Navigating homelessness as an individual can trigger unimaginable trauma and challenge; navigating homelessness as a parent brings about its own additional set of challenges and complexities, all of which have been worsened by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
On July 16, 2020, we connected with four mothers from New Jersey, Louisiana, Ohio, and Illinois to share their unique parental perspectives. Through this discussion, we learned about some of the challenges facing parents and their children who are navigating homelessness during the COVID-19 era; the assistance they have found thus far, and the support they still need, but have not yet received.
The discussion was the second in a Congressional briefing series co-hosted by the National Network for Youth, Family Promise, and First Focus Campaign for Children. The parent panel discussion was moderated by National Network For Youth’s Director of Youth Partnerships, Yorri Berry. This briefing also featured two special guests, Congressman Steve Stivers (R-OH), and Congressman Danny K. Davis (D-IL). Congressman Stivers is the sponsor of the Homeless Children and Youth Act (H.R. 2001) Congressman Davis is a cosponsor of the Emergency Family Stabilization Act (H.R. 7950). This blog includes the transcript of the briefing, and video highlights.
“I’ve participated in hundreds and, perhaps, thousands of hearings during my lifetime. I’ve never been as impacted by any of them that I’ve ever been in before, to this extent. It just occurred to me that each one of these young women are absolute heroes. Real troopers. Who, in spite of odds, have demonstrated real essence of personhood, and are people to be admired, respected, and assisted in any way that we possibly can. I mean, you renewed within me a desire as well as an effort to try and convince all of my colleagues, and all of those who are decision makers, anywhere around the country, to do more to find additional money, additional resources… [to] create additional ways and approaches.” U.S. Congressman Danny K. Davis (D-IL)
If you could just tell us a little bit about yourself, your family, and your story.
April: OK, well, I’m an African American female, born and raised in an inner city in the DMV, Washington, DC area. I am a mother of nine. I am 40 years old. I am just coming out of homelessness. I, um, I became homeless after being displaced from leaving Florida. I was married. I’ll take you back a bit before I got there. Like I said, I grew up in the DC area. I did not have parents. I was a foster kid myself. I was completely lost. Needless to say, at about 31, I decided that I was going to pack my life up. I moved to Florida, did something different and had been advocating and been a social advocate in Florida for the last eight years. Never expected to experience…Started civic organization, Unified Community Outreach, and have been completely advocating for everyone in every policy I could think of, socially, and economically, where I just came from. And in six months, my life flipped upside down. I lost my home, I lost my marriage, I relocated to New Jersey thinking that I was getting into a better situation for myself.
And then everything went awry. I have four minor children that are with me, and needless to say, I ended up homeless in the dead of winter in New Jersey with no family, no options. Just devastating homelessness to the point where we were sleeping in a vehicle. Ended up in a hotel placement and, um, it’s, it’s been a whirlwind from there. I know we only have two minutes, so I’ll give someone else time to share.
(Read more about April’s community engagement here and here.)
Julie: OK, well, my name is Julie Campos. I have a one year old whose name is Miguel. I live in Chicago, Illinois, born and raised. I actually experienced, started experiencing homelessness when I got pregnant, and I got pregnant because my stepfather had been abusing me since the age of 13. So, um, when my mother found out, she kicked me out, and she found out when I was eight months pregnant, so it was already like, very far along. She didn’t care about anything that had happened, so she kicked me out, and I ended up going to a shelter, called the Night Ministry, which was really like, helpful towards me. But it really messed me up, because I had never experienced homelessness before, and it was really hard for me to be homeless while I was pregnant, and having no communication at all with my mom, or my sister at all, and just seeing my mom still have a relationship with her husband was really hard for me, and I was still trying to go to school. So, I was a full-time student at Harold Washington College. I’m trying to get a major in early childhood education. That’s one of my main goals. I want to become a teacher. And I just want to be an example for my one year old, because he’s the only person that I feel like is looking up to me right now.
“I’m trying to get a major in early childhood education. That’s one of my main goals. I want to become a teacher. And I just want to be an example for my one year old, because he’s the only person that I feel like is looking up to me right now.”
Freda: Good afternoon. My name is Freda Mason. I grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio. I just turned 38 this past Tuesday. I’m a mother of five children: a 17-year-old girl is my oldest, and I have four boys, one 13, one 11, one 9, and one 6. Well, my past life, I actually grew up in a foster home, but I made it out of that terrible situation. And I ended up graduating from high school, I graduated from college, I started my own childcare business, and that’s how I was getting my income. I was actually very successful. I completed some of my goals. I was in nine movies, which was a big thing for me, because that’s what I always wanted to do. I had a good life, until I hit the age of 35 and my uncle passed away in my home. Someone died in my house– it sent me into a depression. After that, I kind of lost it a little bit. I lost my job and I ended up losing my apartment. By me paying market rent, it was hard for me to get another apartment. Everybody was always saying the eviction had to be three years old, so I ended up becoming homeless, going from house to house, hotels, sleeping in the car or whatnot. And right now, I’m still currently homeless, basically kind of due to COVID-19, and I’m just hoping all of this COVID goes away.
Destiny: I was in foster care and I became homeless at 17 from my foster parents who adopted me at 11. And I was experiencing secret abuse sexually, and mentally and I was just really, like, fed up with it, so I had to leave. So, I went and stayed with a friend, that was horrible. Then I graduated from high school from my friend’s house. And then, after that, I was working jobs here and there. I moved, I came back, and I was just really running around, living pillar to post. Until something kind of said in my spirit, ‘Go to Covenant House.’ It’s the only youth organization in New Orleans. People from Thibodeaux, Louisiana and Gonzalez have to come all the way from out there to come out here because it’s the only youth shelter in Louisiana. Me being at the Covenant House gave me a lot at peace with myself, and I found myself. I was very depressed when I came here though, because me being in a shelter really made me kind of sad. But, I had to raise a daughter and I was six months pregnant, so I had to just swallow all of that and also then get help with COVID at the Covenant house.
Destiny describes her experience at the Covenant House.
April, if you could share with us a bit about your homelessness experience, before the pandemic.
April: So, pre-COVID, once I became homeless, I was staying with a friend, who was living in a relative’s home. The person who owned the house passed away, it was willed to someone else, so that left myself and my four children homeless, like I said, in the dead of winter, in New Jersey. Unfortunately, because I had not had a prevalent [previous] history, except for, well, of course, when I was younger and a minor, but I hadn’t had a prevalent history of being homeless, it affected me negatively– unbelievably, so. I could not get help, because I was not on drugs. I could not get help because I was not beaten or battered. I could not get help because my children did not have health or mental disabilities. And so all the things that I would think would take me a step further because I am okay mentally, my kids are okay and they can function — none of those things were to any benefit to get help. There’s this national hotline that you call, and once you tell them these things, it places you lower and lower on the list, even though I had nowhere to go, nowhere to be. Not having any sort of disability, not being drug addicted was held against me. And so, I was denied benefits, because I did not meet the criteria in place, I guess, in the state of New Jersey. And it was just unbelievable. And, I mean, I became completely depressed. I finally ended up getting hotel placement. When I got hotel placement, they placed myself and four children in one room with two beds, with no kitchen, and no access to a local grocery store. I had no vehicle, it was freezing, Where was the local pharmacy? None of that information is given or shared with you. You’re just, you know, placed. I was placed about 45 minutes, from where my children went to school with no vehicle. And even though the school system is supposed to pick your kids up, because that’s the homeless law for children, that didn’t matter, that’s still a process. So for two weeks, I had to figure out how to get my kids back and forth 45 minutes from their school until transportation got set in place, which it eventually did. But that stop-gap, it was devastating to my children, and they were completely disgusted with me. They had lost hope in me. They lost faith in me and this was all pre-COVID. Like I said, there was no kitchen. There was no local grocery store. It was just, you know, terrible access, but if I had a disability, I could have been on another list, or if my kids had a disability or, if I’d been beaten, I could have been placed somewhere. But because I was employable and I didn’t have those issues, all of those items were held, sort of, against you and seeking placement.
“When I got a hotel placement, they placed myself and four children in one room with two beds, with no kitchen, and no access to a local grocery store. I had no vehicle, it was freezing. Where was the local pharmacy? None of that information is given or shared with you. You’re just, you know, placed. I was placed about 45 minutes from where my children went to school with no vehicle. And even though the school system is supposed to pick your kids up, because that’s the homeless law for children, that didn’t matter, that’s still a process. So for two weeks, I had to figure out how to get my kids back and forth 45 minutes from their school until transportation got set in place, which it eventually did. But that stop-gap, it was devastating to my children.”
April explained how she was denied benefits because she did not meet the criteria that were in place.
I hear you saying that, you know, you have to figure out a lot of these things on your own. Were there any supports in place? Were there any programs or people that were able to assist you or your children during that time?
April: Unfortunately, not as of yet, because until you can be deemed needy of the help, or you can prove you need the help, you don’t have access to the programs. You have to be able to receive benefits. So say for instance, cash assistance and food stamps, you have to be approved for those things before the agencies and the programs are allowed to help you.
“Unfortunately, because I had not had a prevalent [previous] history, except for, well, of course, when I was younger and a minor, but I hadn’t had a prevalent history of being homeless, it affected me negatively– unbelievably, so. I could not get help, because I was not on drugs. I could not get help because I was not beaten or battered. I could not get help because my children did not have health or mental disabilities. And so all the things that I would think would take me a step further because I am okay mentally, my kids are okay and they can function — none of those things were to any benefit to get help. There’s this national hotline that you call, and once you tell them these things, it places you lower and lower on the list, even though I had nowhere to go, nowhere to be. Not having any sort of disability, not being drug addicted was held against me.”
Julie, can you tell us a little bit about your homelessness experience prior to the pandemic and any support that was available or in place to help you?
Julie: Okay, so, like I said before, I got kicked out from my mom’s house when I was eight months pregnant, so I actually had texted my high school teacher, my English teacher, and I told him about, like, what I was going through. He was the one that told me about the shelter that I was at, and I got really lucky with the shelter that I went to because I made, like, incredible friendships, incredible relationships, but it was still really hard for me, especially because I was only pregnant for a week when I got to the shelter. A week after, I had my baby. So being with my newborn at a shelter was really hard for me. And I was trying, like, I went back to school the semester right after I had him. So, I put my baby in daycare when he was like two months. And, you know, as a first [time] parent, it was really hard for me, because I didn’t want to leave my baby alone, and I didn’t have anybody to take care of him, so I didn’t know whether I should go back to school or not, but luckily, I had very good relationships with the people from the shelter I was at. I found him his daycare, but being homeless and being with a newborn was two things that I never want to ever experience again and it was really hard, you know? I was in the shelter for six months. So, my baby spent his first six months of life in a shelter with no family and it was just really hard for me. After those six months, I got pulled for housing. I currently live in my own apartment with my baby but it’s still hard, because now, because of the pandemic, we can’t really have any like visitors or help or anything. And I feel like a lot of the time people from the building that I live in… we don’t get as much help. But before the pandemic, my experience was, I feel like, not as bad because of the help that I received from the shelter and different organizations that I got help from. So I was very lucky in that place where I did have, like, people to help me, and I didn’t feel like I was as alone as I actually was.
“Being homeless and being with a newborn were two things that I never want to ever experience again and it was really hard, you know? I was in the shelter for six months. So, my baby spent his first six months of life in a shelter with no family and it was just really hard for me.”
You said different organizations help you, which organizations were able to help you during that period?
Julie: So I actually, I joined this organization called New Moms, which is an organization for moms where I would go to parent classes every week. And I was able to get free diapers, or free baby wipes, or free formula, if I needed it. I also joined this other organization called Aid For Women. So when I, every time I would go to Aid for Women, I would also get stuff for my baby if he needed clothes, or if he needed toys. And I would just go to classes, weekly classes, you know, we would watch a video. I was very lucky to have that because I didn’t have a job, so I didn’t have any income to buy my baby the stuff he needed. So, I was very lucky to find those organizations to help me out.
Destiny, how about you? Tell us about your time prior to the pandemic, and any support that you were able to find in New Orleans.
Destiny: I was able to see the support in New Orleans, but some of the things, some of the barriers that hindered me from finding housing was not having anyone in my corner after foster care. When I did come to the Covenant House and I was seeking housing during COVID, the only thing that impacted me was not being able to be hands-on with school because my major is really hard, so I have to, like, be hands-on. I’m a hands-on learner. When I gotta do something online, my brain kinda just shuts down and it made me not really able to focus. And then my nanny died, due to Corona too, so I was mentally like, out of it. I couldn’t even do it mentally, but I can say that the Covenant House has held me up a lot during COVID, and has called and asked if I needed any food. I have been getting mental help from up there at the Covenant House. They’ve been coming to see me weekly. So, that’s something that helped me as well along the way with the pandemic and stuff. I also got into a really bad altercation with my child’s father. He was very abusive as well, and I was in the hospital. So there’s another thing that was prior to the pandemic. That was right before the pandemic happened, probably in March, right before this shut down. And it was hard because I had to go to the hospital and my eardrum was busted andI was limping and I couldn’t walk. I had to go by corona– people who had COVID, you know, and be in there with them, and be probably able to catch it. But I was just in there with peace, because I knew that I was going to be better. But it was just hard for me before the pandemic mentally, so when the pandemic happened it impacted me even more, mentally.
“When I did come to the Covenant House and I was seeking housing during COVID, the only thing that impacted me was not being able to be hands-on with school because my major is really hard, so I have to, like, be hands-on. I’m a hands-on learner. When I gotta do something online, my brain kinda just shuts down and it made me not really able to focus. And then my nanny died, due to Corona too, so I was mentally like, out of it.”
Freda: A little bit about my homeless experience, well, it had a lot of downs to it because I am a single parent of five kids. So here in Cincinnati, Ohio, they don’t have a lot of family shelters, they only have shelters for single individuals who is on alcohol and drugs, and by me not being on alcohol or drugs, and I don’t look like I’m homeless, it was hard for me to get help. Everybody kept turning me down. I did have a part-time job. That’s actually how I survived. I tried to stay with my sister, but it didn’t work out. I got five kids, she had a lot of kids and she had an abusive boyfriend, who was there, who was verbally and emotionally abusive, so I couldn’t take it there anymore. I would’ve ended up in jail. You know, I can’t have nobody to be mistreating my kids while I’m trying to make money and make sure they go to school and stuff. So I started sleeping in hotels. Here in Cincinnati, the Free Store Food Bank, helped me for a week. Their funding ran out. They didn’t have a lot of funding. It’s a lot of homeless people in Cincinnati. So that program was the only program that helped me with shelter for a week. Throughout that whole first year of me being homeless, I did get help with food from certain places like St. Vincent de Paul’s, Seven Hills Neighborhood House, the Vineyard Church, a couple of churches, making sure I have food, and even Children’s Hospital gave me a couple of gift cards for food, and also– I can not leave them out– they’ve been a big help with getting my kids back and forth to school, bookbags, school supplies, Project Connect [Cincinnati Public School’s McKinney-Vento program]. Project Connect has helped me out. They couldn’t help me with shelter, but they helped me out with stuff that I needed for my kids, so they could stay in school. That was a big thing for me. That was the only goal out of all these downfalls of being homeless. The thing that I always worry about is food for my kids, I didn’t want my kids to be taken away from me just because I’m homeless. So, I made sure that they went to school every day, they stayed in sports. That’s what kept my kids going and to get their focus off the homeless situation. Um, I’m sorry, I’m having a brain freeze right now. So I realized we had a homeless hotline here called 381-SAFE. It’s supposed to be for families. I would call everyday. Everyday for a whole year, I called. I told ‘em my situation, they know I got five kids. I realized they kept asking me, “Well, where did you sleep last night?”, and I’m like, “Well, me and my kids slept on somebody’s floor.” [Their response], “Okay, we’ll call you if we got something available.” No calls. Then I realized, I actually gotta lie. I started saying we slept outside. Some nights we did sleep outside. But that’s when I noticed, these people… they’re not trying to help me unless I’m sleeping up under the bridge or something. So, I had to start saying that and actually, a year and a half later, is when they actually gave me a chance. I kept saying “I’m sleeping outside, I’m sleeping outside.” They put me in a family shelter. I was actually in there for one day. It was so filthy, unsafe, the door knobs was broken, the beds was broken– I couldn’t even sleep. It was too unsafe for me, so I went on ahead and left. Found somebody house to stay over, and then COVID hit.
Freda details her struggles getting into a shelter and how unsafe/unsanitary it was once her application was accepted.
“The thing that I always worry about is food for my kids, I didn’t want my kids to be taken away from me just because I’m homeless. So, I made sure that they went to school every day, they stayed in sports. That’s what kept my kids going and to get their focus off the homeless situation.”
And that’s where we are right now. Everything that you’ve described, right? A lot of obstacles, a lot of barriers, people and programs supporting you the best way that they can but a lot of time having limitations, right? Having to live just to get the support that you need. But as we all know whether we were experiencing homelessness or not, when COVID hit, things changed and things shifted for a lot of people. How did the pandemic impact you and your children, April?
April: Wow. The pandemic was devastating. By the time the pandemic had hit. I had been approved for benefits. I was placed in, like I said, hotel-shelter placement, February 20th. After, much like the last guest just shared after, you know, lying and saying, “OK, I’m in the car tonight” and continuing to call, and they finally gave us hotel shelter placement, which was far away. They closed down the schools. They started this online school. My kids could not do it because we were in a hotel with unstable Wifi. Not to mention, I didn’t have computers. The school district, thankfully, two weeks later was able to give the kids loaner computers. But, you know, I was out trying to find a job, even still in the midst of the pandemic, on the train. They were complaining, “We can’t log on,” “The internet’s not working.” It was just horrible, you know. I’m gonna give you guys an instance that was just completely unbelievable. I was so depressed, my kids were depressed. I watched my nine-year-old son lay in the bathtub on a sleeping bag, because he did not want to be in the same bed as his 10 year old sister because he’s a boy. I was so depressed, I went downstairs. There’s a bar downstairs in the hotel. I went down there and I sat down there. And I guess, you know, truckers, because where they place you, it doesn’t matter. People from all over can come in. So you can’t let your kids outside. They hadn’t closed down the place yet. So I’m down there, and I’m just looking sad, I’m just, you know, sitting in the area, and someone who is staying there, who had seen me, you know, before with my kids, seen us come in and out, you know. He comes over and he’s speaking to me, and he’s looking at the homelessness on me. He’s looking at the desperation and the pain and now he wants to pray. So now he says some things that are offensive because he feels like he can help my situation, that no level of homelessness should create that type of shame. You know, here I am, and somebody can just look at me and see the homelessness on me while I’m here, dragging these kids through this hotel– five of them at that. I’m sorry, four of them, who just have all these people you know coming in and out. You know, construction workers. I got teenage daughters. And so because I looked desperate, they just assumed, you know what I mean, that I would go for anything, or I would do anything. I walked out of that place with… I can’t even begin to explain the level of shame I felt.
And one thing I want you guys to understand about homelessness is that every, every feeling, every notion that you experienced can’t be statistically measured. It just can’t be statistically measured, ‘cause there is no way that you can measure the feelings of hopelessness that people are feeling homeless during this pandemic. My kids couldn’t leave the room. They couldn’t go to the ice machine. There was nothing. We were on the highway, Route 46, in New Jersey. We were on the highway. There was no park to take them to. There was no place to run. I stayed in the hotel from February 20th until April 16th. I’m sorry, no, no, forgive me. I stayed in the hotel from February the 20th until June the 16th, and so, my kids had nowhere to go, nowhere to be, no outlet. I found a job, they were angry at me because I’m leaving, and they can’t. It affected me in ways. My daughter was drawing mortifying pictures, and just being depressed. I had to put myself in therapy, to be able to battle it, so that they didn’t see the pain in my face everyday, and I’m 40. I can’t imagine what some 20-year-old is doing in a room locked in with her kids. That’s where the options come in. And that’s where people give up on themselves, hopelessness sinks in and they do things that they wouldn’t necessarily or generally do. This COVID and homelessness has become so devastating. Thank you.
“One thing I want you guys to understand about homelessness is that every, every feeling, every notion that you experienced can’t be statistically measured. It just can’t be statistically measured, ‘cause there is no way that you can measure the feelings of hopelessness that people are feeling homeless during this pandemic.”
April explains how the pandemic impacted her and her children.
Thank you for sharing April, You mentioned the hotel having spotty Wi-Fi and not having access to technology. I’m just curious, how did, you know, how did your children make it through that? Was there any support? Whether an organization, or school was able to provide, just so that there wouldn’t be more learning loss during that time, specifically for your children?
April: At that time, just pre-COVID, I had signed up for a program called Family Promise was getting ready to place me in their program. However, the way their program works is that you stay at shelters at churches at night and a day center during the day. Well COVID came, and so they couldn’t do that. So, what ended up happening is, even though they couldn’t place me, or take me physically into their programs, they started to provide me other services. They brought me a printer, and printer paper. They came, and they brought school supplies. I didn’t have a kitchen. They place you in a hotel room with a kitchenette, so you can only buy TV dinners, you know, there wasn’t anything that you could feed your kids. And so Family Promise has a program where they actually have volunteers of people who cook families dinner and bring them to you every night. And so that became helpful. And they brought school supplies and things like that. So I was able to communicate with the schools that my kids were going to and ask them if my kids can actually physically just do the work and I drop it off to the different schools or someone meet me to pick up the work because they couldn’t work online. It was just impossible with the hotel Wi-Fi. And then my kids just became so discouraged. They just didn’t want to do the work at all because they felt so hopeless. I had nothing to take away from them if they didn’t do their work. What was I going to take away? Nothing.
Julie, how about you? Can you tell us how the pandemic has impacted your experience, specifically for you and your little one?
Julie: Yeah so when COVID hit, I was actually still in school. Like, the semester was not over yet, so, our professor just– I was only taking one class at the time because they took my financial aid away when I dropped out of school when I had my baby, and when I went to talk to the financial aid office, they said, ‘Well, you know, there’s nothing we can do, because you still enrolled in school, even though you knew you were going to have your baby.’ So, they had me on probation for the next semester, and then they just completely took my financial aid away, and I was not working. So I didn’t have money to be full-time enrolled in school, so I was only taking one class. So when COVID hit, we ended up changing our classes to online classes, and it was really hard, because I was at home with my baby. He was just starting to crawl, I didn’t have no internet at home, and it was like, I can’t even take my classes, and if I’m paying for this class out of pocket, then, like, I have to pass it, because I’m not going to just waste my money. So I ended up emailing my school, letting them know. They actually ended up sending me a Wi-Fi box saying ‘Okay, we’re gonna let you borrow this WI Fi box for you to finish this semester and then you’re gonna have to send it back when the classes are over.’ I was like, “Okay!” So I was able to finish my class online for the rest of what the semester was.
Because of COVID, it was even harder for me to apply for jobs. I had already been looking for a job ever since I gave birth to my baby, but me being — I was like 18 when I had [him], I started looking for jobs and stuff, and they would always tell me the same thing. Like, ‘Oh, we need someone with experience. You’ve never had a job,’ you know? And I’m just like, well, I need a job, I need experience. A lot of places don’t want to hire you, because you’ve never worked before. And so I had an even harder time looking for a job. Then I decided to just take a break from school, because I had to save money, so that I could go back to school next semester. I finally got hired about a month ago. I started working at a Family Dollar store, and it’s like, so hard because I’m so scared that I catch something, and I come home to my baby, and my baby is so small. Like, his immune system is not even healthy enough to fight something. So, it’s like, really scary for me to go to work every day and come home and feeling like I’m not able to take care of my son like I want to. Now, my school has been emailing me to say, ‘Oh, we’re only doing classes online,’ and I know my one class was really hard for me, so, I know, if I become a full-time student online, it’s just gonna be too much if I have my baby here with me. My class I was taking, it was really hard for me.
I didn’t know whether to pay attention to my professor, write my notes, or take care of my baby. And it was like, really hard. Like, I didn’t know what to do. And I felt like my school was not even understanding of my situation. I went and I told them I was homeless. I took them the letter from the shelter. I took them letters that I needed like, you know, my financial aid back and they literally just said, ‘There’s nothing we can do,’ because they pretty much just said it was my fault. And it’s like, I felt like at that moment, I felt like what do I do? Do I just drop out of school? I don’t want to drop out of school because I want to, you know, give my son a better future. So what do I do? Do I work? Do I go to school? Do I take care of my son? And it was just a very, like, hard situation for me, because you just don’t know what to do anymore. You don’t know what to put your priorities first, you know? And now, because it’s a pandemic, again, a lot of the resources that I had before, I didn’t have them anymore because they stopped. I couldn’t go to Aid for Women to get diapers for my baby, so it was like, what is my baby going to wear now? New Moms, they’ve stopped the home visits because of the pandemic, and it’s just like, “Okay, well then, where am I going to get my baby the stuff he needs if I’m not working?” I keep applying here and I apply there and I don’t get hired anywhere, like, what am I going to feed my son, you know? But now, like, I guess things are starting to calm down a little bit, and I started working. Hopefully I save money to go back to school and next semester, because I don’t want to completely drop out of school, even if I am only taking one class at a time. I just, it’s just something I want to do. I don’t want to stop going to school.
“I didn’t know whether to pay attention to my professor, write my notes, or take care of my baby. And it was like, really hard. Like, I didn’t know what to do. And I felt like my school was not even understanding of my situation. I went and I told them I was homeless. I took them the letter from the shelter. I took them letters that I needed like, you know, my financial aid back and they literally just said, ‘There’s nothing we can do,’ because they pretty much just said it was my fault.”
Destiny. How about you and the impact of the pandemic on you and your daughter?
Destiny: So, as I said once before, with school, it impacted me and my sanity too, because when you’re in quarantine, you’re thinking about a lot, and mentally, that can be draining. That can be a good thing, and that can be a bad thing. For me, it was a bad thing because I had a really hard past. So, this COVID going on helped me think about my past, and helped me think about school, and how I wasn’t doing the best because of everything that was going on, and how I wasn’t the best mom because my baby was teething and I wasn’t able to go to the store to get nothing for her because I was broke. That’s before the government started being really generous, giving out stimulus and stuff. So, I didn’t have nothing to help my baby when I barely had milk. I actually did not have milk because now, my WIC card was stolen by my child’s father, so I didn’t even have my WIC. So I had to start back breastfeeding. No milk was coming out. I had to find things for her to eat. I had to borrow milk from a friend. It was just really a lot that impacted me. I did not want to get her sick, and I don’t have family members like that because I was in the foster care system as well, but I had like, a few friends help me to get by.
But it impacted me mentally good too, because it helped me to get some faith, and things was like, not in my favor in the beginning of, well, during COVID. Nothing was in my favor, and then things started like, unraveling, and then things started getting better as I kept having faith. So I am happy that that happened. It’s just that my house situation was the only thing that kept me going, because if I was living with someone else, or if I was living in a shelter, I know that I probably would be at rock bottom because I just… going through COVID, I mean going through a pandemic and being underneath someone else’s roof is very, very like, stressful. So that’s one thing that I am very thankful about. It affected my employment because I didn’t have anything to provide to my daughter. And I was working when I was pregnant, but I wasn’t working enough, so I didn’t have nothing saved, nothing to fall back on. I didn’t have nobody but me. My baby, I’m all she has. She doesn’t have nobody else, like, no grandparents, nothing, just me. So everything I had, I had to just keep giving it to my child, which is not a problem. It’s just that I don’t have anything left to pay my bills with. We don’t have nothing left to get milk, stuff that she really needs. So I found an organization, and when I did get my WIC card back, the lady at the WIC office gave me free diapers, she gave me a free Starbucks card for coffee, and she gave me a couple other little goodies in the bag, and that helped me out tremendously. But, I am thankful for the Covenant House a lot because they have texted me, and asked me ‘Did I need anything?’ due to Corona, and ‘Did I need anything for Kelly?’ so that has helped me a lot too. When they started saying that, how bad the pandemic was affecting their residents and people that they have housed. They had to put their foot in and they have been a really been a big help for me.
“My baby, I’m all she has. She doesn’t have nobody else, like, no grandparents, nothing, just me. So everything I had, I had to just keep giving it to my child, which is not a problem. It’s just that I don’t have anything left to pay my bills with. We don’t have nothing left to get milk, stuff that she really needs.”
Freda, how about you?
Freda: Okay, how did the COVID impact the homeless situation? Well, before the COVID hit, I was in the process of making a turnaround. Like I said, before, I had a part-time job. So, with that part-time job, I didn’t even have enough income to get a market-rent apartment, where I’d say a three-bedroom is $900. One bedroom is $750! So I didn’t have enough income to get a market-rent apartment. I was in the process of getting a new job. I was going to school to be a network infrastructure technician. So I’m like, “With this trade, and I’m already interviewing with a couple of people, they’re ready to hire me, I’ll be able to afford an apartment.” But boom, COVID hit. They shut down. I still end up graduating and getting my certificate, but I couldn’t get the job. Everything shut down here. All the programs for homelessness shut down. Apartment building offices shut down, so you couldn’t go in and fill out an application. The federal building shut down, so I couldn’t get social security cards and Job and Family services shut down. I couldn’t get the stuff that I need to move forward. I got to say, with the school, the school shut down. But, we were able to get tablets. Our cable company here is called Spectrum. Spectrum was giving out discount Wi-Fi for Cincinnati Public Schools. So, my kids were able to go to the online school with the discounted Wi-Fi, and I also had teachers, ‘cause they knew I was in a homeless situation. They will come and drop off packets -work packets- for my kids to do. So all my kids passed to the next grade, thank goodness.
But like I said, I’m staying in someone else’s house who is afraid of the COVID, which is difficult. Me and my kids sleeping on the floor. My kids tired of sleeping on the floor. They don’t want to see me go and also, I did get sick. I had to quarantine for fourteen days in somebody else’s house. So, that was like, really kinda difficult. I couldn’t work. I wasn’t getting no income in. The only thing that I was getting was help with schools. Cincinnati Public Schools, they helped me with school and also Project Connect. I didn’t get the new job. I had some jobs lined up with Children’s Hospital, and with the Systems Bureau. I got hired by them too, but they shut down due to COVID, and they still shut down at the moment. So, I haven’t been able to start those. Also, I didn’t have no transportation. The Metro buses, they kinda ran when they want to run, you know, because of the COVID. So it was hard to get the job, get to places that I need to get to. Thanks to the stimulus check, I was able to get a van. I could have tried to get an apartment, but, like I said, the offices shut down. I wanted to be mobile, so I could get to where I need to go. So I invested my stimulus check into a van and that has helped me out tremendously. But right now, I’m still in someone else’s apartment, and they gave me to the end of July. I got till the end of July, and I gotta go, which I respect that, you know? Some people, they don’t want to catch COVID. They’re afraid because I still got my part-time job, and I work in a grocery store. People at the grocery store, and my job for Amazon, they’ve been catching COVID. So, everyday, I worry about catching it and I don’t want to bring it back home to my five kids, but I still got to make money, so I can try to support me and my five kids. So, that’s how it’s affected me. Some stuff here is still shut down. It’s just slowed me down tremendously.
Freda describes how COVID-19 caused a roadblock in her plans.
Yorri: Congressman Davis, I didn’t know if you had a question. I saw you nodding, intently. I didn’t know if you had a question or comment that you wanted to make right now.
Congressmen Davis: Yeah, I was just thinking, I’ve participated in hundreds and, perhaps, thousands of hearings during my lifetime. I’ve never been as impacted by any of them that I’ve ever been in before, to this extent. It just occurred to me that each one of these young women are absolute heroes. Real troopers. Who, in spite of odds, have demonstrated real essence of personhood, and are people to be admired, respected, and assisted in any way that we possibly can. You renewed within me a desire, as well as an effort, to try and convince all of my colleagues, and all of those who are decision makers, anywhere around the country, to do more to find additional money, additional resources. [To] create additional ways and approaches. So that’s what I really wanted to say.
I did want to ask Julie, one question, because I am familiar with the organizations. I see the Night Ministry almost everyday when I leave out of my office. They’re often parked out on the street, doing things to [help] people. They, I think, they were the first organization that you came into contact with, or made contact with. How helpful were they to you?
Congressman Davis: What were they able to do for you?
Julie: Well, other than providing the resources, they’re the ones that told me about New Moms. They’re the ones who told me about Aid for Women. They’re the ones that helped me get on the waiting list so I could get my apartment. They’re the ones that took me to the Public Aid office to apply for my Link Card. When I got denied, my case manager went with me again, like, you know, like, they really went out of their way. I joined their Youth for Truth cohort– I did three cohorts. I went to their national conference in Florida this past November, and other than just giving me resources, it just feels like they treat you like a human. Like they don’t just see you as a homeless youth, like they see you as a person. And I really made friendships with the people in there, not just, “Oh, like, you know, you’re my case manager, you’re gonna help me get this.” Like, it wasn’t even just that, it was, I really made friends there, and not even friends. Like, you know, a lot of them feel like family, like we celebrated my baby’s one year old. They got him a cake, so… That’s why I feel like I got so lucky that the Night Ministry was the organization that I was in, because they were so helpful, and so like caring and nice to me. Being nineteen, being sexually abused for over five years, it really makes you feel like you’re worthless. I never, ever in my whole life thought I was going to be homeless with a one year old.
“…other than just giving me resources, it just feels like they treat you like a human. Like they don’t just see you as a homeless youth, like they see you as a person. And I really made friendships with the people in there, not just, “Oh, like, you know, you’re my case manager, you’re gonna help me get this.” Like, it wasn’t even just that, it was, I really made friends there, and not even friends. Like, you know, a lot of them feel like family, like we celebrated my baby’s one year old.”
Before I turn it back over to Barbara and we open it up to the attendees for Q and A, in 30 seconds or less, what is the main thing you want leaders and policymakers to know when they’re designing housing options and resources for parents and families like yours.
“I’m very well-spoken. I had an eighth grade education until I was 32 years old. I went back to school for my kids’ sake. I’m employable. I’m hard working. I don’t have a negative history or a criminal record, but I wasn’t exempt from being homeless. And so the face of homelessness is, it’s just not what people imagine it to be. It’s not missing teeth. It’s not what it used to be anymore and I think that cap has to just be removed.”
April: There’s no box. There’s no box. When I think about the questions, and I understand that they have to have a template, and they have to start somewhere, but I think that this whole idea or concept, that battered, abused, disabled– the face of homelessness is not the same. I’m very well-spoken. I had an eighth grade education until I was 32 years old. I went back to school for my kids’ sake. I’m employable. I’m hard working. I don’t have a negative history or a criminal record, but I wasn’t exempt from being homeless. And so the face of homelessness is just not what people imagine it to be. It’s not missing teeth. It’s not what it used to be anymore and I think that cap has to just be removed. When they sit down and think about the questions and how they survey, because like the Senator was saying in the beginning of the meeting, is that we don’t get counted, you know. My biggest hardship throughout the whole process is I didn’t count. You know, if I wasn’t able to advocate for myself, I honestly don’t know where I would be. So if I was a 21-year-old girl or an 18-year-old girl, I would have been completely lost in my situation in the dead of winter with my children. And so, that affects me when I think about the fact that, it [homelessness] just doesn’t have a face. I’m glad that I mentioned early that you can’t see me [on video], because homelessness has no face, the one you see now.
Julie: Yeah, well, I just want a lot of the people that are the ones that make these decisions and these choices to know that you can’t point [to] someone, and just say “They’re homeless for a reason,” because you don’t know the reasons. A lot of people just think, especially, I feel like with young moms, they think, “Oh, you know, she must have been doing crazy things,” or stuff like that, and there’s a lot of different reasons why we’re going through what we’re going through, and it’s not our fault. A lot of times, people like to blame us and say that we’re in here because we did something wrong, and that’s not the case. And I feel like a lot of the times, people are just not understanding of why everything happens.
“My biggest hardship throughout the whole process is I didn’t count. You know, if I wasn’t able to advocate for myself, I honestly don’t know where I would be. So if I was a 21-year-old girl or an 18-year-old girl, I would have been completely lost in my situation in the dead of winter with my children.”
Destiny: Some things they can change are safe havens for kids, because when I was growing up– and I’m 21 now–, but when I was growing up, my adoptive dad was my abuser and he was looked at as Mr. Huxtable. I don’t know if y’all know about Mr. and Mrs. Huxtable, but they was perfect and no one thought that he would do any wrong, but he did wrong to me. So kids like that are looked at like ‘Demon Child’, you’re just like wicked if you was to even speak badly on someone’s name who’s helping out the community. By him being a foster parent, he’s helping out the community, I guess, in his eyes, but, um, he had a secret agenda for me. And I didn’t have the right adults asking me the right questions. I had a therapist for eight years, and she was not asking me the right questions. ‘Cause if somebody was asking me the right questions about what he was doing to me, I’m pretty sure I would have said it, and I’m pretty sure he would not be a foster dad right now, to this day. So, they need to have child developers in the communities, at least safe havens, for kids to be able to feel comfortable, because when you asking children about sexual questions, they’re not going to just– well, I’m not a developer, but they’re not going to just see it, like, you have to ask them the right questions, is what I’m saying. And when you have the right adults asking the right questions, that can really help out a lot of children that’s going through things they can’t talk about, because I was told not to say anything. So, because I didn’t say nothing, I thought that it was okay, what he was trying to do to me. But it wasn’t, and I didn’t know that I became an adult.
“I just think that they need to find, when they do foster care, they need to find people who are more genuine, not people who are just trying to get something out of the deal. People who are really doing it to help out children, and really trying to not break them, but make them a better person, make them a better person from their circumstances.”
So, I will say that we need safe havens in the communities, we need safe havens in the schools, they need to be able to stop the cycle in the beginning, and not let it lead out to being an adult. Because when you let it out to being an adult, it looks like, it just looks real bad. And because that’s the only support system I ever had, and I burned that bridge, I had to rebuild it back up, but I had to rebuild it back up by saying “I lied, he didn’t try to do that,” but it really was the truth. And I don’t want someone to have to say they lied, just because that’s the only family they know, that’s the only thing they have, because they real people don’t have them, like, they don’t have nobody else. And when you in foster care, people say you burn your bridges and all that when you get put out and stuff, but you really don’t have no bridges to burn because there was never a bridge. You never had nobody, especially if you’re in foster care. You really seldomly find somebody who will have your best interest at heart. No one really has anyone’s best interest at heart, unless they really care about that person. So I feel like a lot of foster parents do it for selfish reasons, like money or for free benefits from the government. So I just think that they need to find, when they do foster care, they need to find people who are more genuine, not people who are just trying to get something out of the deal. People who are really doing it to help out children, and really trying to not break them, but make them a better person, make them a better person from their circumstances.
Freda: I just want the policymakers to consider that everyone that is homeless, is not homeless by choice. That they done got into a situation that they can’t get out of, something devastating has happened. And it’s people out there that look like me: clean, who’s working, taking care of they family, taking care of they kids, but it’s rules to this. Like the three-year eviction rule– once you have an eviction on your record, you gotta wait three years just to get an apartment because the eviction’s got to be three years old. I just want them to consider that everybody who’s homeless is not on drugs or alcohol. That people is really out here trying. Trying to do better and they want better. And I just wish that the policymakers will try they best to get more affordable housing or family shelter programs. Anything to help people get about the situation that they’re in and to be more successful.
“I just want them to consider that everybody who’s homeless is not on drugs or alcohol. That people is really out here trying. Trying to do better and they want better. And I just wish that the policymakers will try they best to get more affordable housing or family shelter programs. Anything to help people get about the situation that they’re in and to be more successful.”
The first question is for April. Someone wants to know if you think families experiencing homelessness struggle with exposing their homeless status through virtual learning.
April: Oh. Wow. To answer that question, absolutely. I’ll tell you. I moved to Chatham, New Jersey which is a very upper echelon part of New Jersey, because I believed that I was going to be able to give my kids the best education possible. It was part of the reason I chose to stay with a friend there. Once I lost housing in Chatham, they actually don’t even have any housing options, period. They don’t even have a program for you. If you can’t afford to live there, then you can’t be there. So I was not… they were not really receptive. I have a daughter who has an IEP. An IEP is like intervention learning services, because maybe they have a delay in reading, or things like that. And I just, I was so overwhelmed, and I felt like I completely just stopped. I stopped everything. My kids stopped doing their work. And, yes, it’s, it’s embarrassing, you know? Here I am, I just moved to this state in this great neighborhood, being able to give my kids a great education, and, you know, they were emailing me, and you know, they were wanting to connect kids and all of these things and my kids were missing activities that they were doing online and Facetiming for class and things like that. Well, I don’t even have a computer. How are my kids going to? We don’t have iphones, but the teachers are saying, “Hey, let’s Facetime!” Well, my kids don’t have iphones or cell phones and so of course it, absolutely just kinda rips you of your dignity, because when you’re already in a low place, you know, what do you do when you feel defeated? And so I would, I would agree with that, 110%. It’s very difficult, especially for moms of multiples, you know what I mean? I have two middle school students, two elementary school students and, it was just, it was completely difficult. When you have 16 teachers emailing you at one time and you’re so overwhelmed and you don’t even know how you’re going to cook dinner inside of a hotel room in a crock pot? It’s like you kinda weigh the odds. What do I have to do, you know what I mean? And you don’t want to explain your situation to each and every single teacher. So at some point, you’re just like, “Forget it.” You know what I mean? They’ll just have to– you’ve put it off, basically. And so that’s exactly what happens. That feeling of overwhelmedness, feeling defeated, like I said. If you have middle school students, you’ve got 16 teachers. If you’ve got four kids, it’s so overwhelming, especially when you don’t have the resources.
Any other final things that any of you want to say before we close?
Freda: If you can hear me, I just wanted to say something to the lady. I just wanted to tell you to stay strong. We all have so much power within us, you wouldn’t even know. Keep pushing. Everybody has a story. We can all write a book. Do not give up. Period. We can’t give up. We all have children, show your kids how strong you are. When my kids came to me and they said, “Hey Mama, you know, I’ve been robbed, I’ve been shot at. You still standing! We homeless, but you’re still standing. You’re still moving forward.” We got so much power within us. Just move forward and believe in yourself. And trust me, you will get to where you need to be. This not the end, it is just the beginning to a beautiful future that you are going to have. And that’s what I wanted to say to the ladies.
April: Thank you for that. I wanted to say to the policymakers, and this is April speaking, one of the things that I experienced throughout my whole process and homelessness is that some of these agencies don’t have any accountability. When you have people who are already down in a low place within themselves, and you walk into an agency, and you are treated where they won’t even look up and look at you in your face.These people are receiving grants and funds, and then you, you sign up for these programs and you get a gift card in the mail and you get a T-shirt, but that’s the extent of it. They have thousands of programs, but most of them are what you call referral services. You call one place, and they send you to the next. Call one place, and they send you to the next. We are in need of agencies that provide direct service, because you become discouraged. The information that’s put out there is not always made visible. When I was denied benefits for my cash benefit and my food stamp benefits, yes, I was told that I could appeal it and request a hearing. But how was I gonna get there? No information was shared to me that the agency itself had to provide me a way to get there. Those small details that are available to us when we’re sitting around 3 or 4 hours in the lobby? Share that type of information. Share the information that is valid. And it’s like the level of human kindness, it just doesn’t exist. And I think that they need to be accountable. Your jobs are in place because of people that are in need. So when you walk into a room, and somebody’s already low and their head down, and they’re already feeling bad, somebody should be accountable to that staff to make them look up and say, “Hello, how was your day?”, “Good morning,” not “Next.” Those things matter, because for people that are already on the verge, for people that are already broken, it could be that one nasty attitude, or that one last comment that sends you into defeat of your own self. And so I ask that they consider, when you have these agencies, that you guys put policies in place to ensure that they take into consideration the mindset of the communities that they serve. Thank you.
April explains her frustration with referral services and advocates for direct services through one agency,