In the Shadows of the American Dream

A majority of the new homeless population is circumstantially homeless as a result of the economy and job market, divorce rates and domestic violence.
— John Woodward

By Blair Jackson

There are no soup kitchen lines along Dickson Street, and no one sits on the square asking for money or food. Instead, homelessness is hidden — hidden in emergency shelters, makeshift campsites, couches of friends and family and temporary housing.

The 2011 Point-in-Time Homeless Census estimates 2,000 people are currently homeless in Northwest Arkansas, a 36 percent increase from the 2009 Census. Seventy-five percent of this population is homeless for the first time, and more than two-thirds are under the age of 18.

Statistics such as these are the public representatives for the homeless population. While numbers document data, a percentage says nothing about the fear of having an eviction notice tacked to your tent. The number 969 fails to tell the story of the children whose parents cannot provide them with shelter.

“There is a large group of invisible homeless because of informal or formal networks of services that keep them off the street,” explains Kevin Fitzpatrick, professor of sociology and organizer of the 2011 PIT census.

Social networks such as family, friends, churches, schools and nonprofit organizations often provide basic necessities for the homeless. When those resources fail to meet housing needs, people are driven to the streets or the woods.

They are cast into the shadows of the American Dream.

David Lanier, a former sports writer, knows the story of homelessness all too well. Living on and off the streets for years, Lanier has slept in tents, on porches and under overpasses.

“Initially, it’s kind of scary,” said Lanier, who found himself displaced in Benton County, which has fewer options for homeless people than Washington County.

“You won’t go hungry in Fayetteville unless you’re lazy,” Lanier says. He is a walking timetable for the free meals offered around town. He seems to know all the times and places for breakfast, lunch and dinner, for each day of the week. He rattles them off with little effort, which is no surprise considering the knowledge was once a fundamental part of his survival. Between churches and shelters, food is available seven days a week. Lanier praises Fayetteville as a caring community that offers many opportunities to its homeless population.

There is, however, a missing link.

“The chief issue that faces Fayetteville and the whole area is the lack of a homeless shelter. I know two people who have died because they didn’t have a place to go,” Lanier says. He quickly clarifies that there are shelters in Fayetteville such as the Salvation Army and Seven Hills Homeless Shelter, but to stay in either, there are certain requirements — rules, regulations — which those in the most critical need are often unable to meet.

Seven Hills serves more than 100 people a day, providing clothes, case management, camping supplies, toiletries and food. During lunch, the main room buzzes with conversation. The dining information Lanier recited during his interview is written in green marker on a dry erase board, providing a list of locations and times for meals over the weekend, during which Seven Hills is closed.

The majority of people at Seven Hills wear stain-free, unwrinkled clothing. Some of the women have curled their hair. With the exception of a select few, there are no obvious indicators of homelessness. Even in the cafeteria of a homeless shelter, each individual’s misfortune remains hidden, invisible to the casual onlooker.

But why should they look any different? With 75 percent of the homeless population experiencing such circumstances for the first time, these are people who live with one foot in the mainstream world and one in the marginal world of the homeless.

According to Seven Hills director John Woodward, a majority of the new homeless population is circumstantially homeless as a result of the economy and job market, divorce rates and domestic violence.

Fitzpatrick attributes the new class of homeless to the economic crisis, saying that before the recession many people could have been on the edge of homelessness but never experienced it.

The economic crisis has been so profound, in terms of impact, “that a large group got pushed over the edge,” Fitzpatrick says. Woodward breaks down the staggering statistics of homeless children: “Less than 3 percent are unaccompanied youth.” That small percentage goes to Youth Bridge or other juvenile facilities.

The remaining 97 percent are part of the homeless families intervention in which the goal is to work with the family as a whole, sending case managers into the homes to identify critical needs and to assist with budgeting and prioritizing.

Marian Riner, the full-time homeless liaison of the Fayetteville School District, works exclusively with families who are in critical need of housing. Her office doubles as a pantry and clothing closet, where families can “shop” once a month for food and once a semester for clothing.

For Riner, invisible homelessness presents a challenge.

We can only identify the kids we know about. They can feel stigmatized and judged. Families are afraid to identify themselves, which limits how much we can help,” she explains.

In junior high and high school, it becomes harder for the school districts to identify those in need.

“We were taught, from a very young age, to hide those things,” Riner explains. Homelessness carries a social taboo that is deeply personal, and the situation is both devastating and traumatic. Riner says that her main objective is to provide families with a safe place and to help them maintain dignity in a time of extreme vulnerability.

In congruence with the census findings, Riner says more families are experiencing the stress of homelessness for the first time and that the sense of crisis has escalated in recent years. “(There are) more families living in emergency shelters, hotels and motels; more of a crisis situation where people can’t rely on a support network,” Riner says.

Riner and the school district offer services to disadvantaged families living in the Fayetteville School District. Under the McKinney-Vento Homelessness Assistance Act, the district is required to enroll homeless children in school and to offer free transportation and meals. The law’s ultimate goal is to provide stability for the child.

For children in elementary school, the focus is on the parents, helping them find a job, helping them apply for assistance, identifying the critical need and helping the family prioritize and create a plan. The most fundamental need, according to Riner, is housing. Finding low-income housing is difficult in Fayetteville. There are programs that are income-based, but it can take six months to a year before a candidate reaches the top of the waiting list.
In the events leading up to becoming homeless, Riner says it often only takes a single event to push an at-risk family into destitution. For those living on the brink of homelessness, security is balanced on the edges, like a house of cards. Already stretched from paycheck to paycheck, some single events — job loss, car trouble, a medical emergency — can bring the fragile infrastructure tumbling down.

One of Riner’s clients, Regina, agreed to sit down with The Free Weekly to discuss the two years she spent without a job, transportation or adequate housing — with two children in tow.

The day of the interview was an emotional one for Regina because she and her family had just received exciting news: they would be moving into a three-bedroom apartment that had just opened up in a housing-assistance community. For more than a year, Regina had been living with five other people in a two-bedroom house in Prairie Grove.

“The house is falling down. It’s getting to the point where it’s unlivable,” Regina says of her transitional home, which had no working toilet. “My kids are embarrassed, and there’s nowhere outside for them to play, just dirt and rocks.”

For Regina, the loss of her job was the single event that created the chain of events leading to homelessness. With no job and no spousal support, she fell behind on the rent. Regina says she was offered rent assistance by the school district but that the landlord was unwilling to cooperate, leaving Regina with no choice but to seek support from her family in Prairie Grove.

Her car was repossessed. With no transportation, Regina found it difficult to gain employment.

Because of the stipulations upheld by McKinney-Vento — and Regina’s willingness to seek support from the school — her children received the necessary transportation and were never forced to change schools. The district provided the children with clothing, food, and even money for field trips. For Regina, the support from Riner and the school was the beginning of hope.

“I was ready to give up. It felt like no one was going to give me a chance, but Marian gave me a chance,” Regina says.

Of the homelessness, Regina says, “It’s been hard. When we lost our place, (my children) lost their smiles, but now they’re smiling big.”

With three rooms in her new apartment, each family member will have a room of his or her own, and Regina says her children are already planning sleepovers with their friends.

Regina says she wants others to know about the support networks in the community. “Don’t give up. You’ll make it. Just don’t give up. You may think there’s no help, but it’s out there.”

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