters daily to see if space became available. And even when there was room, shelters sometimes refused to take her because her children's school was not nearby. "I would say, So you're saying I can't come to Old Town and be in your shelter, even if you have room?' And they would say, Correct,'" Majors remembers. "I wasn't homeless in the right area."
As Majors came to discover, emergency shelters were struggling to deal with the area's increase in homeless families. While traditional homeless shelters typically house people only at night, emergency shelters usually provide shelter 24 hours a day for those in immediate need, due to situations such as domestic violence or a sudden inability to pay for housing. Transitional housing offers more long-term shelter, with resources to help people prepare to live on their own. Northern Virginia's Prince William County is "poor in emergency shelters but rich in transitional," says Gayle Sanders, program director of the Hilda M. Barg Homelessness Prevention Center where the Majors family eventually found refuge.
The Connection Between Poverty and Child-Welfare
The stress low-income families deal with while trying to maintain a home for their children can often lead to involvement in the child welfare system-whether through abuse and neglect or the inability to meet the physical needs of their children. When more than 30% of a family's income goes toward housing costs, they are less likely to be able to meet basic needs such as food or medical care.
Though the effects of the recession on abuse and neglect have not been fully seen, an increased demand in services for needy families suggests it may not be far off. Preliminary data from a CWLA survey of 24 states shows 46.7% reporting an increase in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families applications and 68.2% reporting an increase in food stamp applications. These figures may be more reflective of the current situation, as these systems will likely see an impact of the recession before child protective services.
Though some families, like Majors', are able to stay together during a housing crisis, others are not as fortunate. According to a recent report from the District of Columbia's Child and Family Services Agency, a CWLA member, a lack of adequate housing as the primary reason for children's entrance into the foster care system rose more than 50% in FY 2008 over the previous year.
In October, Majors and her children got a room at Hilda Barg, where they had come occasionally for food and clothing. Sanders remembers when she first met Majors and her children. Admurel's face struck her: "He had a stillness that I was a little bit intrigued with that kids don't usually have," she says. Though Sanders has served thousands of families over the past 19 years, this family stood out. "[Majors] never stopped working on all her goals, including making and saving money. Her attitude is not typical," says Sanders. "If she is able to get out of homelessness, it will be extraordinary- and I know it will not be for lack of effort."
Sanders' center-run by Volunteers of America-has nine rooms, which can hold up to 36 adults and children. It turned away up to 200 people per month last winter. The Majorses were one of the fortunate families accepted through the center's competitive screening process.
"We felt so at home from the time we came in here," Majors says. Though the center is typically for short-term shelter, the Majorses' stay was extended through the holidays. When they spent Christmas at the center, Admurel and Vanessa received countless gifts donated by the community. It was absolution for Majors. "They had to give everything away," she says. "But then they got it all back." The staff at Hilda Barg helped get the Majors family into a transitional housing program through Prince William County's Office of Housing and Community Development.
Majors still sometimes goes to Sunday morning food and clothing handouts at Hilda Barg. Sanders says the growth in need has overwhelmed her small operation, with up to 250 families waiting in the parking lot one week last winter. She now limits the event to 50 families. There is no paperwork to fill out, as Sanders doesn't want families to have to prove their need. "If you're willing to stand in line in the parking lot of a homeless shelter to look througha bin of shoes," Sanders says, "then you need a pair of shoes."
Majors can remain in Prince William County's transitional housing for two years, while she participates in weekly classes to learn how to manage her budget and prepare her family to live on their own. These days, their new home, a two-story, three-bedroom townhouse in Woodbridge, Virginia, provides a quiet place for Vanessa and Admurel to do their homework and a yard where they can play with friends. At home recently, showing off her new space, Majors walked upstairs to the second floor and talked about enrolling at NOVA Woodbridge, where she planned to start classes in phlebotomy. She was looking forward to doing homework alongside Vanessa and Admurel. Her footsteps echoed in the stairwell, bouncing between the cement block walls and the hardwood floors; there was little furniture in the house to quell the noise.
Admurel's room, at the top of the stairs, had clothing sorted by cardboard boxes. The boxes were next to a small closet, the bottom of which held shopping bags full of donated toys. Majors had hung her son's clothing, most of it donated by Hilda Barg, above the toys carefully by type: several t-shirts on the left, pairs of jeans on pants hangers in the middle, and long-sleeved shirts to the right. Over the top of the folded closet doors draped two thin comforters, which Majors washed that morning. When these damp blankets were dry later that night, Admurel, now 13, would lay them out on the hardwood floor and go to sleep. The next day, he would fold them up, stack one on top of the other, and go to school. Like other 13-year-old boys, he rides the school bus, plays in gym class, and does his homework. Unlike most 13-year-old boys, though, he has no bed.
Later, Majors walked outside to check on her children, who were playing basketball in the parking lot. She stood next to her gray Taurus and made small talk with her neighbors-neighbors, a concept that seemed so distant eight months ago. Majors does not want to give up her car, despite its bad memories. She thinks keeping the car will be a good reminder for her children: "It will give them a chance to see where we came from, and where we are going to go."
Emily Shenk is the Editor-in-Chief of Children's Voice.
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