Sunday, May 23, 2010

A 12-Year Old Philanthropist??

What possesses a 12-year old kid to strike out across America on foot on behalf of homeless kids? And how does he talk his entire family into joining his crusade? I'm not sure I have the answers to those questions yet, because Zach Bonner, the kid in question, is so very quiet and reserved about his mission.

He and his team, The Little Red Wagon Foundation, came to Promise House last week on their way across the country. Zach is a typical 12-year old in many ways, and oh-so a-typical in so many others. With flaming red hair and crystal blue eyes, he politely shook my hand upon introduction and looked to his big brother, Matthew, before answering any question. When I asked him why he decided to do this, I never really got an answer. "Well, I started in 2004 helping victims of Hurricane Charlie and ........." His answer sorta faded into the woodwork (just like ALL 12-year olds' answers), so I still don't know why exactly he became passionate about helping homeless kids.

Here's what I do know. He created the Little Red Wagon Foundation and is currently engaged in his "Walk Across America" to raise awareness about and funds for homeless kids. He does school on-line, his sister Kellie and brother Matthew trade off handling PR, logistics, and shepherding him across the country. His mother, Linda, travels with him in an RV. They have a REALLY cute VW bug decked out with the foundation logo and an actual red wagon on top! How cool is that?

Last Thursday, he took the PH shelter teens to Six Flags for a fun-filled day (yes, right in the middle of the monsoon). Typical 12-year old behavior: "Mom, I TOLD you I did not want to get wet on any of the rides, and I got REALLY wet on that last one (like it was her fault!)." A-typical 12-year old behavior: to my shelter manager, "I am so sorry the film crew is late. We are off schedule, and I know that is inconvenient for you." What 12-year old says stuff like that??

On the tour of PH, he was very subdued until we got upstairs to the classrooms. Dallas ISD furnishes us with two certified teachers, computers, smart boards, and TONS of books and supplies for our classrooms. He lit up like a Christmas tree! "Wow! It is so cool that the kids don't have to leave here to go to school! And a Smart Board! How cool is that?"

He and his crew went out with our Street Outreach team on Friday night. He was VERY excited to get a Street Outreach t-shirt (seriously?), as was the entire film crew (really, seriously???). According to my SO manager, Sonja, they had a fabulous time talking to kids, asking questions, and visiting the places we frequent. Supposedly, they've had the best time with us of those agencies they have visited (could be blowing smoke, but I doubt it, cause we really are tons of fun to be around!).

They are headed across the Southwestern US, headed for California with ETA of October. It's gonna be a REALLY long, hot summer for them. They have a film crew with them documenting Zach's travels. When the film comes out, I'll let you know.

It really is unbelievable what kids can do. Zach has the support and love of his family to back him, and there is no telling what other great things he will accomplish in his life-time. But even kids with NO support can do great graduate Valedictorian of her class.....graduate from nursing school and become an Army nurse.....complete a degree in Electrical Engineering from UTD....attend nursing school while raising a child.....complete Mortuary School and own a funeral happily married and have children that are loved and supported.

These are all true examples from lives of teens that have been at Promise House. Defying the odds, overcoming unbelievable obstacles and challenges, becoming brilliant and unforgettable, they have already left their mark on life in such an outstanding way and will continue to do so for a very long time.

Maybe I do know why Zach is walking across America for these kids.

Check out Zach at:

Monday, May 17, 2010

Promise House Cat aka Grizzabella

Animals love Promise House. Over the years, we've had racoons in the attic of our "yellow building", litters and litters of kittens under Wesley Inn, chickens and roosters wandering around our back yard, squirrels that almost eat out of your hand, and scruffy stray dogs by the dozens. There is always one of us taking home a stray dog or cat to raise.

There is one resident cat who deserves special mention. My assistant, Paloma, calls her Gray Kitty, but I call her Grizzabella. She has to be as old as Methusla (sp?) and has been around PH as long as I have (almost 13 years!). Shaggy, ugly, matted, and steel gray, she persists. She is the mother of countless litters of kittens (or so we thought--more on that later), is a hunter supreme, and claims PH as her kingdom.

Paloma is crazy about her (course Paloma is crazy about ANY animal). If a day goes by without spotting her, Paloma worries. When she does appear, all is well with the day. Try as Paloma has to endear me to this cat, I just don't feel the love. But Paloma does, and so Grizzabella has become part of the family.

Feral as this cat is, Paloma somehow caught her one day to take her to get fixed. BIG MISTAKE. Evidently, Grizzy went nuts in the car (I can't remember if she was in a cage or not), spit, peed, puked, yowled, growled, pooped, and literally through hair everywhere (how did she do that???) all the way to the vet. But Paloma soldiered on, determined to do this cat a favor and save her from a life saddled with kittens.

She finally gets to the vet (how she got the cat inside the vet's office is still a mystery) only to find out.......Grizzabella was ALREADY fixed!!! "How do you KNOW that?" a totally shocked Paloma asked. "See this notch on her ear? That's what we do to feral cats after spaying them." says the vet.


So Paloma has to get the cat BACK into the car and BACK to PH. I won't go into THAT story.

Well......poor old Grizzy was not seen for weeks. Paloma was bereft and convinced she had traumatized the cat so badly that we would never see her again. I was sorta hoping that was the case!

BUT, fate would have nothing of that. About two weeks later, here comes Grizzy ambling across the street just like in the "old" days. It is true.....cats have at least 9 lives. Paloma was so happy, she started jumping up and down, hugging everyone. I tried to show a little enthusiasm, but Paloma, of course, saw right through me. What can I say?

Grizzabella is still with us. Paloma took some pictures for posterity one day, so we would always remember. It is always a better day when Grizzy is spotted (at least for Paloma).

All this leaves just one question: WHO IS BIRTHING ALL THOSE KITTENS?????

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Building is on Fire!

Grim news for kids aging out of Foster Care. A recent study (Youth Today's most recent issue) of 600 midwestern foster care alumni who were tracked beginning at age 17, and who are now 23, showed the following results:

1. 94% did not have even a two-year college diploma.
2. Over 1/2 were unemployed.
3. Eight in ten males had been arrested at least once.
4. 2/3 of the young women had at least one child.
5. 44% of males were responsible for parenting a child.
6. 1/4 had been homeless at least one time.
7. Over 1/2 had serious, untreated mental health issues.

Geez....where do I begin? We have been hearing similar statistics in the youth services field for years, so the results of this study are no surprise to me. What continues to surprise me, however, is how totally unresponsive government and the private sector continue to be regarding the plight of these kids. It truly baffles my mind on a daily basis how we think we can really end homelessness without attending to these kids. How many different ways do you have to say, "FIRE!" before people finally start to leave the building?! These kids are burning right before our very eyes, and we just continue to sit around and pretend they don't exist. Will SOMEONE please explain that to me????

My last blog post had a long list of "what needs to happen to solve this problem", so I won't go into that again. What I will say again is that these are kids who were supposed to be taken care of by the state, who were removed from their homes through no fault of their own, who were bounced around their entire lives, who were caught in the unbelievable web of bureaucracy that is government, and then who were flung from the web and told to fly......but given no wings with which to do it. It makes my head explode.

How can we as a nation be so uncaring? How can we continue to allow our legislatures to cut critically needed services for these kids, or even worse, ignore the fact that services like transitional living programs are so desperately needed?

Sometime I'd like to do an informal study. I'd like to sit a group of people down and show them various slides of animals, babies, children, teens, and young adults......all of whom needed rescuing from some type of abusive or life-threatening situation. I would bet my house that teens and young adults would be the LEAST chosen group to be saved. We care more about puppies than we do these kids!

Until we face THAT reality, the reality that as a whole, we just don't really like teens, especially those who look weird or scary or angry; or at the least, we just don't think about them at all when we think of groups that need help; until we face that and the fact that even though we may not like them, they still need our help; and the reality that up to 48% of chronically homeless adults have history in the foster care system (if you don't like them as teens, wait til you get to deal with them as chronically substance abusing, mentally ill adults!), I guess we'll just keep pretending the building is not really on fire.,

As for me, I'm leaving the building! I hope some of you will come with me.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

How to REALLY End Homelessness

There has been positive press lately about the Annual Homeless Count conducted by the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance. Stories have described the progress made in providing housing for chronically homeless adults, the success of the Bridge (the homeless assistance center), and the work of many influential individuals in the community to help end homelessness. Mike Rawlings, the Homeless Czar, said that although we haven't won the race yet, we can at least see the finish line.

There HAS been much progress made....BUT.....and it is a very big BUT.....once again a vital component has been left out of the conversation, out of the stories, out of the press. The only way to truly end chronic homelessness is to stop the pipeline into homelessness....the biggest one of which is the 20,000 eighteen year olds who age out of the foster care system every year in the United States.

The statistics are dismal. Within two years of aging out, up to 48% of these teens will have been homeless at least once. One in four will be incarcerated. Only 58% of foster youth receive highschool diplomas as compared to 87% of the total teen population, making them very UNemployable.

Worse than these statistics, though, is the fact that these kids know NOTHING about how to survive in life (the failure of the Foster Care System is another story). Without intense support, they flounder, they drift, they become the next generation of chronically homeless aduts. IN FACT, a significant percentage of chronically homeless adults were in the foster care system as kids!

The equation seems easy enough to me. Aging out with no support equals high risk of becoming homeless. Why, then, have we created solutions only at the end result i.e., chronically homeless adults, but none for shutting the door INTO homelessness through support for the young people who are most at risk of becoming the next generation of chronically homeless adults?

The tragedy of this is, they are in this highest risk category THROUGH NO FAULT OF THEIR OWN. They were removed from their homes with no say in the matter, most likely shuffled through many different placements throughout their young lives, and then told "Bye!" at age 18.
AND, instead of helping them THEN, when prevention services can have great impact at a reasonable cost, we wait until they are deep into chronic homelessness, mental illness, substance abuse, etc....when the cost of help for them is extraordinary! What is wrong with us?!

To win this race, it is time NOW to turn our attention to these kids. Here is what needs to happen:
  1. HUD (The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) needs to lift its restrictions on the type of new projects Continuum of Cares can propose. Currently, the only new projects eligible are permanent supportive housing projects, which are for chronically homeless adults with a disability. Eighteen - 24 year old kids are too young to qualify for chronic homeless status and most do not have a long-term disabling condition. Transitional housing projects for this specific age group should not only be allowed, but encouraged or mandated by HUD.
  2. Congress should appropriate MUCH more funding for the Runaway, Homelesss Youth Act, through the Department of Health and Human Services, in particular the Transitional Living Program funding. Further, DHHS should lift its restriction on this funding that disallows foster youth from taking advantage of these transitional living programs.
  3. Every state should have a line-item in their budget specifically for transitional housing funds WITH supportive services for this age group. The State of Texas, through the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, agreed to funding for several large cities to help end homelessness. However, the funds were for chronic homelessness.....again.
  4. Every county and city should channel funding into transitional housing projects for homeless young people, again, WITH supportive services. Dallas County decided to divert all its Emergency Shelter Grant funding as of January 2010 to the Bridge, instead of dividing it between several shelters, as it had done in the past. Again, this funding now will help only chronically homeless adults.
  5. Mike Rawlings, Homeless Czar, Mike Faenza, CEO of Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance, John Castle, incoming Chair of the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance Board of Directors, the MDHA Board of Directors, and all agencies who are members of the alliance MUST turn our attention to these kids and ensure they are taken care of . It's time, and it's the next logical step. Aside from the moral issue of ignoring these kids, the economics of prevention v.s. the economics of long-term intervention are stunning. Why can't we get this?
  6. The Dallas Morning News needs to turn its attention long-term to this group of homeless young people. The News' influence in this city can go a very long way to bringing attention and funding to this issue.
  7. We need the influential individuals in this city (you know who you are) to rally around the cause of these homeless young people just as you did for the cause to end chronic homelessness. These kids are the missing piece to completing the task.
  8. Every discussion regarding ending homelessness MUST include solutions for this age group. AND institutions that regularly deal with young people i.e., school systems, colleges, churches, should be at the table and should be offering help.

It would truly be a shame to be crossing the finish line of the race and think we have won, only to look over our shoulder and see thousands of homeless young people coming up fast behind us.

Is that what we want?

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Cinco de Mayo and Immigration

Promise House had a rockin' Cinco de Mayo celebration on Tuesday. Over 300 children, teens, and adults enjoyed music, dance, fabulous food, and inspiration from our Citycouncilwoman Delia Jasso and State Representative Roberto Alonzo.

As I sat enjoying the festivities and visiting with guests, I couldn't help but wonder if near this many people would have come to such a celebration in Arizona? After all, we had several police officers stop by to visit, as well as an officer patrolling our parking lot for safety.

How much fear and loathing the Arizona bill has already caused. How much more it will cause as arrests are made, lawsuits filed, protests continue. How much more polarizing politics will become as each side digs in their heels, blames the other for whatever happens, postures for reporters, and debates, debates, debates. Meanwhile, people suffer. People hide. People become suspicious. People worry. People fear other people.

I don't have an answer to the immigration issue. I just know THIS is NOT it. Promise House welcomes teens and families for services with no questions questions about income, legal or illegal status, ability to pay, or even sometimes where they live. We are so fortunate to have funding that allows us to offer services at no charge to any of our clients; and we just never have asked any of the other questions. Our goal is to embrace whoever needs help.

I worry that even though this is not Arizona, fear may keep people from seeking the help they need. That is so unfortunate. I feel like putting a sign on the door in Spanish saying, "We ask no questions" or let everyone know they are safe with us.

After all, we are here to mitigate suffering, not cause it. I have seen the ramifications of parents being deported with their children left behind. I have seen the trauma caused by teens transported across the border illegally for trafficking. And I have seen first hand the struggle of some of our clients to become do the right thing....and the enormity of the obstacles placed in front of them. We are not a very friendly country to immigrants...period. Even though we ARE a country of immigrants.....go figure.

Honestly, I am ambivalent about the issue. I really see both sides and don't have a solid opinion either way. I just see the suffering and feel the loss and sadness of those who get caught in the web of the issue. That's all.

As I watched all 300 people having such a good time on Tuesday, I was just so grateful that we weren't in Arizona.