Amid the welter of accusation and recrimination that marks not only our national politics but the Catholic blogosphere, it’s easy to forget that millions of American kids are hurting. Schools are an important venue for collecting data on child and family homelessness because studies have shown that up to 87% of homeless families manage to keep their kids enrolled. In my own little seaside town of 25,000, our school department just announced that there are 200 homeless children among us. Some live in cars and tents in a local state park. Some are sleeping on couches in friends’ apartments or in temporary housing provided by our local homeless shelter. Some live with their families in the now deserted tourist motels that dot the highway outside of town. Recently, one of these motels burned to the ground. No one was killed, thank God, but several families – including about 25 children – lost what little they had. There was a brief flurry of local press coverage after the fire, complete with combox clucking about how terrible it all is, but now these kids have dissolved once more into the white noise of daily life. It’s mind over matter: if we put them out of our minds they won’t really matter. And anyway, this is America. It’s not like anyone is starving, right?
A recent study by the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth (NAEHCY) revealed that the number of homeless children enrolled in school had exploded by 41% between 2006 and 2009 to almost 1 million. I couldn’t find later statistics than those, but with the avalanche of foreclosures and unemployment that continues to roll over the American economy it’s a good bet that the numbers were higher in 2011, and will be higher still in 2012. Certainly that’s the sense at the WARM Center homeless shelter and soup kitchen, where I serve as a board member, We’ve seen a huge increase in the number of families with children coming for meals or looking for shelter. Another group in our town started something called The Supper Table, where free family-style meals are served in a restaurant setting every Monday evening. They’ve averaged nearly 100 kids a week. I’m also involved in the St. Vincent DePaul conference in my parish. A few years ago most of our clients were the hardcore indigent, many mentally ill or dealing with substance abuse problems. Today, the majority of our cases are the working poor, formerly middle class families ravaged by unemployment, underemployment, foreclosure, and medical bills. They’ve lost homes, jobs, cars, self-respect and in some cases, hope. Unaccustomed to accessing social services, they frequently languish while the debts climb higher and their options grow fewer. This is the feeder population for homelessness in the New America, and there are lots and lots of kids.
Kids get the bill for all the failures of adults. Mom and dad get divorced? The kids pay. The president decides to send dad overseas again? The kids pay. Financial institutions, aided by their retainers in government, turn into criminal cartels? The kids pay. The landlord has to meet his monthly nut? The kids pay. Kids always get the bill. Now, I know that a misanthrope like Rush Limbaugh ridicules talk about “the chirren,” but he’s wrong. He hasn’t knocked on the steamed up windows of a rusting Chevrolet, where a family of four is settling down for the evening. He hasn’t seen the small, dark eyes staring back at him, fearful, confused, hopeful. He hasn’t heard the young teenaged girl weeping from embarrassment while her little brother asks a stranger for food. If we talk about nothing else in the next year, we should talk about the children.
Apropos of the reflection above, here’s a video of the song “Hard Times Come Again No More,” written by Stephen Foster (Oh! Susanna) in 1854, and sung here by Mavis Staples.