Homeless Children and Families in Small-Town America
Yvonne M. Vissing
The University Press of Kentucky, 1996, 271 pp.
ISBN: 0-8131-1943-X

This book is written by a sociologist. Doesn't that sound bone dry and dreadful? It is the product of six years of research and work with homeless rural children and families, funded to a large degree by the New Hampshire State Department of Education. May I see a show of hands of those who distrust government funded studies? Thank you, that's about the count I expected.

But oh, what a wonderful reversal of expectations it is. This is not a book of statistics or a listing of case studies, and it's the farthest thing from a justification of the status quo.

Yvonne Vissing went into schools, homeless shelters, doctor's offices -- anyplace homeless people were, she was willing to be.

"I had contact with more than three hundred homeless children and families. I followed most of the homeless families for several months, until their situations changed and they moved. These are the people whose stories are told in this book.

"It was impossible for me not to feel compassion for those I met in my fieldwork, when I ate with them and played with their children while they told their stories."

Yvonne Vissing is willing to be vulnerable among those whose vulnerability she is describing.

There is a widespread belief that homelessness is a big-city problem. I got a wonderful letter one day from a man on one of my online discussion lists. He had checked out my web site and was very impressed by what Real Change, SHARE, WHEEL, HWN, the StreetLife Galley, and StreetWrites are doing in Seattle. He was on SSI himself, but that gave him a greater income than my State Disability. He wanted to send me money. I wrote back and thanked him, and asked him to contribute his money to the homeless programs in the town where he lived.

He answered that he lived in a small country town, and they had no homeless people.

I asked him to look around a little more closely.

Statistics from the book:

"A rural Missouri count of homeless children yielded about 800 children in shelters."

"In 1991 there were about fifty thousand families below the poverty level in Kansas, with about six thousand homeless school-age children and youth."

"The Housing Assistance Council reported that in a 1988 survey of 2,200 rural and urban counties in the US, rural people accounted for at least a quarter of those who used homeless shelters."

But while Vissing does her homework and musters the facts, the book goes beyond the statistics. This is not a scientific study of a problem -- this is a person talking about people. Like the boy Eddie, introduced by a school secretary:

"Because the mother was afraid we wouldn't let Eddie come to school if he was homeless, she made up information. We didn't even know they were homeless until the child was sick. We called the phone number that was on the admittance form, where they didn't live anymore. We were sent from person to person and got numbers that were no longer in service. Since we couldn't track down where the child lived, we asked the child where his mom was. The child didn't know where to even look for her, because she was out each day trying to find work and places to sleep. Typically she met him after school to take him where ever they were going for that night. So we had to keep him at school sick until we could find her at the end of school."

The book is full of photos: of children hungry; children playing; a pregnant young woman on a park bench; a mother in a homeless shelter cradling two toddlers close to her, with a determined look on her face; a teenage girl nodding off to sleep at a coffeeshop table with dawn lightening the window. Fourteen University of New Hampshire photography students worked with homeless children and families for six months in 1991. The results are incorporated into this book. Also available is a twenty minute, award-winning, videotape, "I Want to Go Home" ($25 from the Baboosic Center for Child and Community Development, PO Box 547, Durham, NH, 03824).

And just as the book goes beyond the statistics to show human beings suffering, it goes beyond the suffering to show solutions.

Vissing also spoke, in her initial study, with about three hundred people from school and community groups about programs to help the homeless. The first results were discouraging; for example, "Almost none of the communities had special summer programs for homeless children. I became convinced that 'homelessness' was not a term that most agencies used when serving children."

But by the end of the book, Vissing has a program for rural communities to "'take the bull by the horns' and rely upon themselves to address the causes and consequences of homelessness.'

What struck me at this point was that the steps Vissing laid out were things I have noted in the grassroots improvement efforts here in Seattle:

1. Communication with one another.
The Real Change newspaper and Speaker's Bureau; the efforts of the Homeless Women's Network, Speakeasy, and the Seattle Community Network to link the homeless into the electronic community; StreetLife Gallery where the homeless and the homefull meet in the exchange of art; StreetWrites where the homeless and the homefull meet in the art of the spoken word; all of these, and more, are building both a sense of community within the homeless population, and also rebuilding a sense of community among us all.

2. Creating a sense of community where everyone belongs.
One of the most important things that rebuilt my self-esteem after my own world crashed was the unqualified acceptance I received in the Church of Mary Magdalene, the SHARE shelter where I stayed, WHEEL, the Real Change. We all need, somewhere, at least an emotional shelter -- a structure of people where we can always go, no matter how bad it gets outside or inside of us. If I believe I'm trash, I might as well act like it. It is people who no longer believe that they are trash who rebuild their lives.

3. Creating a sense of empowerment among the members of the community.
Letting people help themselves, and retain their dignity. This is what SHARE is about, and WHEEL, and the Real Change, and HWN, and StreetLife. As I said at the Soup Line Event, to the officials and businessmen who would help the homeless -- we are your experts on the problem. Use us. Enlist us in the solutions to our own problems.

4. Benevolent action.
"... professionals/agencies must learn (1) to speak the language of the recipients; (2) to provide service in a humane, not stigmatizing way; (3) to be one-down, not one-up, in their style of interaction... Help must be given in a timely fashion, with respect for the realities..."

These are not abstract principles. In the back of the book is a lengthy personal story -- fourteen pages -- of a child who grew up in poverty, abuse, violence and a rootless existence. Her story is searing and heartbreaking. But it has a very short postscript. ".. employed full-time and planned to attend college the following fall. Each member of the family seemed emotionally, financially, and socially secure, because of their own determination and because they had found help when they needed it."

This book vividly illustrates how our families and our communities have been shattered. It also vividly illustrates how they can be mended.


previously published in Real Change, circulate at will with attribution