Everyone in San Luis Obispo County is aware of the homeless problem. However, there is one segment of the homeless population that receives the least attention and almost no services from the governmental and nonprofit organizations. Tragically, the individuals in this segment are the most vulnerable, helpless, and voiceless, with no one to champion their cause. This homeless population is commonly referred to as “unaccompanied homeless minors,” meaning homeless minors who are not accompanied by an adult. Unaccompanied homeless minors are denied almost all the services that are available to other homeless people. For example, they cannot get a meal from a facility that feeds the homeless population, nor can they go to a shelter to spend the night.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) provides funding for various homeless programs. San Luis Obispo County received $1,075,961 from HUD in 2014. Nothing from this amount was expended to provide services to the unaccompanied homeless minors. The whole amount was allocated to permanent housing.
“HUD has recently given guidance that permanent housing in particular is supposed to be for chronically homeless persons and to prioritize housing for persons who have been homeless for the longest period of time,” stated Laurel Weir, homeless services coordinator for the SLO County Department of Social Services. She added, “This formula will disfavor unaccompanied youth.”
It is noteworthy that funding from HUD does not prohibit the organizations to use the funds for serving unaccompanied youth; its guidelines state that the highest priority be given to permanent housing for persons who have been homeless for the longest period of time. It raises a few questions. Out of almost $ 1,076,000 received from HUD last year, why was a relatively small portion not allocated to serve unaccompanied minors? The HUD guidelines do not mandate that 100 percent of the funding be spent on permanent housing. Why did all of the funding have to be expended on permanent housing? Can’t unaccompanied minors, literally children, be considered at least a lower priority, rather than no priority? In Economics 101, we learn that scarce economic resources should be allocated according to the priority order; it certainly does not state that 100 percent of the available resources should be allocated to the top priority only.
The county also received a total of $335,675 Emergency Shelter Grant (ESG) funds from HUD. Allocation for 2014 is $135,496, but reportedly the amount has not been received yet. The HUD allows using ESG funds for serving unaccompanied minors. Couldn’t at least a portion of the funds be allocated to serving unaccompanied minors, if not the total amount? Why totally deprive those who are the most needy, helpless, and voiceless?
One and a half years ago, the Homeless Services Oversight Committee formed an ad hoc committee “to gain an understanding of the challenges faced by youth who are living unaccompanied, without a parent or guardian, and to recommend services to address the needs of these youth.” As far as gaining an understanding of the challenges faced by the aforementioned youth is concerned, had yours truly been given an opportunity, he could have gladly given them the needed information in 45 minutes tops, but most probably 30 minutes would have sufficed. Granted, the description would have been confined to relevant information only, without any bureaucratic verbosity. Has the committee made its recommendations regarding the services to meet needs of these children? If not, how much longer will this process take? If yes, then why has there has been no visible implementation of the recommendations? The reason for the last question is because there is no sign of any improvements in the deplorable conditions for these minors. Doesn’t anyone feel a sense of urgency? How much longer is it going to take?
It is common knowledge that the current San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors is, to be charitable, dysfunctional. To an interested but outside observer, it is apparent that the existing toxic atmosphere has made individual supervisors afraid to speak up, even when they should, just to keep peace in the valley. The prevalent culture in the chamber has resulted in some decisions that are so absurd that one wonders what the supervisors were smoking. How do you justify building a new $10 million Taj Mahal for an animal shelter while homeless children are sleeping under the bushes where they are exposed to any physical and/or sexual assault by violent predators? Shouldn’t humans, especially helpless children, have a higher priority than animals? The preceding statement should not be misinterpreted as implying that animals don’t matter. They do, but humans matter more.
The unaccompanied minors are victims of their circumstances. There are two major causes of their homelessness: 1) Their parents kicked them out of their home and literally abandoned them; 2) Their home environment was so abusive and intolerable that they could not stand it any more, therefore they ran away from home. Our community needs to realize that they are the community’s children. It is the community’s moral obligation to do what needs to be done to ensure that these minors do not grow up with hate for all humans.
Perhaps a part of our apathy comes from pure ignorance. For example, one of the mayors in the county, when approached for an interview to ask some questions for this commentary, admitted complete ignorance about the very existence of the problem. A city councilman, upon my urging, brought up the issue in the council’s
Jan. 20 meeting. “I expressed disgust with this policy (of not making homeless services available to unaccompanied minors) with no response from my colleagues or reaction from members of the audience,” he stated in an email.
We, the members of the community, should be ashamed of ourselves both individually and collectively for such barbaric and despicable treatment of these homeless children. Where is conscience? Where is human courage? Above all, where is simple, common decency? Is it because we have become so self-absorbed and self-centered that we don’t want to think about this serious issue? Or has apathy blinded our eyes and closed our minds to the extent that we find it more convenient to deny reality of the situation rather than facing it? What has caused it: moral cowardice or moral bankruptcy? If my tone seems to be raged, it is so because I am enraged.
“The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members,” Gandhi said. All children are the future of our community and our nation. As a society, our attitudes and actions toward them leave an indelible print on their impressionable minds; they are in their formative years. We have two choices. We can nurture them so that they grow up to be productive, responsible, respectable, and civic-minded members of the society. Or we can treat them as human garbage. If we choose the latter, there will be a high price to pay later. Most probably, most—if not all—would grow up with anti-social behavior patterns and criminal tendencies. That means loss of human capital to the society. And there will be higher financial costs related to law enforcement, judicial system, jails, prisons, and incarceration. Additionally, as noted by Jim Roberts of the Family Care Network, “Their anti-social behavior and criminal acts would deteriorate the quality of life of all others.”
The choice is ours to make.
Zaf Iqbal is past associate dean and professor emeritus of accounting at Cal Poly’s Orfalea College of Business. He volunteers with several nonprofit organizations, including Wilshire Hospice, Good Neighbor Program, and Child Development Resource Center of the Central Coast. He’s also past president of the San Luis Obispo Democratic Club. Send comments to the executive editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.