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Gimme Shelter: Government Policies Fail Homeless Mothers and Kids

The plight of disabled adults and hungry kids get short shrift this election year and only one party platform addresses remedies.

Along with the immediate causes – disability, addiction, inadequate income, exorbitant housing costs, foreclosure, domestic abuse – government policies at all levels contribute to homelessness among mothers and children.

Three years ago Daphna Browne [a pseudonym] was living in the Bronx with her then-10-year-old daughter. Life was difficult. Browne was on Social Security Disability because of severe depression and an anxiety disorder; still, if she was thrifty, she could pay her $650 monthly rent and support herself and her child.

Her life began to unravel, she says, when her landlord told her that she had to leave the one-family house she’d called home for more than two years. The reason? He didn’t need one. Under New York state law, tenants in buildings with fewer than six units can be evicted whenever an owner decides that he or she wants them out.

Browne tells me that she was aghast when she received legal papers directing her to move – after all, she had always paid her rent on time – so she immediately headed to Housing Court to contest the order. Although the judge gave her 60 days to find a new place to live, she and her daughter ended up in a shelter for homeless families when her search failed to turn up anything affordable. “I receive $1600 a month from Disability,” Browne says. “I’ve filled out many, many applications for subsidized housing, but so far, nothing. All these applications have gone nowhere. Meanwhile the staff in the shelter wants me to take an apartment for $1100 a month. How are two people gonna live on $500 a month for food, metro cards, utilities, clothing, a phone and personal items? Believe me, me and my daughter want out of the shelter. People there make problems.” Browne suddenly stops speaking, then shakes her head furiously, before rattling off a list of indignities, from security guards who are verbally abusive to constant antagonism and fighting between residents. “It’s not a healthy environment for a 13-year-old to grow up in and it’s bad for me, too,” she concludes.

Twenty-four-year-old Lissette Vega [also a pseudonym] and her 11-month-old son have lived in the same building as Browne for 14 months. “I became homeless when I left my baby’s father,” she says. “He’d been hitting me for a while, but it was getting worse. When I was six months pregnant, I realized I had to protect my child from him.” Although Vega works part-time, she says that her $9- an-hour salary is not enough for her to rent an apartment. Like virtually everyone in Brooklyn’s Auburn residence, she hopes to someday become eligible for a subsidized unit.

Browne and Vega are just two of the more than 3.5 million Americans – 41 percent of them families with young children – who the National Coalition for the Homeless estimates are without permanent domicile. Of course, the reasons people become homeless vary, but well-known culprits include disability, addiction, inadequate income, exorbitant housing costs and foreclosure. Women, however, face an additional causal factor: domestic abuse.

Let’s look at costs first. The US Census reports that the national median rent in 2009 was $842 a month for a two-bedroom apartment. Despite regional differences – the census names North Dakota as least expensive, with a median rent of $564, and Hawaii as the most costly, $1293 – housing everywhere is pricey. What’s more, the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) reports that more than 10,000 units of public housing are lost to demolition or sale each year – 165,000 government-sponsored apartments disappeared between 1995 and 2010 – causing what they call “a silent crisis impacting the housing stability of America’s lowest income residents.”

Now let’s turn to domestic violence. The National Coalition for the Homeless estimates that 28 percent of the families that entered the shelter system in 2008 did so to escape battering. In addition, the coalition reports that 63 percent of homeless women have experienced abuse at some point in their lives. Not surprisingly, they carry the scars of mistreatment – anger, insecurity, isolation and low self-esteem, among them – wherever they go, whether the shelter or the workplace.

And the problems, of course, go beyond the psychological. According to Rita Smith, executive director of the Denver-based National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), when poverty, homelessness and domestic abuse intersect, glaring gaps in social service delivery become evident. “Many communities are downsizing municipal programs for the homeless and for domestic violence survivors. Social services have been dramatically impacted. No program can say that it never turns anyone away anymore,” she begins. The people who are most at risk, she adds, are losing access to the support services that would have helped to keep them safe. “When they cut the court system, for example, a woman may have to wait several days to file for a restraining order,” she continues. “This puts her in greater danger. Likewise, when a police force is reduced, it increases the response time, so when a woman calls 911, it may take the police longer to arrive. When a shelter is full, a woman may turn around and go back to an abusive partner rather than sleep on the street.” What most infuriates her, she says, is that in some places shelters have been forced to reduce their staffs, so even though they may have 60 beds, they can only accommodate 30 to 40 women, because they don’t have enough workers to feed, counsel and clean up after a larger group.

Barbara Anderson runs Haven House, a shelter in Jeffersonville, Indiana that serves a largely rural population. “We started providing services in 1996 and now shelter between 60 and 90 people a night,” she says. “Forty-four percent of our residents are women, most of whom became homeless following a death, a divorce, or domestic violence. By the time they get to us, they’re stripped of any belief in themselves, whether due to episodic or chronic depression or because of abuse.”

Anderson’s pride in running the program is audible, and she quickly points out that Haven House allows people to stay as long as they need shelter. “It doesn’t make sense to force someone to leave a program after 30 days, but that’s common policy in many places,” she continues. “All homeless people face problems, but from what I’ve seen it’s always worse for women. It’s brutal on the streets. If you think you have a glass ceiling on a job, you should see what homeless women bump up against. The worst part is that women carry their experience with them forever.” Anderson reports that when she runs into former residents – even if it has been 12 or 15 years since they’ve been in the shelter – the encounters typically end tearfully. “Seeing me,” she says, “reminds the woman that somewhere along the way a promise was broken, somewhere along the way there was a breakdown of what should have happened.”

And politics? Is either party interested in assisting those made homeless by domestic abuse? Are the presidential contenders discussing the need to build affordable housing? And what about concrete efforts to stem relationship violence?

Although the short answer is “no,” Rita Smith of the National Task Force Against Domestic Violence credits the Obama administration for launching programs to address violence and sexual assault on college campuses and appointing a White House advisor on violence against women. “The administration has begun to talk about strategies to address the issues,” she says. “The ‘1is2many‘ ad campaign on ESPN is important, since it shows that the White House is willing to come out and say that there is nothing manly about beating women and kids.” Nonetheless, Smith concedes that budget shortfalls and reduced services can only be reversed by an infusion of funds, something that neither Democrats nor Republicans are currently promising or even suggesting, leaving one of the most vulnerable populations without recourse or resources.

Perusing the RNC and DNC platforms makes this gap clear. Predictably, the RNC pledges only to restore “a wise and frugal government” and create “a culture of hope, raising families beyond poverty.” Combating homelessness, indigence and relationship violence get nary a mention, although prohibiting Internet gambling is listed as a priority.

For what it’s worth, the DNC platform recognizes that “Fifteen percent of our fellow citizens live in poverty and one in five families struggles with food insecurity. Many of these families work but are unable to pay the bills. We must make ending poverty a national priority.” While short on specifics, the 40-page document gives an affirmative nod to expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit/Child Tax Credit, raising the minimum wage and ensuring that men and women are paid the same amount for work of equal value, steps that would surely help the working poor pay their rent. The platform also addresses foreclosure – but not the building of public housing or the imposition of rent controls – and vows to help homeowners refinance their mortgages. It further promises to reauthorize and strengthen the Violence Against Women Act.

Such assurances are small comfort to Daphna Browne and her daughter Janelle. “I just want to live decent,” she says, her lilting West Indian accent still audible after 27 years in the US. “I worked until I got sick, taking care of people as a health aide and I am not asking for very much. I want a kitchen where I can cook healthy food and not have to eat prepared meals that are sometimes too salty, sometimes too sweet and sometimes too watery. I want a place where I’m not treated like dirt and where I don’t need to be afraid that someone is gonna get up in my face for no reason. I don’t understand why there is insufficient housing for disabled people on fixed incomes. I don’t understand why I’ve been homeless for so long.”

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