Report Finds Millions of Families Three Months From Poverty

By Susannah Nesmith, Equal Voice News

Miguel Abreu, 10, prepares an inflatable mattress to sleep on in the living room of his aunt's apartment. (Photo by Mike Kane/Equal Voice News)

When it’s time for bed, 10-year-old Miguel Abreu retrieves a deflated air mattress wedged between a bookcase and the wall in his aunt’s tiny apartment in Florida City, south of Miami. He quietly unfolds it in the middle of the dining/living room and hooks up an electric pump.

While the pump is inflating the bed, he gets sheets and pillows out of a stack of plastic bins in the dining room where his family keeps their possessions. He hands his parents pillows and bedding so they can make up beds in two recliners while he makes up the air mattress he will share with his 13-year-old sister, Jennifer. His younger sister, Maribel, 6, will share a bed with her aunt.

Like thousands of children nationwide who have no guarantee that where they sleep tonight is where they will sleep tomorrow night, the Abreu children are homeless.

According to America’s Youngest Outcasts, a report by The National Center on Family Homelessness, 1.6 million children in the United States were homeless at some point in 2010, the most recent statistics available.

During the economic downturn from 2007 to 2010 homelessness among children spiked 38 percent nationwide.

Florida is usually thought of as a state made up of retirees enjoying their golden years. However, there are more children than senior citizens in Florida. While people over 65 make up 17.3 percent of the population, children account for 21.3 percent, according to the most recent U.S. Census.

According to the 2011 Council on Homelessness report, more than 49,000 Florida school-age children were identified by the public school districts as being homeless during the 2009-2010 school year.

In Miami-Dade County alone, school officials identified and assisted nearly 4,000 homeless children last year.

Broward County public schools reported about 2,000 homeless students in the 2008-2009 school year.

This school year, officials have already helped 4,920 in just the first four months. More than 2,300 of those students were living in shelters, with another 2,400 doubled up in apartments with friends or relatives. A handful lived in cars and parks.

Maribel Abreu, 6, hugs her mother Marleny Abreu, 44, in a two-bedroom apartment where they are staying temporarily with family in Florida.They family is homeless and are breaking the rules of the apartment complex by staying there. They have no where to go if they are forced to leave. (Photo by Mike Kane for Equal Voice News)

Miami-Dade County has a policy of never letting a child sleep on the streets and pays for shelter space for families, and for hotel rooms when the shelters are full. Last year, Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust paid the hotel bill of three or four families a month, according to Trust Chairman Ron Book. This year, there are often as many as 60 families in hotel rooms.

Book blames the ongoing grind of the sluggish economy, but also sees other factors for the sudden and dramatic rise in the number of local families needing assistance. Federal “rapid re-housing” funds designed to quickly put families back in homes dried up early in 2011.

In addition, Florida’s foreclosure crisis has unfolded differently from other areas of the country because, in Florida, it can take up to two years to foreclose on a homeowner in default.

“It takes time to evict people. It takes time to foreclose. Our foreclosure process has dragged on longer than in other parts of the country, so many people stayed in the status quo for a while,” Book said. “That’s now catching up with us.”

Every family’s road to homelessness is different. For many, the simple lack of jobs is at the heart of it. A family that was getting by, with parents able to find work during boom times, can be easily pushed to or over the edge of poverty when unemployment spikes and then remains stubbornly high for months on end.

The Abreus moved to South Florida at the beginning of the school year. Yasmir, 41, and his wife, Marleny, 44, were both working as housekeepers in casinos in Las Vegas when a friend urged them to leave their jobs and come with him to Miami to start a business. He promised better jobs, a better apartment, even a house. For awhile, the family stayed at a modest hotel in Miami Beach. Everything seemed to be going well.

The kids started school and made new friends quickly. They adjusted well and made good grades, the younger two earning student of the month awards in October.

But it all came crashing down. The friend disappeared, taking money he had borrowed from Yasmir’s brother-in-law, who is now facing foreclosure.

Marleny Abreu and her husband Yasmir Abreu moved to Florida to chase a job opportunity that didn't work out. They ended up homeless and are temporarily sharing a small apartment with a family member in violation of the building's policies. (Photo by Mike Kane for Equal Voice News)

Yasmir stopped paying the loan on his van first, saving the money for the hotel. The van was repossessed. When the Abreus ran out of money for the hotel, they stayed briefly in Marleny’s father’s van. They pulled the kids out of one school and moved them to another school farther south, where Yasmir hoped he could find work.

“We weren’t millionaires, but we lived like normal people. To go from that to this in three months, it’s hard,” Marleny said, brushing back tears. “We had jobs. We had health insurance. Every year, they got a lot of stuff under the tree because we were working.”

According to a report released this week by the Corporation for Economic Development in Washington D.C. 43 percent of families would fall below the poverty line within three months if they lost their jobs or became ill and couldn’t work. In Florida, 48 percent of families don’t have savings to last three months.

After a few nights in the van, Yasmir and Marleny asked school officials for help. Through its Homeless Trust, Miami-Dade officials were able to get the Abreus a tiny motel room.

“It was filthy, but it was better than the street,” Yasmir recalled.

And it was better than what was to come. As soon as space in a shelter opened up, the Abreus were told to leave the hotel. But they didn’t last one night in the shelter.

“She just cried and cried. She was so scared,” Marleny said of Maribel. “It was like a jail.”

Near hysterics, Marleny called her sister, Mayra, who lives on a disability pension and isn’t allowed to have anyone other than her teenage son live with her in her rent-subsidized apartment.

“But I can’t leave them like that,” Mayra said. “We’re family.”

Yasmir and Marleny worry about how their situation is affecting the kids. They try to enforce a routine, with 8 p.m. bedtimes on school nights for the children, even if that means the adults must go to bed too, because “you know, a child who doesn’t sleep well doesn’t study well,” Marleny explained.

“But this is hard for them,” she added.

Yasmir Abreu holds his daughter's hand while recounting how their family became homeless in Florida. They have sold their car and have no job prospects. (Photo by Mike Kane for Equal Voice News)

In fact, studies have found that homelessness can have deep and lasting effects on children.

One third of children who experience homelessness repeat a grade in school, eight times the rate for children who have never been homeless, according to The National Center on Family Homelessness report. The report also noted that children who experience homelessness had higher rates of physical disabilities than impoverished children in stable living situations and nearly double the rate of emotional or behavioral problems.

The outlook for families like the Abreus is bleak. Nationally, the average length of unemployment was 40 weeks in December, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Each day, Yasmir walks to the local unemployment office to apply for work. So far, he’s gotten one call back, from Pizza Hut, which needed drivers. But he doesn’t have a car anymore. Miami-Dade’s unemployment rate is improving, but at 10.2 percent in December, it still outpaced the rest of the country.

Each night, as the children get ready for bed, Yasmir worries where he will take his family if Mayra’s landlord finds out about them.

“I don’t see how I’m going to get out of this,” he said. “As soon as they find out we’re here, we’re back to the street.”

2012 Copyright Equal Voice News

Susannah Nesmith is a former reporter for the Miami Herald.

Equal Voice is written and edited by award-winning professional journalists with a depth of experience in major newsrooms throughout the country. It’s published by the Marguerite Casey Foundation a national, independent grant-making foundation dedicated to helping low-income families strengthen their voice and mobilize communities.

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