Monday, August 30, 2010

[PDI] Update on Mom in DuPage falling through safety net

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Not So Simple Once You Fall Over the Edgeby Diane Nilan Hear-us on Monday, August 30, 2010 at 9:06pmIronically I was working on our new documentary, "on the edge,"
with my colleague Laura Vazquez ot at NIU when D'Ann called me. Earlier
I received a desperate plea from my FB friend Siobhan and I agreed to
try to help a homeless family. The grandmother, D'Ann, was my first
contact. The story D'Ann gave me, a summary about her
daughter's plight, was familiar, but still sad. The short
version--daughter with her 5 kids under 10-yrs. old are in a motel in
DuPage County, trying to escape "real" homelessness. They are already
homeless by my standard and by education standards. But that's another
story for another day. The bottom line, this family had till the next
day at noon to get out or get money to extend their stay at the extended
stay hotel. Leaving DeKalb and pondering this as I drove
back to Lisle, my temporary place of parking, I decided to see if I
could stop in and meet the family. If I'm going to get involved I want
to know a little more than I did at that point. So I called D'Ann and
she checked with her daughter. Sure. Come on over. Got to
the hotel and stood outside the room, hearing the relatively minor
murmur coming forth. I had to knock twice, but Mom answered, with 5
little children in various stages of getting ready for bed. The 2nd
youngest, a typical two-year-old, bolted about butt-naked, fresh out of a
bath. The chaos was way below what I would consider
normal for a family of 5 in a small room. Mom was obviously and
understandably stressed, trying to keep the kids politely under control,
with moderate success. I'm sure she had her misgivings, a strange white
woman with shiny silver hair offering to maybe help. I had mine, based
on years of working with families in crises. Wonder what is behind this
story I am going to hear? The saga came out slowly, in
between her dishing out her pasta-sausage concoction she impressively
whipped up on the stove smaller than mine. The 4-year-old little guy
wanted to dive in the bowl, but was shocked into reality by the heat
emanating from the sausage. The other kids got their bowls, and
proceeded to try to eat, some with spoons, the only implement available
from the desk clerk. Not unusual at all, the family's
story resonated with 21st century homelessness paterns: single parent
with a decent job, family renting a decent little house in overpriced
DuPage County, job loss, shreds of family support dissolved,
unemployment complications, minimal income, desperately turning to the
only homeless "shelters" accepting large families--extended stay
motels--and the struggle to keep even this meager roof over her family's
head. This young mother, in her early 20s, I'm sure has
more to her story, but the pieces that would have concerned me--obvious
drug/alcohol abuse, unsavory characters hanging around, or kids swinging
from the ceiling with her chasing them with a stick--were absent. Phew.
She signed a make-shift release of information permission slip for me,
and we discussed a few options, slim as they are, even for wealthy
DuPage County. Being Sunday night, I lacked any options or
bright ideas, so we agreed to talk in the morning. I walked out to my
borrowed van, drove not far to my humble abode, Tillie, and
pondered....then tried to sleep with the heat and humidity trying to
keep me awake. I beat out the elements, and awoke knowing
that I'd need to get the jump on this situation. In my previous
emergency service days, I called it "dialing for dollars." Now it's
emailing, Facebooking, and texting for dollars. And the vast resource
canyon, the Internet, lay before me. First, I started the
way a desperate parent might start, googling "homeless assistance,
DuPage" or something like that. It led me to the County's official
website for information/referral, proudly introduced by Bob
Schillerstrom, DuP County CEO. Following the prompts, entering the Mom's
info, I pushed the magic button and was given 2 referrals: Naperville
Humane Society and Chicago's Red Cross office. Not such a good start.
And annoying, too. So I called the CEO's office, spoke
with a lowly assistant who was quite nice, offering to connect me with
the case worker to help with human issues and to inform the techie that
some adjustments were needed. That began my foray into crisis assistance in DuPage. Too many calls to mention them all, but here are the highlights:Pretty
well, all the folks I talked to actually sounded like they cared. They
also sounded frustrated about the Grand Canyon-sized gaps in the safety
net.Run-around was inevitable, and common. Call here, no, call
there, no...the kind of stuff I didn't want a Mom with 5 traumatized
kids to have to hear. I was glad I decided to screen the system.I
did get call-backs from those who got my message, and long-time friends
in this work proved to be invaluable, a tool that the Mom wouldn't
have.The system is difficult to navigate. It requires calls
that assume access to phones (how do people afford cell phones?) and you
have an edge if you are computer savvy and have one at your disposal.
This Mom did, many don't. I called the Mom, saying I'd come
over to pay for another night. In my mind someone would offer to cover
that expense because I turned to my FB friends and asked. By the time I
got over to the hotel it happened. Went from the desk to the room, minus
the oldest girl, my namesake. It was still chaotic. Mom's on her last
nerve. She had made some fruitless calls too. I started
giving her the lowdown, and she bounced between antsy kids and then back
to her own angst that must be innate to parents. Failure. Screwed.
Hopeless. Can't quit. Going crazy. We got into a good mode
when I offered to drive her to People's Resource Center for food. She
finished getting her kindergartener ready for the cab, fed the little
kids, re-diapered the littlest ones, grabbed bottles and other survival
gear, and we were off. In between everything both of us got calls. I got
several emails/FB messages about donations. Calls at least gave us some
of the resources we desperately needed to get breathing room. She
navigated her storage bin, the one that tempted this crises-struck Mom
with their tempting $1 for the first month rental. Silly her--she
thought she'd just need it a month. Now she's paying $250, which she
doesn't have. We got lots of food from PRC in the most humane pantry
operation I've seen. Kudos to volunteers there! And we got
to the Public Aid office at 4, supposedly in time for their posted 5:00
closing, so she could check in with her caseworker to make sure she's
still on track for food stamps. The worker evidently doesn't answer her
phone or return (listen to?) messages. So trekking across the county is
the only way to contact, unless you come at 5 after 4. Up
until then, the kids had been amazingly good. I provided an extra set of
hands and a patient state of mind to balance the Mom's deteriorating
patience and state of mind. But then the baby decided that a bottle
would be essential. And diapers needed to be changed. And the other 2
toddlers were getting predicatably antsy. And the Mom's mettle was
melting. And I was praying that we'd make it back to the motel before
this all imploded. Tears streaming down Mom's face told
the tale. We shared bits of our life stories as I sludged through DuPage
rush hour traffic. Wimpers, howls, and sibling poking didn't get too
bad. We got to the hotel, unloaded, and she went in to fix dinner on
this little stove, in this little kitchen, in this miniscule space
called a "room" that will be their home for the next week or so, thanks
to my FB friends. And I drove off, promising to call
tomorrow. We're too stubborn to quit. But it's not that simple. We'll
need an ongoing stream of miracles. And Mom will need to somehow absorb
the reality that she's a precious creation, deserving of enough to keep
her family's bodies and souls together. Or she's screwed.

What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts -- adding, adding to, adding more, continuing.

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