Wednesday, December 7, 2011

"Where you are isn't where you're going"

We held an Open House in our Community Room last night. The room was full of resident families, board members, volunteers and staff. We were all chatting and enjoying the atmosphere when one of the residents told his story in a way that reminded each of us why we do this – work for a nonprofit and commit to this mission.

He was a meteorologist for 20 years, when he got an opportunity to go to an internet weather site for $10,000 a year more. He was making $95,000 a year.

You can guess what comes next.

The internet company went bust and shut down.

He tried to get back on as a meteorologist, but no surprise in this economy, he couldn’t find anything.

In the midst of looking for a job, he had some major things happen in his personal life. The worst of which was his wife walked away and left him to raise his beautiful twin boys by himself.

The spiral into homelessness ended when he and the boys were at a homeless shelter that pointed him to our program.

He expressed his gratitude with dignity for the support he and the boys found while he rebuilds their lives together. It has given him the platform to go back to school to become a surgical technician. He will start his final semester next month.

There are lots of ways that his story inspires - the perseverance, the self-determination - but, the most personal for me was in the way he accepted help when he needed it. He will forever be the model for me of accepting a "hand up" with grace, while neither expecting nor depending on it.

I’ll share more of the research from the Institute for Children, Poverty & Homelessness next month, but wanted give you the same gift of inspiration that we all received last night.

I hope you have a wonderful holiday season filled with hope and joy.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

What else makes homeless families different than other poor families?

The fourth in the ICPH series on families with young children who become homeless identifies still another trait that distinguishes them from poor families who never become homeless.

How old was mom when she gave birth?

Poor women who never became homeless gave birth when they were older. Mothers who became homeless were around 20; under 20 if they were unmarried and lacked a high school education. Mothers who never became homeless were 22-23.

One of the really unfortunate side effects is the impact on the children of young mothers. They are more likely “to have academic and behavioral problems, to display delinquent behaviors such as truancy and fighting, to be incarcerated, and to initiate early sexual activity and become young mothers themselves.”

Homeless and at risk mothers had children with more partners than those who did not become homeless. Having multiple partners “has become increasingly prevalent, particularly among the poor, minority, and unmarried. This growth is alarming; multiple-partner fertility is associated among both mothers and fathers with relationship instability, decreased rates of marriage, lower social support from friends and family, and higher rates of depression.” Their children exhibit poor physical health and more externalizing behaviors like aggression, defiance, theft, vandalism, etc.

While we see the family when the mother and child or children are older, the homeless children who come through our program show the academic, behavioral and health problems the study describes.

The brief goes on to recommend that policy makers interested in reducing child and family homelessness consider programs promoting responsible family planning. We would add, and promote the value of education, and parenting, and job skills, … The list goes on and on.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Another trait of poor families who become homeless

The third brief from the Institute for Children Poverty & Homelessness series on families with young children who become homeless arrived this month. This one examined the role of family structure.

Only 15% of the mothers who were married when their child was born became homeless in the 5 years of the study. Only 25% of the married mothers were even at risk of becoming homeless.

In contrast 56% of the poor mothers who became homeless and 41% of those who were at risk of homelessness were single. Only 23% of the families that were always stably housed were single.

“Married-parent families benefit from higher earnings and economies of scale as well as greater social and institutional support relative to single-parent families. The economic benefits to marriage are especially relevant for women from poor families. While cohabiting families share some similar characteristics with married-parent families, cohabitation results in the accumulation of fewer economic resources.” In other words, cohabiting couples are poorer.

The study adds an interesting observation just in case you think that marriage will lift poor, single women out of poverty. “Mothers who marry differ from those who remain single in ways that bear direct impact on poverty: They are older, more educated, healthier, and have higher earnings.”

I was surprised to learn that “Children raised in cohabiting households exhibit greater behavioral and emotional problems, lower school engagement, and greater delinquency than those in two-parent married or single-parent households.” They believe it is because cohabitation is less well defined and requires less commitment than marriage. There was no direct explanation of why children in single parent families would have less problems.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

More on Fragile Families and homelessness

The Institute for Children, Poverty & Homelessness released their second brief from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study not long ago. Again they are looking at the characteristics that make homeless families different from families that are poor, but do not become homeless. This time they looked at the mother’s education as a factor.

“Compared to mothers who experienced homelessness or were at risk of homelessness, stably housed mothers are both more likely to have attained a high school diploma and less likely to have pursued further schooling.” Who would have guessed it. We always assume that more education will improve your job prospects.

So, what is really happening?

The key is the type of advanced education being pursued. Both the costs and benefits of programs can vary significantly by program type. High cost, vocational or career programs rather than college may create more instability than opportunity. “For profit” colleges have been criticized for their recruiting practices, low graduation rates and poor career placement. So the mother who thinks she’s making life better for her children by enrolling in some programs often ends up a dropout, saddled with significant debt, and no better employment prospects than before.

How sad is that.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Fragile Families

The Institute for Children Homelessness and Poverty (ICPH) sent out a research brief last month called Profiles of Risk: Characterizing Housing Instability. This brief “puts a spotlight on the characteristics that make families who experience homelessness different from poor families who consistently maintain stable housing.”

The research draws on the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (FFCWS). The FFCWS was designed to understand the lives of children born to unmarried parents, so within 48 hours of birth they interviewed parents of 5,000 children and again when the children were one, three and five years old. The FFCWS showed that compared to married parents, unmarried parents were, among other things, more likely to be poor. The ICPH brief goes on to state “As a result, families in the FFCWS are and economically disadvantaged group, making it an ideal source of information for those interested in homelessness and residential instability.”

The ICPH brief states that “Families facing homelessness are also the most poor of the disadvantaged families in the FFCWS sample; on average they have incomes that are 20% lower than those of poor, stably housed families.”

It goes on to note that “Only 15% of children who experienced homelessness between ages one and five had a mother who was married at their birth. Among poor mothers who maintained stable housing, over half (53%) were married at the child’s birth.”

From the FFWCS “In conclusion, children born to unmarried parents are disadvantaged relative to children born to married parents in terms of parental capabilities and family stability. Additonally, parents’ marital status at the time of a child’s birth is a good predictor of longer-term family stability and complexity, both of which influence children’s longer-term wellbeing.”

Monday, June 20, 2011

Homelessness during the recession

The Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) released their Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress (AHAR) on June 14th. Based on 2010 data, the report showed that homelessness did not increase at the height of the recession, despite the economy.

That seems to fly in the face of logic. So why didn’t it increase?

The National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH) believes that stimulus funding to prevent or rapidly end homelessness helped. “The $1.5 billion in stimulus funds, called the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program (HPRP) offered communities significant new resources to curb homelessness resulting from the recession. The AHAR reports that HPRP funds prevented and ended homelessness for an estimated 690,000 people (my emphasis) in the reporting year, and the program also decreased the length of time people in some areas experienced homelessness.”

As one of the 13 agencies investing HPRP funds to prevent newly at risk families from falling into homelessness in Kansas City, MO, we helped only a small percentage of the 690,000 people helped nationwide. While we kept 125 people from becoming homeless, at an average of 100 families (300-400 people), our waiting list for our transitional housing was the highest it had been in years.

Our experience really isn’t inconsistent with the AHAR report, when you dig down into the subpopulations among the homeless. The number of homeless people in families increased by 6% from 2009 to 2010; 20% from 2007 to 2010.

The NAEH identified the real dilemma in the next couple of years. “Unfortunately, HPRP expires in 2012 and there will not be assistance for those hundreds of thousands of households that are facing homelessness.” … “The federal government is considering deep cuts to domestic discretionary spending which will affect poverty programs and social services across the board. State and local governments have already begun to make deep cuts. An efficient homelessness system supplied with significant emergency resources staved off a new wave of homelessness in 2009 and 2010. But with as high unemployment continues, housing prices rise, and safety net programs are shredded, this trend is likely to shift direction; there will be more homeless people and fewer resources to help them. In the face of growing need and deep budget cuts, an important principle must be to protect the most vulnerable. Certainly, homeless people meet that criterion. The homeless assistance system, in which federal resources leverage significant state, local and private dollars, is the ultimate safety net for the most vulnerable people; there is nothing beneath it. The programs work, they are solution oriented, cost effective and humane. A decision to support these programs and the vulnerable populations they serve would not only be an ethical decision, but a smart one.”

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Transformation, not just transition

We held a strategic planning retreat last Saturday. I always get some gem from the experience and this one was no exception.

I realized that the core of Community LINC is not transitional housing for homeless families. At our core is transformation. Everything we do goes far beyond striving just to end homelessness.

We equip the parents not only to find and keep a permanent home, but to be less dependent on public assistance, and more dependent on themselves. If they have enough capacity for change, we equip them to begin the rise out of poverty. We equip them to transform their lives and that of their children.

Friday, April 22, 2011

How's it going?

Better really. Given the news that people are more pessimistic about the economy, I wanted to share some encouraging signs for our residents in 2010. For the first time since 2007, more than 1 in 5 residents were earning more than the poverty level for a family of three when they exited the program. The real low point for our families was 2009, when less than one in 10 had income over the poverty level when they left. Even though most graduates in 2010 remained among the working poor, almost 70% had jobs when they left. In 2009, only 36% had jobs when they exited the program.

For our families, there is a strong correlation between how long they stay in the program and whether they have a job. The average length of stay for unemployed people is usually 5-6 months less than for those who find jobs. Residents who experience a long period of unemployment show signs of depression far longer than those who find job, so we believe they leave because they get discouraged.

As more jobs become available, more of our residents will not only leave for permanent homes, but will rise out of poverty. The high point for our families was 2007, when 90% were employed when they exited and 41% were above the poverty level. It may be a slow process, but our families are slowly working back to a better place. I hope we all are.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Benefits and barriers

We’ve been preparing for a “Meet and Greet” with our local, state and federal legislators. In thinking about the issues we want to bring to their attention - barriers our families face in their path to self-sufficiency- we got another real time example. The mom in one of our client families – homeless until the family came to live in our housing – has a new job. She was stunned to find out that she also lost food stamps and has to come up with $70 per month to keep Medicaid for her baby. No time to accumulate some money. No tapering off. It’s just cut off. It’s ironic that a step toward self-sufficiency caused her to question whether her family could afford for her to work.

Our economy is really complex, and we have to be grateful that our government has created safety nets for people at the lowest end of the economic scale. Unfortunately, you can lose some of those safety net benefits even if you’re the working poor. Nobody intentionally designs government programs to discourage marriage for people who need childcare assistance or make it so that someone is better off economically if they turn down a raise to keep their food stamps. But, that’s what happens.