Category Archives: Homelessness, Poverty, the American Dream

Homeless: The Motel Kids of Orange County

Recent HBO Documentary, “Homeless: The Motel Kids of Orange County”, is a must see. It is a must see because it helps reveal the struggles of the working poor, by letting the children who are experiencing it speak for themselves.

It’s on Comcast, On Demand under Premium Channels – > HBO – > Documentaries – > Short Films, and on Fancast.

YouTube: “HBO Documentary Films: Homeless: The Motel Kids of Orange County Trailer (HBO)”:

What is ‘the American Dream’?

The conventional wisdom is that ‘The American Dream’ is a goal and aspiration on the part of Americans for some form of ‘conventional’ middle class life: a house, 2 kids, a car, one day retirement.

Never trust conventional wisdom.

The American Dream is about income mobility, meritocracy, and choice. The idea that, with enough hard work, with investment of time and passion, you can make a living for yourself, take care of your family, if you choose to have one, and one day retire, if you choose to. That you can climb from your station in life to a different rung, given energy and effort, again if you choose to. That if you live your life in accordance to responsibilities and goals, things will improve for you, your family and community.

The promotion of the Dream was good for business, it was good for our communities, it was good for ourselves (that is, of course, if you remembered what you were working for instead of some long sought carrot). Our environment took a massive hit, but that could have been resolved without what is taking place right now, by emphasizing and reemphasizing responsibility and consequences. As it stands, things are just getting worst on that score, Dream or no.

Friend and co-worker, Jack, once in chatting with me said that I can take a list with “American Dream” on it and check it off – Complete. I was taken aback. Really? But yesterday was a window into that.

Saturday, I got the chance to hang out with my neighbors and some friends (hi Howard!) at a block party we held. It wasn’t one of those events that were required because we didn’t know one another – just the opposite – it happened because folks on the block have gotten to know one another. There were police officers, office workers, engineers, firemen, medical technicians, masons, carpenters and more among us. Our families played games, we ate, we danced, we got along with one another and grew a few stitches closer.

Some present at the party are amidst a fight to find a way back into workforce before their dream takes a hit. I thought about them, and I wondered about the future for my daughter, my wife, myself.

Just a short while ago I was working night shift at 7-11, a few blocks from where I now work, falling behind on my bills. And earlier from that, I dealt with getting thrown from home from a mother’s boyfriend who had enough of children around him, and ended up sleeping on the train. I’ve come very, very far. But it is such a quick slope back into a struggle to survive the next day.

For an increasing number of Americans, the kind of income and class mobility I experienced is further and further out of reach, and for many who have achieved it, fears grow: Edward Luce: “The crisis of middle-class America” Laura Bassett: “Dwindling Retirement Savings ‘Undiscussed Explosive Bomb’ Of Recession”

Guardian: Paul Harris: “Jobless millions signal death of the American dream for many”

Metafilter: “Desperation”

Add to this how the “Great Recession” is speeding up the decay of infrastructure required to support the day to day and you find a whirlpool dragging everything into it:

NYTimes: “Governments Go to Extremes as the Downturn Wears On”

And yes, this story is an old one. It has been written before, and will be written again. But are there new elements in play?

Metafilter: “Rich get richer, poor get poorer…” (2005)

NYTimes: “Class and the American Dream” (2005)

Barbara Ehrenreich: “Nickle and Dimed” (2001)

Barlett and Steele “America: Whole Stole the Dream? The Have-Mores and Have-Lesses” (1996)

What about the children? Well it *is* about them. And it’s about you.

So far, I have been able to provide a better life for my daughter than that was provided me. Richelle and I are building a platform that she can choose where to take flight from when the day is right. She has childhood friends, a stable home with lots of structured and unstructured play time, lots of singing, dancing, crafting, family and love. Especially love. This is part of the Dream, being able to provide a better life for our children, if so choosing, and I count my lucky stars I am able to do so.

People tell me I have my own hard work to thank for this, and I did work hard, but there is much more. You can’t discount the time or place I was born to, the people I’ve met along the way who have given a helping hand or advice, and the health I’ve been blessed with. When I look around me I realize my journey, from generational poverty to the middle class, is rare, and increasingly so.

Change the rules of the game.

It looks sometimes that George Carlin was right, that it’s called ‘The American Dream‘ for a reason.

Well, one of my earliest bosses in programming, Pat, a fellow who became first a true mentor, then a friend, had pinned to his cubicle wall the following from Peter Senge:

The committed person brings an energy, passion, and excitement that cannot be generated if you are only compliant, even genuinely compliant.

The committed person doesn’t play by the rules of the game. He is responsible for the game.

If the rules of the game stand in the way of achieving the vision, he will find ways to change the rules.

A group of people truly committed to a common vision is an awesome force. They can accomplish the seemingly impossible.

Call me naive but I believe in this.

If ever there was a time to get involved, it is now. And there are ways to make difference, whether they be mentoring someone like myself, volunteering time to help those less fortunate, by becoming a more conscious consumer, or by applying skills in a way to build tools and infrastructure for the foundation that all this requires:

Code For America

Clay Johnson: “Don’t Let the Municipal Crisis Go to Waste”

Ushahidi and Swift River

Crisis Commons Wiki

Tim O’Reilly: “What is Gov 2.0? Come find out”

This was the first block party on our block. My neighbors did a terrific job organizing this and it turned out fantastic. If the Dream does require me to be asleep to see it, then yesterday never happened, surrounded by great neighbors, great friends, and great family.

A continuing inspiration

There are some who would label Sister Mary Scullion’s belief system as ‘liberal’ because it has a vision for helping people reach their fullest potential, or, because it comes from a faith-based foundation, ‘religious’ or ‘conservative’. There are some would call this the polar opposite of say, ‘libertarianism’.

Whatever. Label it what you will with your thin-slicing marketing terms. There is a mission statement, right here, for a better world. Listen to Sister Mary Scullion’s “This I Believe” essay at :

I envision and work for a society in which each person is given the opportunity and resources to achieve their fullest potential and to contribute to the common good.

I also believe that our greatest power is unleashed when people come together across social boundaries to form a community united by a common vision. It is through “the power of we” as our friend and partner, Jon Bon Jovi reminds us, that we come to know the deepest truth of our humanity.

At the end of the day, this is what I truly believe: “None of us are truly home until all of us are home.”

I know, at the end of the day, my Mom and my family benefited from the efforts of those who believed in such things. I am forever thankful for their efforts and hope I can somehow contribute the same along the way.

NPR covers Mark Horvath’s

I try and spend some time each week serving lunch at Project H.O.M.E.’s “Women of Change” with other fellow CIM Volunteers. I’m engaging some of the folks who work at Women of Change into possibly trying a project along these lines. I think Mark Horvath is onto something by sharing these stories as raw as he does. “Former Homeless Man’s Videos Profile Life On Street”

Reference Links:


Mark Horvath: haRdLy NOrMal

Three to inspire

While the three following stories are not related, each spoke to me this week. From growing up without a father and without decent male role models, to finding a path out of homelessness, to just trying to figure out what it means ‘to be’.. great stuff here:

R.O.O.T. Webzine: @SheIsAnarchy003: “I’m Not Sleeping: Compassion, Respect and Bono”

gapingvoid: @avflox: “”a child would not hesitate to pack up a sleeping bag and sleep on a pier under the stars with you”

YouTube: “Vignette from Project H.O.M.E.’s 20th Anniversary Gala (Employment)”:

“Life shows up, and this time I was there”

When housing homeless people isn’t enough

Monica Yant Kinney, in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer, shares the story of ‘Mary’ a Pathways to Housing client, and the difficulties she and her neighbors are facing.

Many of the chronically homeless have mental illnesses that, like many disabilities, require them to have special services available to be able to live their lives independently. Where someone with a wheelchair might require a special transportation to get about, a person facing these difficulties might require a technician to visit daily to insure they are taking their medication. Provided the right tools and structure, many do very well.

Kinney’s article, and ‘Mary”s story, raise hard questions for which there are no easy answers.

My Mom, our family, was thankful for the efforts of Carelink which provided similar services for her. Many deal with the effects of dementia in their loved ones as they age, and for her, the last few years of her life were probably her most lucid and clear with their help.

Everyone deserves a life of dignity.

It’s cold out – what you can do to help homeless in Philadelphia

Write on a piece of paper and put it in your wallet or purse.

If you see a homeless person living on the streets in the cold please call that number.

Its Project H.O.M.E.’s Outreach Hotline.

If you happen to be homeless, in need of services, and have access to a phone, call 1.877.222.1984.

It’s that simple.

If you have more time or resources, think about volunteering or donating to Project H.O.M.E..

This post inspired by Garret Vreeland‘s recent link to CNN story “How to help the homeless in the cold”.

Using the Internet and Media to Make a Difference

Being the Difference names Mark Horvath “Person of the Year”.

Read the link – be inspired – then find a way to act. No matter how small. A tweet here, a blog post there, actually can push the ball forward. Making a donation to organizations like Project HOME or donating your time, even better.

Lately, my mind has been thinking about Camden Hopeworks. They are a nonprofit teaching program that provides youth with experience building websites and GIS/Mapping solutions for clients across the area. Check out the Hopeworks GIS Gallery.

Bob Burtman, for Miller-McCune, recently wrote a related piece about GIS, “The Revolution Will Be Mapped”. You will want to check out the Metafilter thread it spawned.

Is it more difficult to achieve self-sufficiency and defeat personal homelessness in 2010 than 2000?

In Philadelphia we are doing better at helping the homeless move into permanent housing, but there are signs the past 10 years have decreased opportunity for economic mobility.

Economic mobility, according to Wikipedia, is “the ability of an individual or family to improve their economic status.” In short, the ease with which a person can climb from poverty to lower middle class. From lower middle class to middle class. From middle class to upper middle class. From upper middle class to wealthy.

A point I should have emphasized in my last post on homelessness is my journey to self-sufficiency took place in the 90s. We’re a long way from then.

The 90s were an interesting time. Good music, movies, TV in the early 90s devolved towards its end. I think art and entertainment get better during hard times. The end of the 90s there was a sense in America that we were on the upswing. Hence the bad art. We started with Nirvana and ended up with Limp Bizkit – that says it all.

American confidence was reflected in ways beyond art. Consider how unconcerned we were with the Presidential election. Many didn’t care about the election because the choice of Gore or Bush seemed too narrow. It seemed inconsequential who would be President. Generation-X lived up to our slacker stereotype in 2000. Things changed in 2004 and 2008. My generation woke up. But I’m talking about the 90s remember.

In many looks back the 90s gets defined by the dot-com bubble. The idea being that any growth during the 90s was due to and then eliminated in that bubble. I think you can make an argument that belief is incorrect. I believe the dot-com bubble was an artifact of the late 90s. Pushed on and encouraged by the irrational exuberance that had built up over that decade. Right along with bad music and unconcerned political participation. Fact of the matter was the 90s laid the technological foundation for what we have today at mass scale.

Income inequality continued to grow from the 80s to the 90s and at an accelerating rate. Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele published a book sourced from their Philadelphia Inquirer series that argued that the American Dream was already stolen. But the 90s featured such job and personal income growth that many were too distracted to notice. In fact, according to, the last eight years of Clinton’s presidency stand as the longest economic boon in American history to that date.

It was in this generally optimistic environment that me and millions of others were part of a “dramatic decline” in the decrease of concentrated poverty. Some attribute this to record keeping, that Welfare rolls were trimmed due to President Clinton’s mislabeled ‘Welfare Reform’ effort. But I believe that I am proof that the the decade’s optimism was reflected in greater opportunities for me and others. People were more willing to take a chance.

The ‘Aughts’ eliminated many gains made during the 90s. According to the Washington Post the “Aughts were a lost decade for U.S. economy and workers”. Add to this the fact that the safety net was shredded by efforts such as Welfare Reform and now you have a growing population of America living on nothing more than food stamps. Take a dip in a Metafilter thread discussion for more.

Those without jobs have very hard roads to walk. Those that do, well many are working 2 or 3 jobs just to make sure they don’t fall.

Eventually it will lead to an environment where chances are less likely to be offered to potential risks like what I was in the 90s. Less opportunity. Less upward mobility.

Ironically, I hear from a surprising number that those not doing well are ‘lazy’. That they don’t have ‘vision’. They aren’t ‘motivated’. That they need ‘to hustle’. To ‘get a job’. That we are on our own – freelancing agents and personal brands. Social contracts, like those that existed between employers and employees, between government and its citizens, between seller and buyer, aren’t to be expected or trusted anyway – right? Aren’t these some of the lessons of the ‘Aughts’?

Well no. I heard these things in the 90s. And why couldn’t counter lessons become conventional wisdom? That more empathy towards one another will help us get through challenging times?

That yes – the world isn’t fair – but that we should work hard to be fair to one another other?

It does look more difficult to repeat my story now. It saddens and frightens me. A complete lack of progress since the 90s. You have a dysfunctional safety net simultaneous with less work opportunity.

We all want so many of the same things. Health. Friends. Understanding. Acceptance. Self-sufficiency. Dignity.

People will do amazing things when given the tools to succeed and given the opportunity to succeed (and fail a few times on the way). It is in such environments that you find real innovation. Real forward thinking. Because you are not simply fighting to survive.

Related reads:

NYTimes series from 2005: Class in America

Barbara Ehrenreich: “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America”