No child should be without a home.
By Mary Coleman, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies
Two decades ago, I watched thousands of hungry, unkempt, and motley toddlers and pre-teens gathered in an Eastern European city center begging for money and food, and stealing. They seemed at home on the streets, sleeping on the grounds near retail shops, universities and government offices. My eyes had never witnessed such happenings and I asked my colleagues to tell me what I was seeing. Some said they were just wanderers, sent by their parents to beg for whatever the kids could scrounge up -- from strangers. Others called them gypsies and said theirs was a life style of wandering and begging -- that they had no sense of place. Still, others called them Rroma and said they were a minority group badly discriminated against throughout Eastern Europe for many centuries and that they were dispossessed and without citizenship and political power -- or the protection of their welfare.
Upon my return there a few months later, to attend the swearing in of one of my students as the National Security Advisor to the country, they had vanished from sight -- disappeared. Where had they all gone, I asked. I was taken to an orphanage where they had been crowded in like cattle... They were the same hungry and wild looking kids I had first seen months earlier, only worse. At least in the streets they were connected to adults; here they seemed detached from them and very much left to survive disease, hunger and squalor of their own. Those images are sharply etched in my mind today as two decades ago.
While on assignment across another ocean, I would again see toddlers, teens and young adults trying desperately to wash the windshields of cars and get passersby to purchase inexpensive items such as beads, dirty water carried in pans on their heads and anything else they could sell. I saw children exchanging American dollars for the native currency in the street, right in front of police and I saw children carrying weapons in their roles as child soldiers. Most of all, I remember seeing young and elderly women, clothing in tatters, carrying lumber and other heavy items on their heads. The country was at war and had been engaged in civil strife for almost three decades. When I would turn in for the night, go to my bedroom and cover myself with a full bodied mosquito net, to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes and catching malaria, I wondered about the street children and their parents and those who walked for months in their bare feet to reach a safe haven. Did they have mosquito repellant? Could they afford it? Was it laced with dangerous amounts of DDT? How many already had malaria? What could be done about the standing puddles of water? When I am near Copley Place at Back Bay station, I return to those images and wonder if, in my own country, homelessness and poverty, hunger and dislocation could ever become so commonplace.
Rarely does anyone bother the homeless at the Back Bay Am-Track station where they go freely in and out of the bathrooms and try to make eye contact before asking for money. They not only sleep there, but have all their earthly possessions in tow -- in bags on their backs. I delay using the public toilet even when the need is urgent, and I am ashamed of myself. In the station, a magnificent bronze stature of Asa Phillip Randolph and compelling narratives of the founding and significance of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters surround the homeless as they linger in the waiting area. Few of them and even fewer of those bustling to and from the "T" seem aware of the stories told by Sleeping Car Porters. I read the words inscribed there and I wondered to myself what A. Phillip Randolph would make of homelessness, joblessness, and mental illness in the midst of plenty and privilege. I wonder at the fact that all these many decades after the porters were unionized, how both well-intentioned and ill-disposed people demonized unions and helped to create the new poor and homeless?
The monument and symbolism of work and courage, in the midst of brokenness and failure is striking. Even I, a child of the Deep South, a fierce critic of my own and others' hypocrisy, watch the adult male homeless and mentally disturbed, with a long-handled spoon. Sometimes I even try to decouple the mental illness from the homelessness, as if the human being I am seeing is both blameless and responsible for his life choices or situations. I have wanted to ask homeless men and women why they did not get help, want help, and do better. I have been angry at them and angry at my country for letting mentally ill men, women and children live without basic protections. Yet, like so many others, I have averted my eyes from them, and when they are unavoidable, I have refused to see them -- to meet their stare and acknowledge them as fully human. There is something about a strong work ethic that makes the poor and homeless appear more dysfunctional than the rest of us, makes us reluctant to acknowledge that we are called on to be our brothers' and sisters' keepers.
I have images of very young black and Hispanic males standing on the street corner in central cities, or waiting in trailer parks to be picked up and carried to poultry plants, catfish farms, and out to the city periphery for a day's work or a half-day's work. I remember the moms who left their families early in the morning to work at the homes of the materially privileged. Decades ago as a pre-teen, I also remember asking my parents why one or two families in a neighborhood of about 200 black families -- never worked and why the houses in which they lived looked inhabitable; how all the kids, let alone their married parents, had enough space to think, read, and imagine a better future? I also wondered why they were not in my circle of friends and why I never saw them at church -- or invited them to birthday parties and why they seemed to me a little less than average in their school work and, unfortunately, most never completed high school. When did the kids in the two dilapidated houses in my neighborhood become conditioned to think that they could not learn and that quitting would be better? What messages did the nation, their peers, the community, and teachers send them about their possibilities and potential?
They were the poor and non-working in stark contrast to the folk in my community who were mostly working class, resourceful, and landowning people with middle class aspirations. Back then in rural America, a good marriage, work, a strong work ethic, land ownership, dedication to children's formal education and to God (or, at least to church) and charity, made black families respectable pillars of the community. Back then many moms and dads who had finished high school had functional literacy and valued reading, independent thought, and exercising discipline, creativity, and resourcefulness, even when times were unjust and segregation was paramount in all spheres. Back then, also, men who had not finished high school or grade school, for that matter, found themselves a high school bride or a near high school bride—a keeper. When men did finish school, many joined the military and with their GI benefits purchased shelter for their brides and children. What happens to children who are poor whose dads and moms are without the GI Bill?
The number of high school non-completers in the United States is growing rather than diminishing and while a minority of my rural classmates never completed high school, let alone college, college degrees are more utilitarian for all than ever before. As was true forty years ago, everyone who wants to gain a modicum of independence and career advancement wants to support their children's formal education and aspirations beyond high school. What about children without parents and shelter and safety? How do we as a nation and a civil society understand their plight? Fifty-one percent of the children in Detroit and Cleveland, Ohio are in poverty. Twenty-two percent of the children in Boston are in poverty. While poverty rates and rates of homelessness are not perfectly correlated in the United States, the number of homeless children in the United States has grown tremendously over the last decade. According to the Urban Institute, "on any given day over 200,000 children are homeless." One child in fifty in the United States is likely to experience chronic or episodic homelessness before reaching age six. Of the children most likely to experience homelessness, twenty-five percent have suffered from physical abuse and neglect. In Massachusetts upwards of 20,000 to 50,000 children experienced homelessness in 2010. In any given day, too many children in the United States are without a home to live in and without parents and a caring community and nation who can protect and shelter them from egregious injury and insult.
Public policies must focus on how to prevent more family dysfunction without creating more bigotry and suffering. Resourcefulness matters, but it must be tethered to legal work opportunity and a livable wage. Advancing intergenerational human capital matters. Functional collaborations across agencies, civil society organizations, cities, towns, and continents matter. Technology that meets the needs of vulnerable people matters. Education and educators matter.
What might advances in neuroscience offer children exposed to toxins, hunger, emotional and physical trauma, and neglect? What good is Opening Doors, the most recent U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness's initiative for reducing childhood vulnerability, to poverty and homelessness? What curricula and values do we need to cultivate in higher education in order to maximize the success of all students but especially the success of students who feel for one reason of another that they do not fit or belong?
Lesley University and the Schoen Foundation have created a partnership to better address higher education's role in and responsibility to teacher education and the education of vulnerable children. Established in March 2011, the Lesley Conversation on Child Homelessness in Massachusetts is designed to convene national panels, consisting of policymakers, homeless parents and children, child care practitioners, scholars, and primary school teachers, to share research findings, analyze policy proposals, identify key curriculum issues and concerns in addressing the amelioration of child homelessness in Massachusetts. One Conversation per year is planned. The first will examine the ways in which state and local governments and the non-profit and private sectors have combined their efforts to ameliorate homelessness in communities throughout Massachusetts. Dr. Jack P. Shonkoff, the Julius B. Richmond FAMRI Professor of Child Health and Development at the Harvard School of Public Health and Harvard Graduate School of Education, and the founding director of the university-wide Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, is the invited inaugural lecturer. Advances in brain science alert us to the injurious nature of trauma on infants and toddlers and their teen siblings and invite one to ask under what conditions, if any, the impacts of early trauma, injury and insult can be diminished over the life course.
Lesley University is an institution of higher learning with a 100 year commitment to educating young people to become excellent teachers—teachers imbued with enthusiasm, knowledge, pedagogical skills, and a keen sense of social justice.
Director of the LA&PS Internship Office; Assistant Professor of Psychology
Dean, College of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies; Professor of Political Science and Global Studies
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News from 29 Mellen
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2011 Conference Presentations Archive
Dean Coleman's Interview with Laurie Schoen
Year One Inquiry
Year Two Inquiry
Reflections on World Homelessness
Partnerships in Policy / Advocacy
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