Employed but still homeless
By Jessica Hopper, Tim Sandler and Cristina Boado
Before the sun rises, Cindy and Patrick Kennard wake their three daughters, fold their cots in a Sunday school classroom and pack their lives into suitcases.
“This is an every Sunday ritual,” said Cindy Kennard. “It’s something that we do every week and so it just becomes natural. We know the best thing is to get up and keep moving.”
The Kennard family of five from Johnson City, Tenn., is homeless. Perhaps the most surprising thing about the Kennards is that despite their homelessness, they are still a working family. For the last seven years, Patrick Kennard has worked a full-time job with benefits at a bank call center and until recently, Cindy Kennard worked as a director of a daycare facility.
“When we fell, we fell hard and we fell fast,” Cindy Kennard told NBC News’ Ann Curry in an interview airing Thursday, Nov. 29 on NBC’s Rock Center with Brian Williams.
The Kennards are one of a growing number of working families who have become homeless. In the wake of the recession, experts say that families like the Kennards represent a historic juncture when it comes to homelessness in America.
“It’s hard sometimes for people to appreciate. They’re so used to the stereotyped homeless populations, the visible homeless, if you will, who live outdoors in public locations and they’re not aware that there are literally hundreds of thousands of people, many of them working, who are homeless as well,” said Dennis Culhane, a University of Pennsylvania social policy professor whose research focuses on homelessness.
The number of people in homeless families living in suburban and rural areas rose nearly 60 percent during the depths of the Great Recession, according to figures from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). More than one million school-aged children are now homeless, according to the Department of Education.
“There are more children homeless now than have ever been before,” Culhane said.
For Patrick Kennard, the feeling that he’s failed his three daughters, 9-year-old Jillian, 14-year-old Melodie and 16-year-old Brianne, sends him into despair.
“I think I could have handled this whole situation better had it not been for the fact that I was taking my three children into it with me,” said Kennard. “They didn’t do anything to deserve this. They didn’t do anything. They’re totally innocent.”
Cindy and Patrick Kennard, married 19 years, worked hard to pursue the American dream. They have college degrees. Both tried to build their savings as they worked. Their dream began to crumble when Patrick Kennard suffered kidney problems that led to expensive hospital stays and mounting medical bills. Even with the health insurance he had from work, the family still owed around $5,000. Their car broke down repeatedly, costing them more than $3,000. The couple's debt began to mount. Combining their student loan debt and medical bills, they found themselves more than $35,000 in debt.
Unable to afford child care, Cindy Kennard was forced to quit her job leaving them with only her husband's income, around $35,000 a year. The family was living paycheck to paycheck and still did not have enough to cover their monthly expenses. They became behind on their rent. They downsized to a cramped two-bedroom apartment from their more spacious four-bedroom apartment. Again, they were unable to afford rent and were evicted.
“I wanted to dig a hole and let somebody cover me up,” said Cindy Kennard.
The youngest Kennard, 9-year-old Jillian, took the eviction news especially hard. “I was scared because I loved the house and I didn’t want to leave it,” she said.
The Kennards pondered living in their van or at a campground. They made heart-breaking decisions, including pawning their wedding rings for $100.
“One of the hardest things that I’ve ever had to do was to sell my wedding band,” Patrick Kennard said. “That ring on my finger meant the world to me.”
For Cindy and Patrick Kennard’s daughters, being homeless means living a life of uncertainty and sometimes shame.
Through tears, 16-year-old Brianne described the hardest part about being a homeless kid: hoping no one finds out.
“Sometimes when we’re on our way to school, we have to ride up here in, like, a church van and people can probably see that and then they probably wonder why,” Brianne said. “But people finding out is probably one of the scariest things.”
Brianne has told a few of her close friends who have kept her secret. She was willing to speak publicly about it for the first time because she wants to help other kids like her.
“When we became homeless, we lost everything but our faith and that’s what I would say is don’t lose your faith,” said Brianne of her advice to other homeless families.
Nine-year-old Jillian also feared telling classmates about her family’s struggle.
“I didn’t want everybody to laugh at me,” she said.
When her friends left school and returned to their homes, she went to a shelter. Jillian said, “I felt happy for them because they had a house and I didn’t.”
The red-headed little girl clings to a pink bird house she built out of popsicle sticks, glitter and glue because it reminds her of the family’s old home.
She sometimes has nightmares and dreams of one day having a slumber party in her own room with a bed covered in Tinkerbell sheets.
The family has moved 15 times in the last four months. Through a church and community program sheltering homeless families called the Interfaith Hospitality Network, the family rotates to a different Sunday school classroom each week.
“I had the stereotypical man holding up the sign, ‘Will work for food, have family, need help’ and I never realized how close I was to being that person,” Patrick Kennard said. “Homelessness can happen to anybody. We’re proof of that.”
Brian Rosecrance runs the Interfaith Hospitality Network’s chapter in Johnson City, Tenn., that’s been helping the Kennards as they find their financial footing. He said he has seen a distinct change in the families seeking help.
“In the past three, four years, we’ve seen higher-educated people. We’ve seen people who are currently employed coming to us. We’ve seen a lot of families with job layoff situations where they were laid off a month or two ago and now they’re homeless,” Rosecrance said.
Rosecrance said his waiting list of families needing help continues to grow. Part of what makes the Interfaith Hospitality Network unique is that it allows families to stay together.
“One thing that I've seen for as many years as I've been doing this is a real resilience with these families,” Rosecrance said. “And I think that's the whole secret. That, you know, mom and dad don't have to go one place while the kids stay with other relatives or they don't have to be separated in a shelter between men and women.”
Advocates say there are not enough shelters for the nation’s new wave of homeless families and many shelters separate men and women because of security reasons.
Shaun Donovan, the secretary of HUD, said that shelters must begin to use their funding differently to accommodate the rise in homeless families. He acknowledged that family-friendly shelters are under-funded.
“I’m not satisfied that we have the full amount of resources that we need and we will continue to fight for more,” Donovan said.
Donovan said he is working on an ambitious plan to reach families before they become homeless.
“I absolutely believe and the president [President Barack Obama] has fought for greater investment in homelessness in making sure we have adequate shelter, but also in making sure we have new, innovative directions that we can go to prevent it,” Donovan said.
Back in Tennessee, the Kennard sisters say that they are learning unexpected lessons from homelessness.
“I’ve learned to love more, to love more people, to love the family more and love the outside world,” said Brianne.
The family recently received some good news. The church shelter they’ve been staying in offered them a grant to help them pay rent for up to five years. The family is expecting to move into a four-bedroom apartment next week.
Perhaps Jillian will now be able to put down her bird house and decorate her own room with Tinkerbell décor.
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1.6 million homeless children living in the United States
7 Things about homeless kids..
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7 Things About Homeless Kids You Probably Didn't Know
Intro By Nicole Moseley
I was a homeless child for a good chunk of it. We lived in a van at time, a tiny car at other times. I had a tiny backpack in which I kept my belongings. We also would get dropped off at people's houses to shower. Sometimes we would live in a house for a while, but we were always at the whim of the people that paid the bills. Trust me, people don't care if you have kids, they will toss everyone out and spit on them. I have one toy from those days that wasn't taken away from me. Then we moved into a tiny, dilapidated, roach infested trailer. At times in which I had my own room, it was often a closet. I was the only girl with two brothers, so they got the bedroom. I still have nightmares about that time in my life because I was always sick. The library and school were sanctuaries, the park and playground too. The worst part was the cruelty of children and adults. They don't think about how ugly they look as they call you a bastard or a tramp and toss you to the curb. Keeping your toys and books for their kids. Hence the backpack, anything that I didn't want to lose went into that backpack as soon as I was done with it. All of it went to school with me. This is still true even though I am gainfully employed in the medical field for over 7 years while attending college. Our finances are good, but my car payment is the most important thing. Never know when it might be home. I have a few chronic rheumatic conditions, but I push myself all the time to avoid the cold. I had to assign a different meaning to a home in order to let go of the fear. Home to me isn't a section of the world for my stuff. Home is in a book. I always have books or access to them. I can escape the cold there. A few people, mainly teachers, treated us like people. Remember that all we want is to be treated like people, not garbage to be tossed aside and forgotten until you have a whim to give a homeless person something. If you really want to give a homeless kid something, find out what toy they want, put it in a backpack with their name on it. A coat with their name in it is also great, preferably in their favorite color. Gloves are awesome too. I always try to get my nieces and nephews portable things, they have been homeless too. They still have the blankets I gave them 7 years ago. I got them blankets specific to their taste. They loved that it was personal and thoughtful.
By Ann Brenoff
There are more than 1.6 million homeless children living in the United States, says The National Center on Family Homelessness. That's one in every 45 American kids who goes to sleep at night without a bed to call their own. Families with young children now account for about one third of the homeless population. And in case you are wondering why, the recession caused a 50 percent jump in the number of students identified as homeless in school districts throughout the country.
Here are seven things about being a homeless kid that you probably didn't know:
1. Making friends is harder when you're homeless.
Carey Fuller, who lives in her car with her 11-year-old daughter Maggie Warner in the Pacific Northwest, said she "cringed" when she recently took Maggie out to play in a park. Things were going fine until "someone asked her where she lived," Fuller explained. It's the death knell question, the one that throws the wet blanket on the playdate and it's usually just a matter of seconds before the other kid takes off in the direction of someone else.
"Maggie smiled and I changed the subject and off they went to play until it was time to go just before sunset," said Fuller. A happy ending, this time. Yes, it has happened more than once. Not to state the obvious, but you can't have kids over to play or have a friend sleep over if your home is the car.
Fuller became homeless after losing her job in the financial services sector in Seattle. Initially, the family downsized to a smaller apartment, but when that still proved too costly, Fuller bought an RV and moved into it with her two daughters. Maggie was a toddler at the time. The family has since downsized to a minivan. Fuller, who takes whatever part-time work she can find, is well-known as an advocate for homeless kids and writes about her life as a homeless mother living in a van.
2. Birthdays can be disappointing for a homeless kid.
Forget having a big party with lots of friends coming over.
Sure you can have a party in the park if it's a nice day. But who is going to pay for the pizza and cake and if people give you presents, where will you put them anyway?
This year Birthday Dreams brought over a cake and a gift when Maggie turned 11. For the past five years, Birthday Dreams has been providing birthday parties to homeless children in the Puget Sound area. A lot of homeless kids have never seen their names on a birthday cakes, notes the Birthday Dreams website. And yeah, they get pretty thrilled.
3. Canned food drives don't actually make much sense.
"Where are homeless people supposed to cook all those cans of food you collect?" asks Maggie Warner. Homeless people have no kitchens, she points out.
Gift cards or a credit to the grocery store where they can buy fresh fruit and pre-made meals makes more sense. But some donors are reluctant to do this because they think homeless people will use the money for beer or alcohol.
4. Homeless kids aren't as healthy as kids with homes.
The National Center on Family Homelessness says that homeless kids have four times as many respiratory infections, twice as many ear infections and five times more gastrointestinal problems. They are three times more likely to have emotional and behavioral problems than non-homeless children.
Being homeless is stressful and practicing good hygiene is harder when you don't have ready access to bathrooms, sinks and showers. Homeless kids are also exposed to the weather and elements.
Homelessness is connected to poverty and when you are poor, you often must rely on free clinics for health care; seeing doctors is not a regular thing.
5. Homeless kids may try hard but are more likely to struggle in school.
Of homeless elementary students, only 21.5 percent are proficient in math and 24.4 percent in reading. It is even worse among high school students, where just 11.4 percent are proficient in math and 14.6 percent in reading.
Try as they might, getting good grades is just harder when you are a homeless kid. For one, your parents -- and statistically speaking, you likely live with just your mom -- are probably busy trying to find food and safe shelter each night. There's no dining room table around which to gather, spread out your books and notes and do homework together. A lot of homeless kids rely on the public library as the safe, warm place to do homework -- you can even use a computer there. But budget cuts have reduced library hours and, by extension, study time. You can't study if there are no lights on in your car.
Not having a place to study matters a lot. If the teacher gives the class a project, you and your project partners will need to meet in the library or at their house. Same is true for study groups.
Agnes Stevens, a retired teacher, began tutoring homeless kids in a park in Santa Monica, Calif., encouraging them to stay in school and participate in school activities. In 1993, she founded School on Wheels, a program that tutors homeless kids in six Southern California counties. The organization also provides backpacks, school supplies and school uniforms for homeless kids and helps their parents navigate school resources. The group runs two learning centers too.
6. Homeless kids put up with a lot of daily indignities, small things that you probably don't realize.
They appreciate getting your used clothing donations, but once in a while they'd like to wear something without some other kid's name written in it. They also don't feel great sneaking in the school bathroom before class to brush their teeth, but it's often the only place available. Maybe there's a way to issue them a free lunch card that looks like the lunch card everyone else uses? If their family doesn't have a post office box, it's hard to mail home their report card.
They don't want everyone to know if the PTA paid for them to go on the class field trip. School projects that involve a trip to the crafts store for supplies pose a special burden on their families who can't afford it. Participating in sports sounds great, but soccer cleats and baseball uniforms aren't exactly in the budget. A lost textbook is a problem for a regular kid; a lost textbook is a catastrophe for a homeless kid.
7. Homeless kids are a pretty resilient lot.
When The Huffington Post asked Maggie what she wanted to say to our readers, this is what she said: "Never give up and never stop hoping things will get better even when you feel like you're at the bottom."
“I am convinced that imprisonment is a way of pretending to solve the problem of crime. It does nothing for the victims of crime, but perpetuates the idea of retribution, thus maintaining the endless cycle of violence in our culture. It is a cruel and useless substitute for the elimination of those conditions--poverty, unemployment, homelessness, desperation, racism, greed--which are at the root of most punished crime. The crimes of the rich and powerful go mostly unpunished.
It must surely be a tribute to the resilience of the human spirit that even a small number of those men and women in the hell of the prison system survive it and hold on to their humanity.”
― Howard Zinn, You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times
“Above all others I pity the homeless: where can they go to masturbate?”
― Robert Clark
“Sometimes it's easy to walk by because we know we can't change someone's whole life in a single afternoon. But what we fail to realize it that simple kindness can go a long way toward encouraging someone who is stuck in a desolate place.”
― Mike Yankoski
“Bleak, dark, and piercing cold, it was a night for the well-housed and fed to draw round the bright fire, and thank God they were at home; and for the homeless starving wretch to lay him down and die. Many hunger-worn outcasts close their eyes in our bare streets at such times, who, let their crimes have been what they may, can hardly open them in a more bitter world.”
― Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist
“A castaway in the sea was going down for the third time when he caught sight of a passing ship. Gathering his last strength, he waved frantically and called for help. Someone on board peered at him scornfully and shouted back, "Get a boat!”
― Daniel Quinn, Beyond Civilization: Humanity's Next Great Adventure
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