Tuesday, September 4, 2012

What I've Learned About Family Homelessness

I joined the Sheffield Place staff just over two years ago as the director of development.  I came to the job with no background in human services, but with some exposure to homelessness and domestic violence through volunteer experience.  As an outsider looking in, I’ve learned much about family homelessness in that time.  Here are some of the lessons:

The problem is huge.  I hadn’t realized.  Millions of people – up to 3.5 million by some counts – are homeless in America at some time during the year.  In Kansas City, 17,000 people experience homelessness annually.  What’s even more shocking is that nearly half (48.2%) of the homeless population in our community is made up of people living in families.  The vast majority of these families are single mothers with young children.  That’s nearly 8500 mothers and children without housing.  Yet they are invisible.  They don’t stand on street corners.  Rather, they couch surf, stay “house to house,” sleep in their cars, or camp out in park shelters, bus stops, or vacant houses. 
I talk with them every day.  We receive 100 calls a week.  They call Sheffield Place looking for housing.  We’ve greatly expanded our capacity since I started here, but we’re always full and have a long waiting list.  The homeless shelters are always full as well.  It is difficult to think about the women and children who can’t find shelter. 

The problem is deep.  The economy does not produce enough jobs to employ everyone who needs work.  The jobs that exist for people with few or no skills – barely pay enough to support a minimal existence even with public assistance. 
But that’s not the only problem.  These mothers and children are reeling from the effects of the trauma they have endured.  The mothers recount childhoods filled with the chaos of poverty, homelessness, sexual assault at the hands of family friends, beatings, psychological abuse, living in households where alcohol and drug abuse were the staples of daily life, and simple neglect.  Their relationships in adulthood mirror those they witnessed growing up.  Without intervention, the pattern will continue with their children. 

Band-aids won’t fix this problem.  Unless these families receive the sort of intensive therapy and other services over a sustained period of time, such as those Sheffield Place provides, the generational cycle will continue.

The problem is often misunderstood.  Many people think of homelessness as a man standing at an intersection asking for handouts.  That’s part of it.  Homelessness exists on a continuum.  On one end we find the people of the street.  Most of them are the victims of severe mental illness and chronic substance abuse.  At other end are people who cycle in and out of homelessness.  These people can become self-sufficient with adequate support as they recover from mental illness and addiction.

Change is possible.  I have had the privilege of seeing mothers transform themselves and their families.  Their example inspires me every day.  One mom is in recovery from alcohol and meth addiction.  A 6th grade dropout who used to prostitute herself of drug money, she is completing her GED and plans to become a substance abuse counselor.  Another mom – a teenage mother – is also in recovery and works full-time to support herself and her children. 

Many dedicated, thoughtful people are eager to help.  I’m also inspired by the hundreds of people who assist in innumerable ways at Sheffield Place – as volunteers in the children’s program, as tutors for the moms who are in school and for the children, as office helpers, as facilities maintenance workers, as special event volunteers, bakers, quilters, and as donors of monetary and in-kind support.  Without them, Sheffield Place would not be able to change lives and empower families to become self-sufficient.

All told, the past 2+ years have been among the most challenging, rewarding, and enjoyable of my career in fundraising and nonprofit management.  I look forward to many more.

David Hanzlick, CFRE
Director of Program & Development