New Clear Vision

constructive commentary for the chronically farsighted

Homeless Students

February 23, 2013 By: NCVeditor Category: Culture, Economy, Pat LaMarche

EPIC Journey Does ‘Reality Check’ with Next Generation of Teachers

by Pat LaMarche

{Editor’s Note: NCV Contributor Pat LaMarche is on a journey to explore homelessness and poverty in the U.S. NCV will post updates from her travels…}

Austin, Texas (home of the University of Texas) gave us the opportunity to speak to scores of social work students about the rapidly rising number of folks with nowhere to live. Our visit early in the week to New Mexico State University likewise gave us an opportunity to discuss two-on-seven with a handful of education doctoral candidates, the world in which they’ll be teaching.

It’s not that every one of the students in either school was hell bent on working with the homeless. But with the number of homeless school children in the nation at more than a million (according to the U.S. Department of Education) and poverty on the rise, if these scholars want to work in the United States, they’re going to be working with the homeless.

Having attended the school of hard knocks when it comes to homeless advocacy, I’d be hard-pressed to say what these students learn in a book or a classroom and how well it prepares them for the Joad-type poverty that awaits them on the other side of their degree. Anecdotally however, I can say that our experiences working with these young people — and most recently at the College of Charleston School of Social Work — we have met students who augment their educations with internships and/or jobs that put them on the front line in their communities.

Still, the questions they ask are telling. Not so much of what they aren’t being taught in school — but maybe of what simply can’t be learned in a book.

Firstly, every social work student needs to know about the laws that help and hurt the poor: laws that vary from town to town and state to state. Vagrancy laws, aggressive panhandling laws, prohibitions for public feeding and giving out free food — those regulations are intended to hide the poor from public view. They don’t protect anyone. There merely force the poor further underground and bolster fear of authority at a time when these folks are most vulnerable.

But there are other laws too. There are laws that help.

Hands down the best legislation for homeless families is the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Act. And if a university student doesn’t think they’ll need to know that law because they’re “just going to be a teacher” or “only going to work with adults” then they are — as yet — unaware of the enormity of the homeless problem in our nation.

If we turn to a little quick math on the likely number of homeless people in the U.S., we can estimate the scope of the problem. We’ll use the U.S. Department of Ed stats because they are the most reliable at this moment. They are still low, because many parents don’t allow their kids to be identified as homeless. Either shame or fear or both keep parents from feeling safe telling school officials that they live in a car or on a neighbor’s living room floor. The Department of Ed reports a little more than a million homeless school children, and when we chatted with Melissa Schoonmaker of the Los Angeles County Office of Education — who does nothing but work with these kids — she estimated that it’s likely 50% more than the official count.

So, starting with 1.5 million school children, we’ll add an equal number of infants and toddlers. Mommies with babies are highly vulnerable to homelessness. So I’ve used an educated guess to double the number of homeless kids — based on my own experience with young moms, their lousy wages, and limited resources when they become pregnant. Now we’re at 3 million homeless people before we count a single adult.

Homeless Veterans, parents of all the children tallied above, single individuals, and newly homeless elders more than double the number of people on the street. If we put all those educated guesses together then about 2% of the population of the United States is without a home. If someone goes into social work, they’re not going to be able to throw a tennis ball and keep from hitting a homeless person.

Part of the problem with how “we” handle the homeless in this country is how we perceive them. And this lack of perception was illustrated by the questions we were asked in the classes we spoke with on our travels. The most illustrative of these questions was incredibly well meaning but indicative of how “different” we think the homeless are from the rest of us.

A graduate student at the University of Texas asked how she could get the homeless to vote. She said that the 2012 election went by and there was great voter apathy — as though that was in some way different from the mainstream population — which remained disengaged with nearly half of eligible voters choosing not to vote and millions fewer voting than had in 2008. Other stigmatizing preconceived notions were similar. They have mental illness — so do people with homes. They have addiction problems — so do people with homes. They are veterans — so are people with homes. The one big difference between the homeless and those with homes is income. Not voter apathy, not substance abuse, not parenting skills, not prior military service. More month than money: that’s the major cause of homelessness.

Unless affordable housing becomes available — and wages are increased — every social work or education student that graduates from Carolina to California will be working with the homeless.

Pat LaMarche has extensive experience working with the nation’s poor, most recently as Vice President of Community Affairs at Safe Harbour, Inc. As a former journalist and award-winning broadcaster, LaMarche spent more than two decades studying and reporting on poverty issues both in the U.S. and abroad. During her 2004 Green Party Campaign for U.S. Vice President, she took to the streets to uncover the lives of the homeless in what she called the “Left Out Tour,” resulting in the book Left Out in America: The State of Homelessness in the United States (2006). Among other venues for her work, LaMarche is a Contributing Author for New Clear Vision.

EPIC Journey

First installment: Babes of Wrath

Second installment: Who’s Responsible?

Third installment: Up from the Depths

Fourth installment: Paying for Detention

Fifth installment: Homeless Students

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