Dianne Frances D. Powell
TERRE HAUTE —
With tears streaming down his face as he sat on a chair in the lower level of Ryves Hall Friday, a father of five told the story of how his family’s life changed from hoping for a better life to just hoping for a roof over their heads.
Three weeks ago, the Smith family (a fictitious name given by the family to protect the children’s privacy), consisting of a father, mother, five children and a grandmother (the mother’s mom), arrived in the Wabash Valley in their minivan from a former home in the South.
Like many families across the nation, the Smiths faced economic hardship. “We were gonna lose the house,” Smith said.
They decided to move north because the pay from the job of the sole provider (the father) was not enough to support the large family, Smith said.
He said his wife stayed at home to care for their five children. While still in their previous home state, she applied for many jobs but without extensive work experience, she was unsuccessful.
“It was hard to afford housing,” Smith, the father, told the Tribune-Star.
“I spent every bit of money I had getting here,” he added.
With his family in the Wabash Valley, Smith thought, he could start again at the place he called home for 20 years.
Their plan was to move to Indiana, get jobs, get the children ready for school and, with the help of Smith’s brother, secure a loan for a house.
But upon setting foot in the area, Smith learned that the loan “fell through.”
“Everything just fell apart,” he said of what happened next.
The family found itself stranded in the area. They became homeless.
“I don’t blame anybody … but I need some help,” Smith said.
The Unseen Homeless
What happened next was something the family will forever share with the experiences of thousands of homeless Americans.
The Smiths put their money together to stay at a motel in the area while in the process of seeking help from shelters and local organizations. But they’ve had some tough nights.
“We spent a night at a Walmart parking lot Wednesday night with eight people in the van,” Smith said. Tearfully, he described how hard it was to look at his kids while inside the van, amidst the warm summer night.
“Daddy, I can’t sleep. Daddy, it’s hot,” his children whose ages range from 8 to 19 apparently told him.
“I feel like I let them all down,” the head of household said in tears.
While wiping his eyes, he continued, “They told me they love me and [that] it ain’t my fault, but it doesn’t change how I feel.”
“My kids deserve so much better,” he said.
Families like the Smiths are among the fastest growing homeless subpopulations throughout the nation, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
The family may be hidden inside its van for the night, but the problems remain.
According to a 2005 report from the National Alliance to End Homelessness, 600,000 homeless families spend at least one night sleeping in shelters, cars or abandoned buildings every year.
“They are hidden from us,” the report said, “living in their cars, in campgrounds, in shelters, or, if they are lucky, in motels or short-term apartments. The fact that they are unseen should not lead us to believe that the problem of homelessness among families is somehow less critical or severe than it is for the single adults whom we do see on the streets.
“Living in these families are mothers, fathers, grandparents and, perhaps most appallingly, 1.35 million children,” according to the same report, titled “Family Homelessness in our Nation and Community: Problem with a Solution.”
The Smith family started exploring housing options after realizing its hopes of getting a loan for a house was impossible. Smith contacted local shelters during the first week of moving to the area. But the family’s condition is not simple. One, its is a large family. Two, is is a three-generation family. Three, the oldest generation — grandma — has dementia and has previously suffered a stroke.
“She’s not capable of self-care,” said Muriel Ryan, co-founder of Families By Choice and a member of the local homeless coalition. She met the family and has been helping it.
During their first week, Smith said, he contacted the local shelters in town. Some are full but one was able to accommodate them, with one caveat: grandma has to stay at a different facility.
Smith and Ryan said that the reason is that shelters in the area are able to accommodate only two-generation families (parents and their children). So, three-generation families often have to split up.
“We can’t do that,” Smith said, explaining that the family was concerned about splitting up. He said that grandma will be alone at a “strange area” in a “different part of the U.S.” and “we have to worry about what’s happening to her.”
“In my eyes, family is family” he said, adding that he doesn’t make a distinction between nuclear and extended families.
“It’s my wife’s mother. ... We love her. It’s mom,” he said.
Upon meeting the family, Ryan recognized the problem.
“Every time I think we’ve identified homeless needs, something else pops up,” she said.
“This issue is a three-generation family … with the oldest generation being health and mental health fragile,” Ryan said.
“The family desires to stay together. … I think their request is perfectly reasonable,” she said.
“Family is one word”
The issue the Smith family ran into is an issue that many multi-generational homeless families face, both locally and across the country.
According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, “shelter and transitional housing are often ill-equipped to meet the needs of the full range of families, including two-parent households, single fathers with young children, and multi-generational households.”
Some shelters are just not able to accommodate certain populations, according to a report by the United Way of Central Maryland.
Citing Baltimore City as an example, the report indicates examples of homeless shelter limitations.
“There are no shelters that take men with children, there are no shelters for families with teenage boys, and there are space limitations in shelters for intact and multi-generational families. Accordingly, homeless families, in many cases, must be separated at the very time they need each other the most,” according to the report.
The Smith family refused to split up.
“I believe family is family. Family is one word. … I couldn’t do it. I wouldn’t do it,” Smith said, adding that his wife and children agreed with him, saying that they “can’t do that to grandma.”
Falling into the gap
The Smith family experience is an example of a gap that exists in serving the homeless.
“They’re another example where we’re not meeting the needs of the homeless,” Ryan said.
Another advocate, Jeff Lorick, co-chair of the Wabash Valley Planning Council on Homelessness and director of the Terre Haute Human Relations Commission, also sees the gap.
“There are a whole network of people that fall outside of the established rules of the shelters,” Lorick said.
Three-generational homeless families is just one of them.
Lorick said that “other persons excluded by the rules from some shelters and housing programs” are unwed couples and certain types of felons especially sex offenders and violent offenders.
Ryan also gave those examples and added that not all agencies can accommodate people that are “health fragile.”
“We have to find a way to be able to deal with those disenfranchised communities,” Lorick said of these homeless populations that “fall into the gap.”
Is there a solution?
According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness report, many programs across the nation are implementing efforts to end homelessness. The report says that preventing families from becoming homeless in the first place is an important component to plans for ending the problem.
And because family homelessness is largely driven by the lack of affordable housing, the report says, the availability of more affordable housing options is important.
Closer to home, the Indiana Planning Council on the Homeless is addressing the problem at the state level.
The council is gathering data on homeless populations and services to identify homeless needs.
Locally, shelters use the a state data collection system for the homeless “which determines the funding given to our community to help our homeless population,” Lorick said.
He said that getting “a better grasp” of the homeless populations falling into the gap will help in better addressing their needs.
Lorick, who also met with the Smith family, said that what the family is going through is “heartbreaking.”
Its needs sound familiar.
“I want my children to be safe, be able to rest in a bed, and the family to stay together,” Smith said.
Tribune-Star Reporter Dianne Frances D. Powell can be reached at 812-231-4299 or dianne.powell