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I recently saw someone joke about having first world problems – those experienced by people in wealthy countries. I don’t think she realized the severity of the first world problems many Americans suffer. Like her, I think most of us are so busy with our own lives that we overlook our often invisible neighbors in need of a hand up.
Growing up I was lucky enough to have friends from dramatically different ends of the wealth spectrum. One was actually homeless. He and his father ‘squatted’ in abandoned buildings. The homeless boy often checked in with father. They hung out, did things together and shared a real bond. There was no doubt that they were a loving family, albeit, I thought, an unconventional one. Turns out there are 1.6 million homeless children in America. My friend was not so unconventional. Out of every 45 children, one is homeless. More children are homeless now than in the history of America.
My friend was blessed with a father who loved him. He was cursed with poverty. When you have nothing, coming up with a first month’s rent and a deposit can be overwhelming if not impossible. To get a job, you need an address or a phone. At the time, the only way to have a phone was to have a land line and that required a home.
Digging out of the deep well of poverty that you are in when homeless is impossible without a hand to help pull you up. A record 2.9 million homes were in foreclosure in 2010. That is 2.9 million displaced families; 2.9 million families trying to put together a deposit and first month’s rent at a time when they couldn’t afford to pay their mortgage.
My friend and his dad avoided shelters when they could because of the added danger of a roomful of desperate strangers presented. They felt safer in condemned buildings. No matter where he slept, my friend never felt sorry for himself. He never thought of himself as a victim of circumstance. He was normal, his life was his normal. Because he thought of it as normal, his friends didn’t question it or dwell on it. When it was cold, he would spend the night with a friend.
My homeless friend is an adult now. He has a job, cars and a home of his own. He is a loving and devoted father who always makes time for his children. He still hangs out with his dad. His life certainly would’ve been easier if he had a stable home life. He survived, in part because he had a parent who spent time with him, who did his best to be a parent despite the lack of material necessities. His dad was much more involved in his life than many of our wealthy friends.
I can’t imagine living like they did. I can’t imagine looking for an abandoned building for my child to sleep in. I can’t fathom how it must feel to know your child is hungry. Right now, there are 16 million hungry children in the United States. That is a staggering one out of four children without enough to eat. The Boston Globe recently reported that Boston doctors report seeing many more “dangerously thin” and hungry children.
Money doesn’t make you a better parent. Money can make it easier to be a parent. Most parents want the best for their children, but designer clothes don’t help a child feel loved or learn right from wrong. Money can certainly ease the stress of life, but it’s not nearly as important as a parent who cares enough to set limits and guide his or her child into adulthood.
As a fall chill begins to seep into the air, consider supporting your local soup kitchen, food bank or homeless shelter. You might be helping a good parent raise a great child.
Gena Bigler is passionate about public service and credits her time serving nonprofits in AmeriCorps and Volunteers in Service to America (V.I.S.T.A.) with teaching her extreme budgeting and bargain shopping. Gena is now CFO of McNay Settlement Group and serves on the board of the Lactation Improvement Network of Kentucky (L.I.N.K.). Gena would be happy to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org.