Thursday, December 27, 2012

Are we really that different?

In the last couple of weeks I've heard the resentment of a friend and my son toward how the money they pay in taxes is spent. I say I've heard it because so often those of us who are considered liberals (either social or political), don't hear what more conservative people have to say. We dismiss them as having no empathy and as claiming everyone who receives some form of public assistance has a sense of entitlement.

That isn't true of either of them.

My friend is very generous in giving to causes that break the cycle of poverty, especially for the children.

My son has less to give financially, but he appreciates the same thing. What he struggles with is a cousin who didn't work, lived rent free off of parents and friends, and got food stamps for her kids. He has always worked hard for his family and resented it when his taxes went to provide her with food stamps. What surfaced it again for him recently was standing in a checkout line behind a guy using his food stamp debit card to pay for beef jerky and Mountain Dew. His view of people who get public assistance has been tainted by his cousin's sense of entitlement. The guy in the check out line just reinforced his impression of bad judgment and selfishness.

My friend's resentment arises from knowing that his income is being targeted for tax increases. Rather than getting to direct his money to invest in charities he believes in, he will lose control of what it funds.

I respect both of them, so I started thinking about what makes me feel the same way. We definitely see people who make ridiculous demands when they come into our program. I have the same feelings my son does when I hear about one of those demands. Thankfully, the people who make them are unusual enough that they become a "can you believe it" anecdote. I doubt that any of our staff would last in a program serving homeless families if most of them came in with a massive sense of entitlement.

When I think about losing the deduction for the interest I pay on my mortgage, I get the resentment my friend feels at the idea of being taxed more.

There isn't a solution to the dilemma inherent in the fiscal cliff that will overcome the resentment that either of them feel.  Actually, I suspect there isn't a solution that any of us will really like.  We may come at it from different directions, but we usually can find more to understand than the liberal and conservative labels might lead us to believe.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

One child at a time

A note I received from our Children’s Program Director:

“One of our teens has been through some tough things, and appears to be a tough 15 year old by the way he looks. I have had conversations with him where he told me about things happening in his life… drug use, gang violence (even in his family), his suspensions from school for being defiant to teachers, his hearing and eye sight disabilities. If you looked at him you would think he is an intimidating looking teen.

Last night after program he was walking home and looking very sad, underneath his hat, and inside his hood. I walked him home and asked him what was going on. He didn’t want to talk and I told him he didn’t have to if he didn’t want to… finally he dropped his toughness for a minute and confessed in a very sincere way that “sometimes the other kids don’t talk to me”. “I don’t know why they don’t like me”.

I spoke with him about his confidence, his appearance, and the way he talks with people. I told him he should smile more. He didn’t realize that he came off as being a little intimidating. I told him that I liked him, and that I thought the other kids liked him, and he smiled.

We both went to the playground and talked basketball with the other boys. When I left he shook my hand and told me to have a good night.

It reminded me that deep down, all children just want to be is accepted.”

It gives you hope doesn’t it? That encounter gives one young man an opening to change how he relates to the world. And, how he relates to the world can change his future.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The housing burden

The Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City’s Low to Moderate Income Survey for the 3rd quarter showed a slight decrease. Employment improved slightly, but the improvement was offset by the decline in the availability of affordable housing and credit.

Our homeless families, of course, fall into the low income segment the survey measures. We saw some of the same improvement in employment recently. The average wage for the adults who found jobs was hovering around $10/hour until September when it rose to $12.

At $12/hour, a single parent will earn about $25,000 per year. Housing costs will start to become a burden if rent and utilities climb together are above 30% of income = $7,500/year or $624/mo. Rent alone averages $784 for a two bedroom apartment in the Kansas City area, which means our families will remain financially fragile.

However, our families will not be alone. A study from the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University, a record 20.2 million people spent more than 50% of their income on housing as far back as 2010. Most of these families will live in or on the brink of poverty, but the vast majority will not become homelessness.

If history prevails, 80% of our parents will not become homeless again. They may struggle, but they leave better equipped to provide for themselves and their children. And, the children leave knowing they have options that may break the cycle of poverty.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

How important is a father in the life of a child?

In my life, and my son’s, the answer was easy - “he was crucial.”

But, how many of us realize that, for a poor child, a father’s involvement can be the difference between homelessness and stability?

The tenth research brief from the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness highlights the characteristics of “fathers of poor and homeless children and examines the differences in fathers’ involvement, finding that unstably housed children have fathers who contribute less to their financial and developmental well-being.”

That’s what I would have guessed, too.

The parents don’t have to be married for the child to benefit. The father just has to be involved. “Children whose fathers are accessible and engaged display fewer behavioral problems, lower levels of delinquency, higher IQ scores, and less psychological distress than children with less-involved fathers.”

It’s interesting that the father benefits more if the parents are married. “Married men are healthier, happier, and engage in less risky behaviors than men who remain single.” The research shows that poor men who marry “experience greater income growth and are more strongly attached to the labor force than those who remain single.” Poor fathers who don’t marry the mother work and earn less.

Surprisingly, a lot of poor mothers choose not to marry the father, because they’re afraid they won’t be able to rely on the father in the long run, but will lose their benefits (TANF or food stamps) in the short run. Our young mothers often choose not to apply for TANF, because the State of Missouri will first go after the father for child support. Some don’t want to jeopardize the relationship with the father and others want to control the fathers’ involvement with the children. They reason, if they don’t collect child support formally, they can limit the father’s contact.

We have had more two parent families in the last few years than in all the previous years of our program.

One of the two parent families spoke to the current residents at our graduation ceremony last week. We couldn’t have asked for a better message from that father. He encouraged the current residents to see our program as an opportunity and to take responsibility for their lives and their children’s. He certainly has. This particular father found a good job and is buying a house using his VA benefits.

From our perspective, the odds are on the side of this family. 80% of the residents who find a permanent home keep it for at least 5 years. The data from this study tells us that his child has a good chance to live a stable life and never be homeless again.

Friday, August 31, 2012

It's complicated

The world of homelessness is complicated. Think of a collage of faces - teens living on their own, children living with their families, single moms and dads and their children, two parent families, and adults who have been living on the streets for years. The needs are very different and the solutions are just as varied. It’s a complicated picture.

We don’t pretend to be an expert in providing services to anyone but homeless families. We focus on families because the lives of the children can be changed if their parent(s) can get on their feet. And, we focus on equipping the parents to provide for themselves and their children.

We’re about to enter into a study with Dr. Jeff Ehrlich from Park University to identify the characteristics of the families who succeed and those who fail. So, I’ve been analyzing the data we already collect to find correlations that predict success (leaving for permanent housing) for our families.

The strongest correlation I’ve found isn’t with the length of time they stay in our program or even whether they are employed when they leave (think subsidized housing). The strongest correlation is with their self-sufficiency scores at entry. No big surprise really. It fits with the conclusion a friend of mine drew in her doctoral thesis studying homeless teens. Inner resiliency was a key factor for the teens who were able to exit homelessness.

That made me look at the self-sufficiency assessment scores for some of the families I know with new eyes. I have new hope for a single father who became homeless after his wife died in 2010. She had kidney disease from the time they married in 1999, but still gave birth to two daughters. He lost a good job taking care of his family during her protracted final illness.

From personal experience, I know that the loss of a spouse is one of the biggest blows in life. But, I was fortunate. My husband was older, our children were grown and helped in his care. My employer gave me family leave. He had life insurance, and I didn’t lose my job.

We all experience difficult passages in our lives, but we have different “safety nets.”  Mine was bigger and stronger than our single dad.

Please remember that you can’t paint the homeless with one brush. The lives of homeless families are complicated in ways you may never experience, but you can hopefully understand.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

No easy answer to budget deficits

One of the observations from the eighth brief in the Institute for Children Poverty and Homelessness’ series highlighting the characteristics of families who become homeless with young children: “Children who attend early education programs are also more likely to succeed in school and earn higher salaries and less likely to commit crime or utilize public assistance.”

Here’s a disturbing thought for the future. Across the board budget cuts in January 2013 would eliminate funding for 364 Head Start jobs and serve 1,745 fewer children in Missouri alone according to a July 25, 2012, report called Under Threat: Sequestration’s Impact on Nondefense Jobs and Services from Senator Tom Harkin. Senator Harkin Chairs the Senate Appropriattions Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, and Related Agencies.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

What do (homeless) children need?

We always look at studies with an eye towards what we can apply to our own programming. The seventh research brief in the series from the Institute for Children, Poverty & Homelessness shifts the focus to the children.
We have long felt that the best impact we can have on homelessness will be through the children.  

The brief tells us that “poverty is linked to lower-quality parent-child interaction; children who grow up poor tend to have home environments characterized by more authoritarian parenting and fewer opportunities for in-home learning than those of higher-income families.” But, it goes on to say “enrollment in high-quality child care programs can moderate the negative impacts of poverty.”
The homeless mothers in this study were the least likely to obtain the subsidies that would help them afford child care. Even when they do get the child care subsidy, “poor parents with fewer economic resources are less likely to select center-based care and more likely to rely on relatives and less formal care arrangements than those with more resources.”
The decision to use the less formal child care arrangements has a lasting impact on their children.
“Center-based formal child care programs have been linked to positive developmental outcomes for poor children. High-quality child care can positively impact “language skills, cognitive growth, and socio-economic development among poor children.”
Would you be surprised to know that the brief reported that only 3% of the homeless mothers in their study enrolled their children in Head Start? While there is a grain of truth in the myth that the educational benefits of Head Start fade-out over time, according to Steven Barnett of the National Institute for Early Education Research, “nearly all studies that measured school progress find lasting impacts on grade repetition, special education and high school graduation.”
We have long guided our families to enroll their children in the wonderful non-profit day care up the street from us. The study reinforces the value of our plan to add a collaboration with another non-profit that can help place the kids in Head Start programs.
We’re also trying to teach alternatives to the authoritarian parenting style often seen in poor families.
In a 1995 book called Meaningful Differences, Betty Hart and Todd Risley wanted to understand why a curriculum they helped design gained only mediocre results for the children in a poor black Kansas City neighborhood. It led them to conclude that differences in parenting factor into the gaps between upper- and lower-income children.
Hart and Risley found that the average number of words heard in an hour by professors’ kids was 2,150, 1,250 for working-class children, and 620 for children in welfare families. More than that, the parents didn’t just talk less, they didn’t talk as kindly to their kids and communication could be summed up in the word “no.”
But parenting style can change, when the parent grasps the impact on her children. Our Senior Director of Programs was thrilled to read a response to a family problem solving question for one of our life skills modules. The mom said she wanted to change the way she disciplines – from yelling to talking in a calm and clear way to her children. She wants to stop punishing, and begin disciplining her kids. With a mom who takes responsibility and "owns" her role like that, there is lots of hope for her kids.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

More light at the end of the tunnel

We study the impact of our programs on the lives of our homeless families in a number of ways. We assess our influence on their self-sufficiency, getting a job, learning new coping skills, re-establishing a permanent home for their children, etc.
We also measure whether their financial well-being improves by the time they leave the program.

We know from Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank studies of low & moderate income populations, that the people on the lower end of the income scale suffered more during the recession and felt the impact longer.
When we graphed the average income for our families from entry to exit, we saw a vivid illustration of the impact of the economic downturn on people at the bottom end of the financial ladder.
Average income for our exiting families hasn’t approached the poverty level since 2007.

Even though the average amount of public assistance was consistently lower by the time they exited and taxable income was higher, in some years it was barely so. Parents who came in with jobs in 2008 and 2009, lost them, and could only find part-time or lower paying jobs. Their jobs alone didn’t pay nearly enough to adequately feed and house their families.

Things started improving in 2010 and 2011. Let’s pray for light at the end of the tunnel in 2012.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Nothing left to lose

Every couple of years, Scott Jolley, of Scott Jolley Productions, creates a video for us. This year, he and Teresa, our Associate Executive Director, wanted to create an image that opens a moment in the lives of families on the edge of homelessness for those of us who have never been in such desperate need. I’ve attached a link to his blog about Community LINC so that you can see the images he captured and read what it meant to him.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Why Mom's health can make a family homeless

The sixth policy brief from the Institute for Children, Poverty & Homelessness (ICPH) spotlights Mom’s health as big factor when financially fragile families become homeless.

It isn’t really surprising when you think about it, and we see it quite often in the homeless families who come into our program.

All poor women “experience physical and mental health challenges at greater rates than their non-poor counterparts. Poor women often lack access to health care and are more likely to engage in risky health behaviors than those who are not poor. Women and children living in poverty are also exposed to physical and social environments, such as unsafe neighborhoods, toxins, and social isolation, which in addition to stress from the experience of poverty itself can be damaging to health. Residential crowding and poor housing quality have also been linked to adverse health outcomes.”

It follows that health problems can make it difficult for poor women to stay employed and maintain any kind of stability. They are less likely to have jobs with paid sick leave and flexible child care than women who aren’t poor. About 10% of very low income women on welfare lose their jobs due to poor health.

Not just single parent families are vulnerable to homelessness if Mom is in poor health. A number of our two-parent families became homeless when family income plummeted because Mom lost her job as a result of a difficult pregnancy or other health issues.

There aren’t any easy answers to improving the health of very low income families. While homeless children have Medicaid, the parents have no health care coverage. They rely on emergency room visits rather than an ongoing doctor/patient relationship.

What we can do is give them a safe, stable place to live for a while and the counseling to deal with their mental health issues. We can advocate for our clients in managing their own health care and equip them to better manage it after they leave for their own permanent homes.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The only thing we know for certain is what already happened

2011 was a complex year for Community LINC. Thanks to our donors, we were able to provide a home for homeless families and services that equip them for independence. We were able to make some needed building repairs. We began to comprehend the building repairs that are still needed (the bad news), assessed our program performance (the good news) and developed a strategic plan to guide us through 2014.

But, the U.S. poverty rate was the highest since 1993 and our waiting list averaged more than 70 families each month. Homeless families did not share in the economic recovery. The Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City’s 4th quarter 2011 Low and Moderate Income Survey (LMI) confirms that “the financial status of the LMI community continues to deteriorate.” Jobs that pay well are still few and far between and our residents often lack the skills to compete effectively for those jobs. Affordable housing is still in short supply, with the wait time for subsidized housing in Kansas City increasing to five years.

Despite all of the barriers, about 70% of our families left for permanent homes in 2011. The 38 families who exited saved an astounding average of $1,500 apiece. Moreover, the cumulative increase in taxable earnings of the families who have left since 2007 exceeded $600,000 and the decrease in public assistance was almost $200,000.

Our families are successful because we screen for people both willing and able to make a life change and then equip them for independence and self-sufficiency. Our new mission statement says it all - “to end homelessness, impact poverty, and remove the barriers to self-sufficiency for the families we serve.”

Each year, I’m inspired by everyone I encounter through Community LINC - the families who have committed to a life change, the staff who have made this mission their lives, the volunteers who give their time for people they never met, and the donors willing to give strangers a proverbial “hand up.” In 2012 we will pilot two new programs to extend our services to more families and serve that extensive waiting list. I hope that you will choose to be a part of this meaningful mission.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

You've Got a Friend

Having a friend, or more formally, a support system, is something that differentiates poor mothers who don’t slide into homelessness from those who do.

The fifth policy brief from the Institute for Children, Poverty & Homelessness (ICPH) on the characteristics of fragile families who become homeless makes a number of points. But, the key role of family and friends is the one that struck me the most.

If a poor mother has support from family and friends, she will be able to work more, she will earn more, and she will rely less on welfare than those with weaker bonds.

So, why would that be the case?

The safety net of family and friends relieves some of the financial strains of poverty – they help with groceries, diapers, clothing, and rent. Family and friends who can help out in an emergency with child care or transportation make it possible for a poor mom to get to work and can mean the difference between keeping and losing a job.

The picture for poor mothers who have weak or erratic support is bleak. They struggle to get a foothold in the labor market and end up homeless more often than their counterparts with strong support.

It’s hard to prove or disprove, but we’ve always felt that one of the reasons our program is so successful in transitioning families out of homelessness, is that we give them a readymade community of support. The families live together on a single campus. The adults attend life skills classes and mental wellness groups together. The children play and study together in their classes. They meet other people at the same place in their lives and making the same life changes. They watch out for each other’s kids. They give each other rides.

First they have new neighbors and then they have new friends. And, now we know how important those friendships can be.