Tuesday, April 26, 2011


If you’re homeless in America, and you have kids, what do you do about putting them in school? Most of us never thought about that until last week when news reports told Tonya McDowell’s story. McDowell is a homeless mother who enrolled her son in a good elementary school, using the address of a friend who lived in government subsidized housing. Once it was discovered that McDowell had perpetrated this ethically confounding offense, she was arrested on charges of grand larceny and conspiracy to commit first degree larceny after enrolling her son in Brookside Elementary, in Norwalk, CT. McDowell and her son reportedly live alternately in her van and in a homeless shelter. And get this: The school in which she enrolled her 6-year-old, wants her to pay them $15,000 for stealing their services.

To add insult to injury, Norwalk Mayor Richard Moccia (below, right) issued this statement about the McDowell issue: “This now sends a message to other parents that may have been living in other towns and registering their kids with phony addresses.”

Indeed it does, Mr. Mayor. It sends this message: ‘If you’re homeless in America, don’t bring your kids to our schools. You’re not wanted here. And if your children are uneducated because you are homeless, that’s not our problem.’ Mr. Mayor, does that about sum up your message?

Here’s my message: Where is the compassion? Are we really prepared to marginalize children whose parents are homeless? I don’t think so. Shame on you, Norwalk, CT. Are we truly going to write off the Tonya McDowells of the world simply because they live in a van? And before you get too high and mighty, how many of you out there are one paycheck away from being Tonya McDowell? Fess up. What’s that they say at times like this? Oh, yes…”There but for the grace of God go I.”

We could fixate on all of the usual arguments – you know the ones – racism, welfare, responsibility – but let’s not. Instead, once again, I’d just like to ask, “Where is the compassion?” At six, most of us remember how exciting it was to be starting school. At six, if you’re homeless, what are you allowed to get excited about? Or, maybe by six you, too are excited about going to school, because your homeless mother has always been determined you were going to go to school – somewhere. And someday you will understand why she did it – because education is your ticket out of life in a van.

This story has already gone national. It’s all over everything online and off. I’m anxious to see how America reacts to what Tonya McDowell did. I think she’s a wakeup call for all of us. Instead of viewing the American homeless as a deviant population segment, let’s look at why they’re homeless. The buzzwords: Divorce, unemployment, foreclosure, bankruptcy, addiction, mental illness, domestic violence. Do I need to go on? Contrary to the worn out stereotype of homeless people being degenerates, they are you, and they are me.

The National Coalition for the Homeless reports that the U.S. is experiencing a steady increase in the number of homeless families. Families with kids who need to get an education. In 2007, the U.S. Conference of Mayors reported that 23 percent of homeless people in America are families with children. Single mothers with children make up a significant number of these families. In a 2009 Coalition report, it was estimated that 600,000 families a year will experience homelessness in America. Right here. In your America.

Let’s break this down: If you are a child whose homeless family has already been disenfranchised by the rest of society; and, if you can’t go to school because you don’t have an address; and if the statistics are true that at least once a month you may have to go without food – what happens to you? If you are exceptional, you rise above it, eventually. It is more likely that you grow up navigating poverty. And what do we get when we add poverty and lack of education together? We get homelessness. We get a never-ending cycle.

So, take that, Mayor Moccia, and Brookside Elementary and Norwalk, CT police department. By not giving Tonya McDowell and her young son a leg up, you are probably contributing to the continuing upsurge of homeless families, even in toney Connecticut suburbs. On the other hand, if your city would get behind job training programs for women like McDowell, and provide decent, temporary housing and universal public education for the children, it seems likely that some of the disenfranchised would smartly work their way back into productive society. It is a no brainer.

It is sickening that in America in 2011, any parent has to sneak their child into school. McDowell’s child was dismissed from the school as soon as her transgression was discovered. Try to explain that to a six year old. And keep in mind the child now has to live with the humiliation of being kicked out of school because he is poor, for the rest of his life. It is a memory that will not fade and one that should never have been inflicted on Tonya McDowell’s son.



Joan Eisenstodt said...

I had read this on your blog, Paul, and elsewhere and just read it again and cried. Many in our country are anti-children. Yep, the same people who say they are "pro-family" are really only pro-birth. They are not pro- taking care of children and helping them succeed. My heart hurts. Where is the outrage from many more people?

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