Over 900,000 Homeless Kids Are Invisible to HUD. We Can Change That!

CaitlinWhen I worked as an outreach case manager in Los Angeles, nothing was more heartbreaking than when I would have to turn a homeless family away because U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development didn’t feel the family was “homeless enough”. Denying services to homeless families and unaccompanied homeless children and youth happens because HUD doesn’t count them as actually being homeless.  I literally have had to tell numerous families that paid for a hotel room the night before and ran out of money, they need to sleep in their car with their children or sleep outside on the ground before we can help them.

HUD’s definition of homelessness does not include families living in weekly rate hotels or doubling up, nor does it include unaccompanied adults, children or youth who are living couch to couch.  Often the condition of low-end hotels are unfit for kids. Today, I listened as Stephenie Van Housen, a school liaison from Iowa City, talked about the hotel where most of their families are staying. She said the hotel is also home to seven registered sex offenders because offenders don’t have any place else to live. This last year the hotel received 407 police calls.

In HUD’s 2013 point-in-time survey, HUD counted 222,197 households that included at least one child as homeless. However, data from the Department of Education show that more than 1.2 million children nationwide are homeless.  I would bet younger siblings who have not enrolled in school are under-represented in the data, so the number of homeless children is much higher. Basically, our government is saying over 900,000 homeless kids do not exist!

Sadly, we are seeing a drastic increase in school-aged children who are experiencing homelessness. But without being able to access federal services, families cannot get the support they need to get out of their horrible situations. Due to the narrow HUD definition, only one in 10 homeless children in California is eligible for federal housing programs.  Ohio reported 23,748 children experienced homelessness last year, while HUD counted only 4,714 households that includes at least one child as homeless. Only one in five homeless children in Ohio is eligible for federal housing programs. That’s just unacceptable!


“No child should ever be without a home, let alone be forced to navigate bureaucratic red tape just to prove that they are actually homeless” ~ Rep. Steve Stivers

The Homeless Children and Youth Act has been re-introduced in the Senate by Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and in the House by Rep. Steve Stivers (R-OH) and Rep. Dave Loebsack (D-IA). The bill will expand the definition of homelessness used by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The change would allow more than 1 million homeless children and families nationwide to access federal housing assistance programs.

We have an opportunity to help homeless families and homeless children in a tremendous way, and your involvement will make a world of difference. Contact your U.S. Senator and U.S. Representatives and ask them to support the Homeless Children and Youth Act. You can find more information including a link to take action on helphomelesskidsnow.org.

I cannot stress how important this is and how much we need you to take action. Please share this post with all of your network and let’s help over 900,000 homeless kids become visible!

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Insite Loves People Right Where They Are At to Save Lives

Woman injecting heroin - Warning not for everyoneI first visited Insite in summer of 2011. At the time, I didn’t know what I was walking into. I never heard of a “supervised injection clinic” before, which is how most people describe Insite. I think Insite is much more than that because Insite loves on everyone right where they are at to help save their life!

One of the most common phrases homeless services nonprofits or faith based ministries say is: “we build relationships”, and many do just that, but often there is a catch or an agenda at the relationship’s foundation – the person is expected to change in some way!

I find Insite to be about unconditional love. Insite does provide detox and recovery services, but they are simply being present with people at often what’s probably the worst moments of their lives.

You have to understand that the people who walk into the front door of Insite are some of the most amazing people in the world who just happen to be at the lowest point in life a human being can exist. Most everyone who uses Insite’s services would not be allowed in or accepted at other services or ministries.

Gotta Gettaway

The Downtown Eastside (DTES) of Vancouver is one of the poorest communities in Canada. Los Angele’s Skid Row district is only area that compares in North America, yet for some reason DTES seems to mess me up more. Seeing people living outside in the cold and rain always wrecks me.

DTES was in a crisis. HIV and HepC rates along with related deaths were skyrocketing. People were literally fixing their needles out of urine puddles. Something had to be done!

The results are dramatic. From Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Insite

A 2008 cost-benefit analysis of the site in the Canadian Medical Association Journal observed net-savings of $18 million and an increase of 1175 life-years over ten years. Another cost-benefit analysis published in the International Journal of Drug Policy in 2010 determined that the site prevents 35 cases of HIV and about 3 deaths per year, indicating a yearly net-societal benefit of more than $6 million. A 2011 study in The Lancet found overdose deaths have dropped 35% in the Insite area since it opened, much more than 9% drop elsewhere in Vancouver. An editorial in the Canadian Medical Association Journal noted that after three years of research “a remarkable consensus that the facility reduces harm to users and the public developed among scientists, criminologists, and even the Vancouver Police Department.”

During my first visit I was not able to record an video interview at Insite, so for the last few years I have been rehearsing in my mind how perfect the video would be if I ever got a second chance. It would be in a perfect location. Perfect lights and audio. It would be with the perfect person – maybe a doctor or a nurse wearing a lab coat. Just perfect in every way. But life is not perfect, and as I thought about it – that’s why Insite exists. So although this interview is in an awkward location and Darwin is not dressed as a medical professional – it actually is a perfect video because what Darwin talks about – you need to hear!

Please watch and share this important video interview with Darwin Fisher, who is now at the top of my hero list. Not everyone can be present with the most vulnerable, but Darwin does so with grace and love. In this video we talk about Insite’s flat management style, which I wish more nonprofits would adopt. At one point just before this video, a nurse saw me and put me to work. A moment I will cherish and it showed me first hand how Insite operates. We also talk about the importance not having a bunch of dumb protocols that end up being road blocks to getting people the support they need. Even if you’re an abstinent based model you could learn a lot from how Insite loves on people – all people!


For my faith based friends that may have a problem with Insite please read/watch: Why I help addicts shoot up: Interview w/ Meera Bai, Christian nurse & harm reduction advocate

Photo credits: jellymc – urbansnaps

@Straatvogels [street birds]: Homeless People Twittering in Amsterdam

Recently I was honored to be flown to the Netherlands to present at the 2014 International Fundraising Congress. As part of my honorarium I asked for two nights hotel in Amsterdam. As I normally do on most speaking trips, I fill my luggage with Hanes socks and plan on spending some time on the streets meeting new homeless friends. What happened this trip still blows my mind.

Over the last few years I have interacted with Luc Tanja several times. Luc is a street pastor in Amsterdam and we mostly connect when I am in the UK and on the same time zone. It wasn’t until the first night in Netherlands that I truly understood what @Straatvogels was, and how I – and then even YOU are connected to the project.

A few years back I started We Are Visible, which at the time was built to empower homeless people to get online. You can find the original website here: http://old.wearevisible.com. The strategy of empowerment has changed to a peer network, but the basic theory that the more we can give people in poverty a voice online, the more we will affect real change and the more they will be able to better their own lives.

Around three years ago a few interns from creative agency BBH, inspired by my We Are Visible work, gave four homeless people staying at the New York City Rescue Mission cell phones and twitter accounts. The project was called “Underheard in New York” and was simply brilliant. The project received a lot of media in a very short period of time and one gentleman was even reunited with his daughter. Where this project could have gone further is continue support for the homeless men, but as I have said publicly, BBH is an agency – they are not support services. Their job was to make a splash of attention, and they did that good. Although I would have loved to see more being done on this project, BBH was probably not able to provide more! My hope was and always has been that homeless services would see how impactful social media is and how social media can help with support, isolation and other challenges street people face.

Well, Luc Tanja was paying attention and he did see the benefit of social media and started @Straatvogels [translation: street birds]. The project is now in four Netherlands cities and they’re growing. Luc states what is interesting is that each group of @Straatvogels is different and the movement is happening organically.

@Straatvogels not only is a direct-contact awareness campaign, it gives our friends sleeping rough a purpose and tangible social interactions. It’s also not a huge budget campaign and even the smallest nonprofit could start empowering homeless people with mobile tech and social media.

I love this short video interview with Luc. Luc shares about how a school girl interacted with one of (our cameraman) Peter’s (@PeterStr_vogel) tweets showing where he was sleeping rough after a rain.


Luc goes on to talk about how empowering consumer’s voices can be scary. He goes on to say “it is scary because they have strange voices and they give a lot of critique. They have a lot of critique and if you do something wrong they’ll put it right in your face. If you do something right they’ll put it right in your face too. But if you trust you are doing a good job, then why not let people show it”

As someone who has been in nonprofit communications for some time, and I am seeing this more everyday, there is a lot of good and bad being said about every single topic. If someone likes your work there will be someone who doesn’t. That’s how it is anymore! My point is don’t freak out if there is something bad written or said about you. Critique is good. Maybe there is some merit to what’s being said, and you need to make adjustments, and if there isn’t – just ignore it! But don’t above anything else stop empowering your staff, volunteers and clients from talking about you! That’s the only marketing that works anymore!

Luc goes on in this interview how both he and Peter would publicly disagree online. Some people would agree with Luc and some with Peter, but in the end they are still friends and still working together to help others. As Luc says, “if you know you are doing good – have confidence in that”.

Tiny Homes Will Not End Homelessness – Community First! Village Will.

Seems like it’s only been a moment since Alan Graham first invited me to Austin to see the amazing work he is doing. Since then, I have visited Mobile Loaves & Fishes more than any other nonprofit homeless services. The reason for that is simple: Alan and his team place people first!

Over the years I have helped share the story of his mobile food trucks going out giving our homeless friends the dignity of choice. I helped share about his Street Treats program that give our homeless friends a viable way to make some real money as street vendors. But from day one I probably talked more about Alan’s work in rapid housing people in RVs, so it is so amazing to see his Community First! Village vision become a reality.

Like Housing First, the topic of Tiny Homes has become sexy, but neither will work without support services and positive tangible social interactions. Community and social networks often play the biggest role in any of our lives, and that’s especially true when people are going through a drastic life change like street to home.

This week I was honored to be invited to Mobile Loaves & Fishes Community First! Village’s ground breaking. I have known Alan for 5 years now and this vision has been in his heart for over a decide. Each year when I visited Alan would show me a new map or a new model home and tell me all the progress and struggles he’s had trying to make this vision happen.

There is no perfect solution to ending homelessness. It’s as complex an issue as we are humans. I do strongly believe that the more we can give people dignity, the power of choice, and genuine community the better we’ll be able to offer solutions that will have impact. Here is a video that showcases Community First! Village that I hope you’ll share with your networks.


Barry is the type of colorful character I could sit and talk to for hours. He is smart, and funny, and a bit brash, with a lifetime of interesting experiences to share.

I was invited to speak to a group of rough sleepers living in a homeless hostel. Meeting Barry and the rest of his mates was an experience I’ll never forget. When I walked in they were playing Invisible People videos on the wall.  I was honored and grateful beyond words. But get this, my new rough sleeping mates were all drinking “cider” or beer and slightly buzzed.  Some of them had other physical or mental challenges from being on the streets.  They were all sitting around having a good time and being a little rambunctious, which the staff navigated with grace.  It was a fun few hours.

The hostel we were in is a “wet hostel”, meaning clients are allowed to drink. There is an area for people who don’t want to be around alcohol, and there is an area for people who want to drink.  I truly love this model of homeless services because an abstinence based model doesn’t for people like Barry. Barry and his mates would be out on the streets, often in unsafe conditions and situations. Instead, chronic homeless people are inside and surrounded by staff who can intervene and help whenever needed.

It also helps people who are chronic alcoholics slow down their drinking and often stop. When you’re outside going to the bathroom behind a rubbish bin, might as well drink to forget. In a “wet shelter model” there is dignity and far more hope that the person will stop than being left sleeping rough.

Barry starts off talking about how when a person is rough sleeping the cycle of drinking is nonstop. He goes on and shares about once when he was sleeping rough, he was urinated on, shit on, and then his sleeping bag was set on fire. My heart broke when Barry first shared that story. Sadly, violence against rough sleepers and people experiencing homelessness is increasing.

Barry is also a client representative for the hostel. Barry says 9 times out of 10, when he brings up an issue about support services and the condition of the hostel, they listen. I really wish all homeless services would listen to the people we serve!


Special thanks to St Mungo’s Broadway and Mencap.