Updated: Feb 1, 2019
Letter to the Editor of the Virginian-Pilot
I love Lily. For a few days last week, Sesame Street and this sweet puppet turned our gaze to a problem hidden in plain sight in this country: family homelessness.
Despite a booming economy and arguably the strongest labor market in generations, homelessness in the United States continues to persist and grow. After 20 years of disinvestment by the Federal government in our affordable housing infrastructure, housing has become increasingly unaffordable for millions of Americans.
Tent cities have sprung up in most of our nation’s major metropolitan areas. What made us wince in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, the sight of families living under bridges and bypasses, has become a new normal in Silicon Valley, San Francisco, Seattle, Washington, DC, Indianapolis, Las Vegas and even Lubbock, Texas.
For many homeless families, however, their experience will be like Lily’s who says, “We’ve been staying in all different kinds of places.” They will stay with family members and friends and continue to move, unable to save enough funds to re-stabilize due to the high cost of poverty and homelessness.
But Sesame Street took it easy on us. Lily is staying with friends in a kind neighborhood. What they didn’t tell you is that because she is staying with friends, her family will not qualify for most HUD-funded homeless programs. The reality for children like Lily is they will move regularly, live in overcrowded, chaotic conditions, and often experience domestic violence. Research shows this will impact their mental and physical health and their educational and developmental progress.
The Housing Crisis Hotline, operated by ForKids, took 50,000 calls over the last 12 months from 25,750 households in Hampton Roads. To put that in perspective, on a typical Monday we receive 400 to 500 calls from households facing eviction, seeking shelter, living without functional utilities or facing other difficulties impacting their housing stability.
As Norfolk embarks on the demolition of 1,700 public housing units and housing costs in Hampton Roads continue to rise, our region needs to take concrete action to address housing affordability lest tents cities become a part of our future along with our other metropolitan friends. Proactive zoning for multi-family housing and funding for affordable housing must be part of every city’s comprehensive plan and annual budgets. Community leaders must embrace our housing infrastructure as essential to our region’s long-term economic health and prosperity.
Sherri Westin with the Sesame Workshop said, “We want [homeless children] to know that they are not alone and home is more than a house or an apartment. Home is wherever the love lives – the love within a family and a community.” While most of us would agree our homes are defined by more than their physical walls, stripping them away eliminates our fundamental safety and security. It takes away the essence of “home.”
At ForKids, the children are quite real and they and their parents fill our shelter to beyond capacity. Last night, a newborn baby girl, born into homelessness, arrived with her mother claiming the last space in our overflow shelter. We can call her Lily. It is a beautiful name for this beautiful child who needs a permanent, stable home.