Filed Under:  National, News

THE FAMILY: The new faces of homelessness

27th December 2011   ·   0 Comments

By Hazel Trice Edney
Contributing Writer

( – At this time of the year, many 20-year-olds have their minds set on the latest I-Phone, a certain brand of jacket or perhaps shoes that they want. But, such things are not priority for Dominique Whalen. He is different than a lot of youth his age.

Dominique’s Christmas and New Year’s wishes are a unique blend of, well, he just wants a permanent home. He simply wants the certainty that he, his mother and his 12-year-old brother will never be homeless again.

“It’s a rough road,” says the tall, charismatic young man who has lived in the streets, even separated from his mother, so that she and his younger brother could more easily find a place to sleep at night.

“I’m just happy to get past what we’ve gone through…So we can progress from there,” he says in an interview.

Dominique recalls when his mother suddenly lost her job at a Maryland Safeway where she’d worked five years. He learned quickly that he could not lean on his friends. In fact, he could not even relate to them.

“One minute I was living an everyday life of a teenager. The next minute, I have to think on my own. Your mind is a 24-hour grind, you have to know where you’re going to lay your head, what you’re going to eat, who to trust, survival instincts,” he said. “There were times when I’ve cried. There were times I felt like suicide. There were times I felt like, ‘Why me? I’m young. I’m young.’”

Dominique and his family, once among the thousands of homeless across America, are now living in a transitional home. But, they still need a safety net just like the other 146 million families living at or below the poverty line, according to recent numbers reported by the U. S. Census Bureau.

This family’s safety net, like thousands of others over the past 26 years, was a Washington, D.C.-based organization called Families Forward.

Dominique’s frustration represents the pain of a family going through an economic crisis. But, Ruby Gregory, executive director of Families Forward, has another kind of pain.

“It’s indescribable, the feeling that you have when you are trying to work with a family to find resources that will keep them off the street and you’re doing everything that you can and the resources just aren’t there; not only in the surrounding areas, but within your organization,” Gregory says. “It’s very frustrating. I wake up in the morning thinking, ‘How am I going to help our families today?’ And I go to bed at night thinking the same thing: ‘What did we do that made a difference today and how can we do it different tomorrow?’”

Families Forward is federally funded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) but the $146,000 a year for 36 families that HUD grants the organization to help pay rent for transitional housing is just not enough when there’s a waiting list of more than 50 additional families and no anticipated openings until April 2012. And in the current economy with people suddenly finding themselves out of work, Gregory says, the needs are well beyond simply housing.

Families Forward also struggles to provide help with job search, job training, entrepreneurial assistance and a clothes closet. It also serves 150 families with various needs other than housing.

Charitable contributions typically decrease during economic crunches. Still, Gregory has launched a drive by letter and on www.fam­ requesting financial help from people who are willing to give simply because they recognize the need.

“The interesting thing is how the face of the homeless has changed over the last couple of years. We are now getting families that actually do have a significant history of employment. And due to the economic situation, they’ve lost employment or their hours have been cut. And so they’re finding themselves unable to afford the market rent that they’ve been used to paying,” Gregory says. “What we find a lot of times is that the families — some of them — are caught in the middle. The families have just a little too much income to get the resources or they’re destitute. There’s nothing in place for the families a lot of time who just need a little more to make ends meet.”

The families that Gregory describes are what she and others call “the working poor.” She stresses, “They are working … We have been struggling with this for so long.”

Dominique’s mother, Kimberly Whalen, lost her job at a Safeway grocery store four years ago where she had worked for five years. She struggled to keep her family living together, but resorted to staying in the homes of friends until about a month ago when she got help from Families Forward. The gregarious Whalen now works as a cook at the Washington, D.C. Convention Center as she strives to get back on her feet.

Her hopes are to now “become self-sufficient and to help other people who are homeless and get them on the right track like I did,” she said.

The Whalen family appears to be headed for a happy ending. But, Gregory reminds that there are thousands of other families out there who are still suffering. And even federally funded organizations like Families Forward will fall short unless they get the additional financial contributions they need.

“Whatever we go over our budget for subsidies, we have to raise,” she said. “Our challenge is finding rents that stay within our budget.”

Gregory knows well the needs of people and how those needs have changed over the years. She started as a bookkeeper with Families Forward 25 years ago when it was just a year old and called Consortium for Services to Homeless Families.

“I just loved what we do,” she said.

But as the needs increase, they are more and more difficult to meet. Having come up through the ranks, Gregory has acquired a unique and seasoned perspective on the issue of poverty in America.

“Everybody gives money and time to the shelters. I don’t think they recognize how important it is to put that money toward transitional housing because the families that we have in transitional housing are actually expected to pay utilities and to pay a portion of whatever they earn toward rent, so they’re just as needy – if not more – than the families that are in the shelters,” she explains.

Meanwhile, Dominique Whalen, one step up from homelessness, gives his remedy for holding on when there appears to be nothing to hold on to: “Faith. Faith,” says the 20-year-old. “Staying positive and just knowing for yourself it’s going to get better.”

This article was originally published in the December 26, 2011 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper

Readers Comments (0)

You must be logged in to post a comment.