Arizona’s Child Homelessness Echoes National Increase

Posted By Mike Padgett

Jan. 14, 2012

TEMPE, Ariz. – Bright futures rarely shine on homeless children in Arizona.

The young runaways fleeing family anger and short tempers hear their own double-time footsteps. Echoing in their ears are their parents’ impatient words clouded with the stress of work, debts, alcohol or drugs.

Do your homework, say their sad-eyed parents, so you can get that diploma. Get a job with a pension. Start a 401k. Don’t end up like us.

Or like the brother or sister who slashed their wrists in desperation over a home foreclosure or failing college classes, sparking a family reunion in the emergency room.

Family troubles are a major factor in child homelessness, says Dr. Randal Christensen, who for the past decade has headed a medical team in the Crews ‘n Healthmobile program providing medical care to homeless youth in metro Phoenix.

Dr. Randal Christensen proposes to expand his program that provides medical care to homeless children and youth in metro Phoenix. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

Christensen says a new national report showing a dramatic increase in child homelessness in America mirrors his medical team’s work. The national report says 1 in 45 children are homeless in a year. That, according to the national report, translates into “more than 30,000 children each week, and more than 4,400 each day” nationwide.

Yet, in the face of increasing numbers of homeless youth, there are hopeful signs. More than 20 formerly homeless youth treated by Christensen’s medical team are studying nursing or respiratory therapy.

Another former patient is nearing graduation with a degree in computer science. Christensen describes him as “scary smart now, talking about computer mathematics things I couldn’t even begin to understand.”

Christensen believes many more success stories are waiting to blossom among homeless youth. They walk the same streets as university students and business moguls, but the futures of the homeless are worlds away. Unless they find the door leading to another chance.

“Most of these kids don’t want to be on the streets,” Christensen says. “Most of these kids have to have some sort of help before they can lead those productive lives. Then they can be very productive, taxpaying citizens.”

Christensen is familiar with the new national report, America’s Youngest Outcasts 2010, released Dec. 13 by The National Center on Family Homelessness. The 124-page report, which updates the Center’s earlier study, says 1.6 million children in America are homeless annually.

“This represents an increase of 38 percent during the years impacted by the economic recession (2007 to 2010),” says the new report.

Best, Worst States

Of the 50 states, the National Center ranks Vermont in first place for programs designed to reduce child homelessness. The others in the Top 10 are Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Montana and Iowa.

The bottom ranked states are Georgia, Florida, Nevada, Louisiana, New Mexico, California, Arizona, Arkansas, Mississippi and Alabama.

“The recession has been a manmade disaster for vulnerable children,” Ellen L. Bassuk, MD, president and founder of the National Center and associate professor of psychiatry of Harvard Medical School, said in the report. “There are more homeless children today than after the natural disasters of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which caused historic levels of homelessness in 2006.”

More Foreclosures Projected

The waves of home foreclosures are cited as a key factor in homelessness today in America. And that mortgage problem may be far from over. A story about Wall Street in the January-February 2012 issue of Money magazine suggests more home foreclosures are imminent. And with foreclosures come family displacement, which officials say can lead to homelessness.

The story about Wall Street quotes Laurie Goodman, a respected housing analyst and senior managing director at Amherst Securities, as saying more home foreclosures are expected. She is quoted as saying in addition to the 2.5 million homes that have been foreclosed upon in the current recession, “another 4.5 million mortgage holders have given up paying and are likely to lose their homes….”

The story says home prices are projected to fall a few more percentage points over the next 12 to 18 months. If this scenario occurs, declining home prices can trigger more foreclosures, and the economic forces create more stress on families living on the financial edge.

Many Causes of Homelessness

Christensen says foreclosures are only one falling domino contributing to homelessness. Other causes include joblessness, learning disabilities, insufficient education, and dysfunctional families torn by mental health issues involving a parent, the child, or both.

Despite their efforts to find and keep good jobs, Christensen said, some families become so financially strapped, they are one major car repair or medical emergency away from homelessness.

Since late 2000, Christensen has headed a medical team that offers medical services to homeless children in metro Phoenix.

The Crews’n Healthmobile program offers medical services to homeless youth. The program is a partnership between Phoenix Children’s Hospital and HomeBase Youth Services. Other support is offered by UMOM New Day Centers and Children’s Health Fund.

Christensen says the national study’s findings resemble his medical team’s latest report, completed Jan. 10. His newest annual report shows that his medical team had about 3,000 visits in 2009; 3,700 in 2010; and 4,749 in 2011. In earlier years, the medical team had 2,992 visits in 2008 and 2,273 visits in 2007.

Medical team proposes expansion

The Phoenix medical team’s numbers show that from 2007 to 2011, the number of visits by homeless youth has more than doubled. The ailments often are related to the weather. This time of year in metro Phoenix, they include colds, pneumonia, bronchitis and ear infections. Other sufferings include infected cuts, rashes and sexually transmitted diseases.

Christensen isn’t surprised by the noticeable increases detailed in the new national report. In metro Phoenix over the past year, he has received requests from school principals and superintendents, community representatives, nonprofit agencies and a couple of suburban mayors to visit their cities to provide medical services to homeless youth. Because of the requests for more services, Christensen’s team is proposing to expand the program with more staff and a second Crews’n Healthmobile.

Christensen says proposals to expand the existing medical care program include another medical doctor, another nurse, another case manager, support staff, and a second mobile clinic. Current donors include Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust, Walgreen’s, Courtesy Chevrolet, and FedEx.

Christensen says the program’s expansion proposals will need $3.5 million over four years.

Homeless Patient Nearly Crushed

I last talked with Christensen and his team nearly three years ago. I shadowed them over three weekends that year for a story I wrote in April 2009.  Last month, five days before Christmas, I joined Christensen and his team in their mobile clinic for a follow-up interview. The medical team parked their mobile clinic – a 38-foot Winnebago converted into a medical van – near downtown Tempe. It was a Tuesday afternoon, their regular time at this location to treat homeless youth. Christmas was in the air. Business windows sparkled with holiday scenes and ribbons.

Over the next few hours, the medical team saw several homeless patients, ranging up to age 24, the maximum age to qualify for medical care. Between visits, Christensen recounted a young man’s recent story about sleeping in a dumpster and nearly being crushed.

The homeless patient sought treatment for an injured ankle. The patient said he had been looking for a place to sleep out of the rain. In an alley, he found a discarded loveseat next to a dumpster. The youth lifted the loveseat into the dumpster, climbed in, closed the lid and fell asleep. In the cold and rainy weather, the couch inside the dumpster was preferable to crashing in a recessed doorway or on a cardboard mattress.

“He said it was great because it was sort of warm and cozy in there and he was out of the rain, so no rain was coming in,” Christensen says.

Dangerous Awakening

But at sunrise, the homeless man was jarred awake. He felt the dumpster rising. It was going vertical, on the steel arms of a noisy garbage truck. The homeless man in the dumpster knew that within seconds, he and his cozy couch could be compacted.

“So of course he was scared to death, and he jumped,” Christensen says. “He either twisted his ankle or clipped his ankle or the lid closed and grabbed him, so he sort of fell straight down and twisted his ankle. And that’s why he was coming to see us.”

The young man told Christensen the garbage truck driver was equally surprised.

“He said the garbage guy was really nice about it. He jumps out, too. He was scared this guy came out of (the dumpster). So he came and helped him up off the ground and gave him a few bucks.”

How many times the homeless, seeking shelter from rain and cold, survive similar encounters with sanitation crews each day is unknown. What is known is the increase in numbers of homeless youth seeking medical care.

When most metro Phoenix workers either pack their lunches or flip a coin as to where they’ll grab a bite each work day, homeless children develop their own menu. They learn which restaurant garbage containers have the tastiest daily potluck. Christensen and his staff have heard all the gritty stories about dumpster diving.

And if that doesn’t work, these sidewalk souls – whose relationships with their parents turned dark, sour or dangerous – can rely on survival sex for a few bucks to pay for a meal.

Students ‘couch surf’ and sleep on porches

Christensen says school officials tell him about students who survive by sleeping on friends’ couches and porches. After school, the homeless children wander the streets. The homeless students risk being ostracized by their classmates if their homelessness is discovered. Wearing the same clothes every day could be a giveaway.

“You can imagine the stigma that carries, so they try not to tell anybody,” Christensen says. “But they start showing up in the same clothes, and teachers figure it out. They couch surf a lot, so they’ll spend a week with a friend and a week with another friend and a week living on a porch.

“So a lot of the kids we’re seeing here today are staying on somebody’s porch to stay out of the rain,” he says.

Family Feuds Sparked by Economics

Christensen introduced me to one of his older patients, who is 24. Because of the patient’s unique first name, I am withholding it to avoid identifying him. I’ll call him Mike. That isn’t his real name. Mike and I talked outside Christensen’s mobile clinic that day just before Christmas.

Mike says he’s living on the streets because he and his parents are incompatible, and because of the economy.

Mike says he is a high school graduate, with “a little bit of trade school.” He’s been on the streets for a few months. He worked for a short time at Home Depot, and later for Walmart. But because of the shrinking of the jobs market and the implosion of the housing market, Mike found himself among the nation’s jobless and homeless.

“I had a house and a couple cars. I had a house since I was 23. My parents are renting it to somebody at the moment. I got in a lot of fights with my parents about financial situations, jobs, work.”

Mike is well groomed and mannerly. He carries a bulging backpack he says is stuffed with his possessions.

“We fight all the time,” Mike says, referring to his parents. “I had the luxury and freedom I had that early, you know. I lived on my own. I had my own house. Didn’t have to answer to them. We fight over little things. They treat me like I’m 12 and I’m adult. We butt heads. We just can’t live together any more.”

Mike said his parents also are struggling. “Like, I mean they barely make enough money to keep the houses going. They’re renting the other one. They have trouble barely scraping by with enough money to feed the dogs, my brother, themselves, keep the cars going, the mortgage paid. They barely scrape by on the electricity bills. So it’s pretty rough.”

“….somewhere safe and quiet…..”

Mike says he keeps to himself on the streets, largely for personal safety. “I don’t like to get involved with too many other people. Safety, and then you kind of take on everyone else’s problems. Like, it’s hard enough for me to take care of myself right now.”

I asked Mike where he slept or spent the nights. “Wherever I can find somewhere safe and quiet and away from the police.”

“That safe place might be where?” I asked.

“In like a quiet alley or somewhere abandoned,” Mike said. “Stayed in a couple of parking garages. Somewhere generally quiet and where no one would notice you in there. I usually try to keep away from a lot of people at night.

“I’d rather not be around people with more problems,” Mike continued. “It’s like, I’ve got enough of my own.”

I asked Mike where he saw himself in the near future.

“Short term – with a steady job,” he said. “Maybe in an apartment. Get back into a house of my own. Rent a room from somebody. I could start going back to school, learn something, get a career.”

Homelessness Cycle

I thanked Mike for talking with me. He shouldered his backpack and headed down the sidewalk. His optimism was admirable. Back inside the mobile clinic, I asked Christensen about dysfunctional families.

“How do you put an end to this cycle?” I asked. “The kids you’re seeing now someday may have kids of their own.”

“Many of them do,” he said. “And their models of parents are what put them on the street to begin with.”

The cycle of dysfunctional families that can lead to child homelessness is hard to stop, says Dr. Randal Christensen. He and his medical team in their blue mobile home are well known among homeless youth in metro Phoenix. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

“Ask Me Why I Hurt”

Christensen’s experiences with homeless youth in metro Phoenix over the past decade are in his book, “Ask Me Why I Hurt,” first released in April 2011 in hardcover. This year, again in April, his book will be released in paperback. More information about Christensen’s book, his program and its staff can be found on Christensen’s Web site, www.AskMeWhyIHurt.com.

Click here to learn your state’s ranking in the new report on child homelessness.

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Jan 14th, 2012

2 Comments to 'Arizona’s Child Homelessness Echoes National Increase'

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  1. Helen said,

    This is a thought-provoking piece. These young people are so fortunate to have Dr. Christensen and his team looking out for them. I also felt a real ray of hope with the stories about those who have risen above these challenges and moved on to productive lives.

  2. Carol Romley said,

    Mike:
    What a touching story. Dr. Christensen is a “Great American”. His heart is bigger than he is.
    Thanks once again!

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