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Sunday Reflections: Becoming a Statistic

As we begin 2015, I can’t help but hope that it is somehow better than 2014. Great things happened in 2014: TLT joined SLJ, Amanda MacGregor joined us, and my kids rock. But something else happened in 2014. Something very personal. In 2014, I became a statistic. I share this story with you now because I see it happening all around me and understanding how easily it happens can better help us serve the teens around us.

In 2014, we became one of the many U.S. citizens that lost a home to foreclosure. But that journey did not begin in 2014, it began in 2008.

In 2008, Thing 2 was born as the world around us collapsed economically. She was born with a variety of health issues that resulted in lots of doctors appointments, specialists, and pharmaceutical grade formula that could bankrupt the richest of families. At that same time, The Mr. realized that he was going to be losing his job and found a new one that turned out to suck in epic ways. He ended up working nights which caused devastating health consequences for him. After searching for over 2 years he finally found a new (and better job) in 2010 – but in a different state.

For a year he spent the week in Texas while the girls and I stayed in our home in Ohio; he came home every other weekend to see his girls. I was lucky to have a job I loved, friends and family I loved, and the support I needed as I tried to navigate what felt like single motherhood with a child with health issues while working a very fulfilling full-time job. But then in February 2011, all hell broke lose. Quite literally.

Pictures from the Flood

The town I lived in in Ohio was ranked as part of the poorest county of all of Ohio. Crime rates were rising, drug use was rising, and the schools were underfunded and failing. This town was struggling. And then that night, the last night of February, the town flooded. My home flooded. I woke up at 4 AM because of a burning smell in my home only to learn that was the least of my problems. As rushing waters filled my basement, I opened my front door to find thigh high water racing through the streets.  The electrical outlook was arcing as water rushed in to flood my home, electrifying the water filling my basement. The damage to our home and belongings was substantial. We lost 1/3 of our possessions. And although the flooding wasn’t covered by insurance, they did find a loophole to give us money to replace our furnace and water heater. That money would soon bite us in the butt as the insurance company dropped us. Unable to find another insurance company that would insure a home with flood damage, the mortgage company forced an insurance provider to cover us, but doubling our mortgage payments.

In 2011, after floods and health issues, we decided that we needed to be together as a family and moved to Texas where The Mr.’s job was. Leaving everything I loved behind was one of the hardest things I had to do. Even more worrying, we knew that we would never be able to sell our house. But for 3 years we were incredibly lucky and were able to find someone to rent it. Knowing what the market was, the first couple of years of forced insurance meant we had to charge under what the monthly payment was and find ways to make up the difference out of our own budget. These were lean years made more difficult by the fact that I was only able to find part-time employment when we made the move to Texas. There were points in the last 3 years where The Mr. worked multiple jobs while I worked part-time and took any freelance project I could get just to make ends meet. Our children learned that our house was a house of no; no candy, no nights out at dinner and a movies, and no new shoes (thrift stores are our friend). Our life became dramatically different. The types of foods we ate changed (healthy food is vastly more expensive than unhealthy food). Thing 2 was put in only partial preschool because we could not afford a full week of preschool. And I put my librarian skills to use finding free entertainment whenever possible for my kids, the more educational the better.

Then in June of 2014 our renters moved out. The town had flooded again (climate change?). We had to replace the furnace. Again. But we could not come up with the money – $12,000 was the lowest estimate we received – to fix the now ravaged roof. Our renters had tried to buy the house twice in these years but could not get approved due to their own financial issues. Suddenly we were forced to try and pay for this home out of a pocket that had nothing to spare but lint.

Soon the letters started coming as we scrambled to figure out ways to save this home in a state where we no longer lived. This home where I had penciled in my children’s growth each month on the door jam. This home where friends had come over and eaten pizza with us as we watched our toddlers play in the baby pool. This home where I had brought Thing 2 home from the hospital on Thanksgiving Day, only 1 day old. This home that had been the only home I had ever known with my beautiful girls, the loves of my life.

Time and money were not on our side and no matter our intentions, we could not afford two homes. We knew that we had been lucky to have renters for the years that we did. They, like us and so many people like us, were barely scraping by themselves. And that is how in 2014 we became a statistic: we were one of the now many people who lost a home to foreclosure in the state that has the 13th highest rate of foreclosure in the nation. We are no longer names, but numbers on a court docket and another stat to mark down in the books.

I don’t tell you this because I want you to feel pity for me. I know that many of you will feel disgust and the truth is I share in your disgust; I am embarrassed and ashamed. I am sad. A part of me always hoped that one day my family would return to that home and we could recapture those memories with those people in that home that we loved. Now we can’t. Now we will never be able to look at those door jams again and see my children growing in those pencil marks. My children will never return home from college to their childhood home and see their childhood friends. They will never bring their own children to my home and say, look there is the room I was raised in. We didn’t just lose a house, we lost precious moments, we lost possibilities and hope, and we lost the sense of community that made us feel like we were safe.

The thing is, we are not alone.

Thing 2 goes to Kindergarten with a little girl from a family of 5 living in two rooms of their grandparent’s home. The family is trying to find work and save up money to find a new home. There are 7 people living in this dwelling meant for 4 at most.

The Tween is friends with the girl next door. The dad lost his job and then they lost their home in another state. They moved here as a family member is kindly paying for their home while the dad tries to find steady work to get the family back on their feet. The high schooled age boys sleep on a full size mattress that sits on the floor of one of the rooms. They sometimes get food from the local food bank when the dad’s contract work runs out and he searches for something new.

Another classmate of The Tween’s had to sell their home when the mother was diagnosed with cancer. They now live in a pop up camper on the land of some family members while they try to stay afloat and get the medical care the mother needs.

Recently I helped a man in a suit and tie apply online for a job at Sonic. He was searching for any job, any where after being laid off to take care of his family. He cried as he shared with me his desperation to keep his family together.

They are among the many who are what is being called the new definition of homelessness, the quietly homeless. There are less families sleeping in cars and in shelters, but more families who are living with other family members – couch surfing as it is sometimes called – while they try and get back on their feet. Homelessness doesn’t always look the way we think it does:

“Every year, hundreds of thousands of American families become homeless, including more than 1.6 million children. These families are hidden from our view. They move frequently, and many are doubled-up in overcrowded apartments with relatives or friends. Others sleep in cars and campgrounds or send their children to stay with relatives to avoid shelter life.” (source http://www.familyhomelessness.org/facts.php?p=tm)

Here’s more information about the “quiet homeless” epidemic from Salon:

According to HUD, the number of people on the streets and in shelters on a single night in January has fallen for the past four years straight. Even more remarkably, the category that HUD terms chronic homelessness — people with mental or physical disabilities living without a home for extended periods, or repeatedly — has dropped 30 percent since 2007, even as the nation went through a severe recession.

But there’s also another story about homelessness in America, told by a report from the National Center for Family Homelessness, that shows a record number of children are now homeless. That’s based on data from the Department of Education, which measures homelessness quite differently from HUD. Instead of just surveying streets and shelters, the DOE includes anyone who’s living doubled-up, couch-surfing with friends or extended family. Because of that, the scale of the problem depends on which source you’re looking at — almost 1.3 million homeless students by the DOE’s count, compared with HUD’s point-in-time estimate of 578,424 homeless people of all ages. (source: http://www.salon.com/2014/12/25/help_these_kids_today_americas_quiet_homelessness_nightmare_is_1_3_million_homeless_students/)

My family is lucky, we are not homeless. We lost a home, but right now we have one that we are working desperately to hang on to as we navigate the murky financial and legal waters of losing a home. Many others are not so lucky. They are often our neighbors, our students, our teens in our libraries. They quietly sit among you while their insides rage with turmoil and strife and uncertainty and stress.

The other thing you need to know is that losing your home fixes nothing. No one wants it. It trashes your credit, there are tons of costs that come with it – costs that you probably can’t afford and cause even more compounding issues – and then there is the shame and loss. And for many, their struggles are only beginning. These teens are growing up with this constant sense of fear and insecurity that cripples. They are dependent on the generosity of family members or friends. And then you have this constant fear that you can lose everything all over again at any moment. When you’ve lost it all, you are all too aware of how easy it is. One medical diagnosis, one storm, one lost job is all it takes. 1 in 30 youth today has experienced this. These are our teens.

Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/12/26/college-student-homeless-boston_n_6145980.html ; http://thinkprogress.org/economy/2014/11/17/3593226/homeless-children-record/

Salon: http://www.salon.com/2014/12/25/how_i_became_homeless/

More Teens and Poverty in TLT:

See also Stacked: Socioeconomic Class in Contemporary YA Lit: Where Are The Poor Teens? Guest Post by Librarian Faythe Arrendondo and Kate Brauning: Writing Poverty in YA

Teen Issues: Teen Homelessness and NO PARKING AT THE END TIMES by Bryan Bliss

In November of this year the results of a new study were released that indicate that the U.S. had achieved a disreputable goal: In the year 2013 1 in 30 youth were homeless at some point. That’s 2.5 million children experiencing homelessness. This was an unprecedented level of homelessness for our youth, a shamefully high and unacceptable number for a first world nation that is supposed to pride itself in its compassion for the least of these and be such an economic powerhouse.


Fast Fact: Children under 18 accounted for 39% of the homeless population – See more at: http://www.safehorizon.org/page/homeless-youth-statistics–facts-69.html#sthash.PufCz7ha.dpuf

As we have discussed in our ongoing series on Teens and Poverty (listed below), being from a low income family presents a variety of very real challenges to our youth. Being homeless even more so.

In 2015 a new book titled NO PARKING AT THE ENDS TIME by Bryan Bliss will be released that takes a very stark look at a family with two teenage children living out of their van in the San Francisco area. The reasons for their homelessness are unique, but the results are very much the same: these teens are not enrolled in school, they are forced to memorize a schedule of local meal distributions to find basic food, and they are in constant danger of being noticed both by local criminal elements and children’s services.

Many families typically find themselves without a home due to job loss, medical issues that bankrupt them, or fleeing from a violent home.  A large number of teens are homeless because they are rejected by their family when they come out as GLBTQ. But the family in NO PARKING AT THE END TIMES is homeless because their parents got involved in an end times cult and they sold all their possessions to travel to San Fran and wait for whatever is supposed to come next. Except it doesn’t come.

Fast Fact: Approximately 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBT – See more at: http://www.safehorizon.org/page/homeless-youth-statistics–facts-69.html#sthash.PufCz7ha.dpuf

Author Bliss makes some really interesting decisions here. By choosing to have the family become homeless due to issues of faith, he creates a really interesting discussion piece about the role of faith in the life of modern day believers and juxtaposes them against the discussion of parental responsibility. If you were to go with a literal interpretation of the Bible, Jesus did indeed say that believers should abandon everything and follow him, which these parents are doing. He even says that you should literally walk away from your plow and just leave it in the field to come follow Him. Wealth and riches are considered one of the largest stumbling blocks to entering into the kingdom. But our modern day world also insists that we take appropriate care of the children we bring into this world, which these parents are failing at miserably. In fact, they may be the worst parents I have ever encountered in YA literature outside of the sexually and violently abusive ones, although they are ironically very loving and well intentioned.

Fast Fact: Every year, approximately 5,000 homeless young people will die because of assault, illness, or suicide while trying to survive. – See more at: http://www.safehorizon.org/page/homeless-youth-statistics–facts-69.html#sthash.PufCz7ha.dpuf

Outside of the very interesting discussion of faith that happens in the pages of this book, Bliss also presents a very realistic and compelling look into the physical and emotional struggles of homeless teens. And while many homeless teens in YA lit are homeless and living on their own, here we see a homeless family trying to stay together – a very real life scenario as some kids and teens are homeless not in isolation but as one part of a homeless family unit. This family is living in their van, which they have to make sure and move periodically in order to avoid getting ticketed, arrested, or towed. They have to find ways to stay together in the absence of communication devices that would make it easy for them to find and locate one another if separated. They must find ways to shower and brush their teeth, to stay warm in the cold nights, and to find food. In the pages of Bliss’ book we see these very real struggles and although the reason behind them may make you angry, they did me, it’s a very compelling and compassionate look into the lives of what recent statistics tell us 1 in 30 youth are living.

If one of our goals in reading is to get a glimpse into lives different then our own, and I believe it sometimes is, then No Parking at the End Times should be on every TBR pile out there in 2015, both for its fascinating look at the spiritual lives of teens and for its insightful look into the lives of family homelessness. In the media we hear a lot of debate and anger about the causes and solutions for poverty and homelessness, but we forget that at the heart of this matter are actual people, often children who are in no position to help themselves. Abigail and Aaron are stand ins for the 1 in 30 homeless children whose stories we aren’t hearing because they are too tired and hungry and marginalized to speak up. Bliss has created a compelling narrative that reminds us all that there are real and vulnerable people behind these statistics, and we need to listen to their stories.


“Abigail’s parents have made mistake after mistake, and now they’ve lost everything. She’s left to decide: Does she still believe in them? Or is it time to believe in herself? Fans of Sara Zarr, David Levithan, and Rainbow Rowell will connect with this moving debut.

Abigail doesn’t know how her dad found Brother John. Maybe it was the billboards. Or the radio. What she does know is that he never should have made that first donation. Or the next, or the next. Her parents shouldn’t have sold their house. Or packed Abigail and her twin brother, Aaron, into their old van to drive across the country to San Francisco, to be there with Brother John for the “end of the world.” Because of course the end didn’t come. And now they’re living in their van. And Aaron’s disappearing to who-knows-where every night. Their family is falling apart. All Abigail wants is to hold them together, to get them back to the place where things were right. But maybe it’s too big a task for one teenage girl. Bryan Bliss’s thoughtful, literary debut novel is about losing everything—and about what you will do for the people you love.” (Publisher’s Description)

Will be published February 24th, 2015 by Greenwillow Books. ISBN: 9780062275417

More on Teens, Hunger and Poverty in our Teen Issues series:

See also Stacked: Socioeconomic Class in Contemporary YA Lit: Where Are The Poor Teens? Guest Post by Librarian Faythe Arrendondo and Kate Brauning: Writing Poverty in YA

Book Review: Panic by Lauren Oliver

Harper Collins March 2014 ISBN: 9780062014559

Small town life can be a desperate life.  There is often not a lot to do, so teens get creative – which brings us to Panic.  Panic is a game that only seniors can play.  It takes place over the summer and those who announce themselves as contenders are given a series of challenges to complete.  Last one standing wins the pot of cash that has been collected all year long.  But when people are desperate, and money is involved, friendship can be thrown out the window, backs will be stabbed, and occasionally someone may lose their life.  Bring on the Panic.

Publishers Annotation: Panic began as so many things do in Carp, a dead-end town of 12,000 people in the middle of nowhere: because it was summer, and there was nothing else to do.

Heather never thought she would compete in Panic, a legendary game played by graduating seniors, where the stakes are high and the payoff is even higher. She’d never thought of herself as fearless, the kind of person who would fight to stand out. But when she finds something, and someone, to fight for, she will discover that she is braver than she ever thought.

Dodge has never been afraid of Panic. His secret will fuel him, and get him all the way through the game, he’s sure of it. But what he doesn’t know is that he’s not the only one with a secret. Everyone has something to play for.

For Heather and Dodge, the game will bring new alliances, unexpected revelations, and the possibility of first love for each of them—and the knowledge that sometimes the very things we fear are those we need the most.

The Review:

I sincerely loved this book.  In part because it is such a spot on depiction of the desperation of small town life – that overwhelming desire to escape at all costs, to flee.  It is also such a harrowing depiction of extreme poverty for one of our main characters, Heather.  Heather lives in a trailer, then literally on the streets, and winning Panic is her only chance for survival.  She needs the cash in a very desperate way.  We see her living out of her car, washing up in gas stations, scrounging for food.  Holy crap did this break my heart.

But Panic is also a thrilling read that escalates into some twisted commentary on the lengths we are willing to go to in order to win.  So it is intense, exciting, and – in the immortal words of James Patterson – unputdownable.  

I have read some online criticism about the fact that the police don’t step in and intervene earlier, but I have lived small town life and am never surprised by the local population’s ability to look the other way until way too late.  There was one element that was a stretch for me involving exotic animals, but we have all read about those types of stories in the news so I went with it.

Online Lauren Oliver has done a lot of speaking out and sharing help information about childhood poverty and homelessness (linked below), which definitely goes along with the themes in Panic.  As I said, the thing I loved most about this book was the rich, authentic and nuanced portrayal of both small town life and the desperation felt by those living in poverty.  The thrilling action is icing on the cake.  I think this one will be a big hit and many teen readers will identify with what is happening and why in the story.  Pair this with Dare Me by Eric Devine.

Awareness/Resources for Teen Poverty, Hunger, Disabilities, and Children of Alcoholic Parents

Teen Homelessness and Hazing Awareness

More on Teens and Poverty at TLT:

Can We All Just Stop Saying the Internet Is Free Now Please?
Rich Teen, Poor Teen: Books that depict teens living in poverty

Working with youth who live in poverty

Sunday Reflections: This is what losing everything looks like

Sunday Reflections: Going to bed hungry

Sunday Reflections: A tale of two libraries
Sunday Reflections: Poverty doesn’t always look the way you think it does

Feeding Teens at the Library: Summer and Afterschool Meals
The Economy as Villain in The Year of Shadows by Claire LeGrand