Give Me Shelter

Homelessness is not a modern phenomenon. The first cases of the homeless in America date back to the 1640s according to Street News Service. Wars fought between the settlers and Native Americans displaced people on both sides. Back then people would show up to a town and make a case for why they should be allowed to settle there. In most New England towns, the newcomers would sit before the town fathers and explain how they would pull their weight and not be a drain on everybody else. The people who were denied and told to move on were Catholics, people with physical disabilities, mental disabilities, alcoholics, widows, orphans and the elderly. We ended up with a transient class moving from town to town, so this new world did not offer opportunity for everyone.

When the Industrial Revolution was starting in the 1820s-1830s, people were moving from farms into cities creating a poor urban underclass which led to our first anti-panhandling ordinances, and our jails soon became our shelter system. Then in 1830, Congress passed the first federal policy that caused massive homelessness, The Indian Removal Act, which uprooted Native American tribes in the southeast and moved them to Oklahoma, which is now known as the "Trail of Tears." The Industrial Revolution caused many injuries, then add to this the Civil War, and more and more Americans became displaced. Disasters like the Chicago fire in 1871, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and the massive 1927 Mississippi River flood that displaced 1.3 million people from Ohio to New Orleans created more homelessness. Then the Great Depression hit in 1929 and massive numbers of homeless people hit the streets like America had never seen before or since.

The same issues that caused homelessness 300-400 years ago are still haunting us today. Tragic life occurrences like the loss of loved ones, job loss, domestic violence, divorce, family disputes, depression, untreated mental illness, natural disasters, war, post-traumatic stress disorder and physical disabilities are responsible for a large portion of the homeless. In this land of plenty and this land of opportunity, over 600,000 Americans experience homelessness on any given night, with 138,000 being under the age of 18. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, the national rate of homeless persons is 18.3 per 10,000 people, ranging from 120 in Washington, D.C. to 7 in Mississippi. Veterans are at 25.5 per 10,000 with the high again in Washington, D.C. of 146 and the low in Virginia at 9.

In this season when our kids are getting ready to go back to school, we as a society need to focus on the homeless children in our communities. Homeless children, as defined by the federal "No Child Left Behind" program, include not just those living in shelters or transitional housing, but also those sharing the housing of other persons due to economic hardships, living in cars, parks, bus or train stations or awaiting foster care placement. According to NBC News, the National Center for Homeless Education reported local school districts have 2.5 Million homeless children under the government's definition in public schools, which means 1 in 30 American children went homeless at some point last year. This is one per every classroom. Half of these kids are younger than six years old. Of these, 76,000 homeless students are living on their own and many of these youths exchange sex for food, clothing, shelter and other basic needs. 75% of homeless youth have either dropped out or will drop out of school. 48% of homeless youth drink heavily compared to 18% of their counterparts. America has not been able to solve the homeless problem for close to 400 years. What would make us think we can solve it now?

Throughout our history, we have learned that homelessness cannot be solved by the government alone, especially in times of government gridlock and lack of funds. This is a major issue that affects all of us and at this time of year it involves the classmates of our kids. This is truly a local issue causing hardships on our local schools. There are many ways the average citizen can help out either by volunteering their time or donating their money. The Covenant House opens up its doors to help homeless youth in 27 cities. Safe Horizons helps out children and families. Stand Up For Kids helps get our children off the streets and Move for Hunger helps feed them. And at DollarDays, on our Facebook page, we are giving away $5,000 in products to 18 shelters across the country that are helping kids and adults cope with their current situation. Make sure you nominate the shelters in your community who can benefit from this giveaway.

We all suffer when we allow our neighbors to go homeless, even for just one night. Our society suffers when we deny any of our children a good night's sleep and a nourishing meal. With the limitless potential that many homeless youth have to make a lasting positive contribution to our communities, whether it is in science, humanities or sports, we cheat not only them but ourselves by not allocating dollars, either in taxes we collect or the disposable income we can spare. Every child should have a shot at attaining our American dream. This is not a political or religious issue; it is a moral issue that our entire society must embrace. With a little help from all of us, these 600,000 Americans can find shelter for another night.