This year we visited relatives in Chile during the Christmas season. On New Year’s Eve we were in the port city of Valparaiso for the mammoth fireworks display with which Chileans traditionally welcome in the New Year at the stroke of midnight.
Our family group of seven adults and three kids shared a small guest hotel with another family, this one of six adults, a child and a very large (but well-behaved) golden retriever. The two families hit it off amazingly well and we spent the evening together preparing for the fireworks by enjoying several bottles of local wine and cooking and eating an enormous barbecue.
As we visited that evening, a young woman from the other family got excited when she learned we were from Albuquerque. “You have someone in Albuquerque who is wonderful,” she exclaimed. “You can be very proud to count her among your community treasures.”
I started mentally scanning the range of women who are civic treasures in our hometown: literary, political, academic and entrepreneurial. Several names popped up right away, but I had to ask her who she meant.
The name of the young woman I was talking to is Patricia, and she is an attorney who now lives and works in Santiago, but who grew up on the East Coast of the U.S. where she worked with homeless populations as an advocate and organizer. She continues to maintain close links to the homeless advocacy community in the U.S.
So, she said, “That’s how I know that you have in your city one of the most wonderful champions of the rights of homeless kids in the whole country. She just got an important national recognition and it was richly deserved.”
She went on at length about the inspiring work of Helen Fox, the director of services for homeless children in Albuquerque Public Schools. She hoped Fox is as well recognized in Albuquerque as she is nationally and internationally. And she impressed on me how crucial it is for us to continue supporting those who work with homeless children with cold, hard cash.
I know a little about Helen Fox’s work but I made a New Year’s resolution to find out more. I couldn’t get over how amazing it was to travel four thousand miles away from Albuquerque only to bump into someone who knew more about an important resource in our city than I did … and who motivated me to come home and do whatever I can to build support for this work.
I found out that more than 3,000 APS students qualify for the services to homeless students that Helen Fox and her staff provide. That’s a far higher number than I would have guessed and it speaks eloquently of how extensive the problem is, and of how invisible it is as well.
We know that learning academic material is far more difficult for young children when they're hungry, exhausted, anxious, self-conscious and depressed—and we know that those words describe accurately the circumstances in which all homeless children exist. They can’t take full advantage of their learning opportunity unless they get supportive services.
We also know that for many kids, the classroom is the one consistent, supportive experience in their daily life, an island of stability in a world where a place to sleep that night is unsure.
This realization was driven home to me some years ago at Highland High School when we stumbled on the fact that there were a half dozen students who were living at the Fair Grounds. How long this had been going on was unclear because they were attending classes regularly and not acting in any way that would have drawn the attention of teachers or counselors.
But each morning they got to campus early and ate breakfast in the cafeteria; showered in the gymnasium; stored their belongings in their lockers and stayed at school until they went to work at fast-food jobs near Highland. Then they walked to the Fairgrounds and slept in some warm spot out of sight of the night watchmen.
It spoke volumes to us about the determination it takes for some kids to stay in school. It also speaks to how desperate the situation for many children is when their families fall apart or when their families cannot provide adequate shelter ... or when they simply have no families left.
I know many conservatives worry that depending on government programs might somehow undermine the nuclear family. That must not be allowed to happen. On the other hand, the far bigger danger is that government programs might be missing from the scene when the nuclear family disintegrates or stops functioning well.
APS, the city, the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department and our Health Department all need to be able to step in for these young people. Foster or group homes, services to runaway youth, counseling, after-school programs, health care and job opportunities—the list of what is needed is lengthy.
Helen Fox and dozens of other heroes like her are doing what they can. What is missing, though, is a realistic commitment of public dollars to fill in the numerous gaps in the safety net for the young people who no longer have homes. That ought to be our first expectation of government: to fill in when the family can’t provide.