Five-year-old Kamari and his 3-year-old brother, Shamarr, clown around in the dining room of the YWCA Family Center in Columbus, Ohio. They and their mother, Stekeshia Harris, slept on cots in the shelter's library for their first three nights there because there were so many homeless families needing shelter, a 330 percent increase from two years ago.
"We've been in overflow for more than a year," said Ginger Young, the center's director of housing programs. She said homelessness is known to trail recession by two years.
"The economy tanks. People are laid off. They go through their savings if they have savings. They lose their house—eviction, foreclosure. They sell their stuff. They live with so and so until their welcome runs out. Then it's either the car or us."
The YWCA Family Center is an emergency shelter, and for months, mothers, fathers, and children have appeared at the door in record numbers and at all hours carrying bags of clothing and a few favorite toys. The center's policy is not to turn people away, so employees add cots everywhere they can find space. That's where Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Julia Cass met the Harris family while on assignment for the Children's Defense Fund.
As in Young's scenario, Stekeshia Harris' hard times began with a layoff. She was working at a group home for adults with intellectual disabilities, primarily cooking, cleaning, and bathing the residents and earning $8 an hour when she became pregnant with her second child, Shamarr. The group home shocked her by letting her go. "They were afraid I would fall and I couldn't pick up the clients anymore. I was really upset because I thought I could handle it," she said. That was more than three years ago.
After Shamarr was born, Stekeshia didn't get the job back as she'd hoped. The boys' father helped out for a while but then left. She babysat for other children and made a little money that way. She began receiving food stamps. She signed up with a temporary agency and worked some days here, some days there, nothing steady. "I put in a lot of applications but it's hard," she said. Eventually she fell behind in paying rent and faced eviction. Her sister helped her with the rent as long as she could. When she couldn't afford to keep helping, she allowed Stekeshia and the boys to move in with her and her children but "that didn't work out. She really didn't have room," Stekeshia said. And so the family ended up at the shelter.
Stekeshia's goal continued to be to find a job. "Any job to get my foot in the door." She regularly sent out a number of applications. A hospice needed a cook and she thought she would be qualified because she cooked in the group home. She went downtown to put in an application at a former Hyatt hotel with new owners. "Dietary, housekeeping, front desk. Whatever position I could get, I'd be happy with... Just keep trying. That's my motto. I am so praying I get one of these jobs so I can move on and give some other family a chance to be here."
A recent front page New York Times article by Jason DeParle reported that as many as one in every four low-income single mothers is jobless and without cash aid—roughly 4 million women and children with no money, no job. It said many of these families are blocked from receiving help by time limits and other restrictions put into place by the mid-1990s welfare reform: "Much as overlooked critics of the restrictions once warned, a program that built its reputation when times were good offered little help when jobs disappeared."
And as a result, the article goes on to say, "The poor people, who were dropped from cash assistance here, mostly single mothers, talk with surprising openness about the desperate, and sometimes illegal, ways they make ends meet. They have sold food stamps, sold blood, skipped meals, shoplifted, doubled up with friends, scavenged trash bins for bottles and cans and returned to relationships with violent partners—all with children in tow."
I hope enough citizens will lift their voices and votes against a federal budget which cuts the poor and coddles the rich.
Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children's Defense Fund. For more information go to www.childrensdefense.org.