Whenever we tour a new visitor to one of our Play House programs, more often than not they’ll say something to the effect of “I never realized there were homeless children here [meaning in the United States].” I’ve come to the conclusion that they’re not really expressing surprise at the fact of child homelessness, but instead are grappling with the implications of child homelessness.
This reaction isn’t surprising because thinking about children and homelessness is painful and discomfiting. Moreover, people experiencing homelessness in general tend to be a peripheral group at best and an invisible group at worst. That is, unless they’re right in front of you, in which case they’re often considered a nuisance (think Lincoln Park in Downtown Long Beach).
Our collective perception of homelessness is also informed by popular media images. You’ve seen them; men and women pushing shopping carts, or asleep under cardboard or newspaper.
The remaining 75-77% is made up of individuals and families who are living in cars, motels, shelters, and garages, or are doubled or tripled-up in other people’s homes or apartments. And, unlike HUD’s detailed definition of chronic homelessness which paints a pretty vivid and specific picture, the circumstances underlying episodic homelessness are harder to pin down and categorize. Of course, there are big indicators - domestic violence and substance abuse among them - but often it’s a combination of a lot of things that lead people who never thought they’d become homeless, who don’t “look homeless,” down this terrible path.
When I look back on my childhood I see so many points where my family could have fallen into homelessness – emigrating to the US from Mexico, staying with relatives until we could get a place of our own, living in low-income, resource-scarce neighborhoods, having one parent who worked incredibly hard but couldn't speak the language and another parent who spoke English all right, but struggled with substance abuse and didn't work, having no health insurance and consequently, infrequent medical care. My mother, my sisters and I all worked so hard, and yet, if one of us had gotten sick, if one of us had lost our job, if we’d had to move unexpectedly...these or any of a number of other x-factors might have made the difference between the relatively stable life I had, and one far more precarious.
I bet a lot of us could do the same math and come to the same conclusion.
That’s why seeing children who are experiencing homelessness is so jarring. They don’t look homeless. So, that’s what new visitors to the Play House are grappling with. They’re thinking, “This could be my child or my family.” And, they’re right.