Migration and Homelessness: Overcoming Insurmountable Obstacles

Billie Greenwood

Volunteer Billie Greenwood cared for a very tiny migrant on the Northern Mexico border with the U.S. as one of her duties at the migrant assistance center.

by Billie Greenwood,
Humility of Mary Volunteer

For several months each year, my husband and I volunteer where Mexico borders Arizona at a center that gives aid to migrants. In the morning, we cross through an official gate in the border wall (yes, there is one already) into Mexico. We help serve food and provide used clothing. We ourselves haven’t yet seen the separation of families since from the new “zero tolerance” border policy. But, our friends there keep us posted. It’s a mess. And a tragedy. Family separation has rightfully riveted the nation’s attention.

What’s happening on our international border is similar to what’s happening here in our Quad Cities community. In our volunteer work at Humility Mary Housing and Shelter I witness first hand the pain, anxiety, trauma families experience when they become homeless. They find so few options for them to stay together–when they need each other the most.

As a long-time volunteer, I’ve answered phone inquiries from parents and married couples who need emergency housing. At Humility of Mary Shelter’s emergency shelter, adult couples can sleep in the same building—but they must sleep on separate floors. And there’s no accommodations for children. The emergency shelter can help parents, but not their children. So, that turns most families away, because they naturally want to stay together as a family unit.

Family separation scars kids. Traumatized, they try to cope in many different ways. The emotional mark of being separated from parent or guardian can stay with children for the rest of their life, just like a physical scar can. Adverse childhood experiences, such as losing a parent, increases the likelihood of many negative outcomes. It can even shorten one’s life expectancy. So keeping healthy families together is important.

families belong together

The needs of people in migration are deep. Far from home and any support systems, they’re extremely vulnerable. They have no nearby friends or relatives. People can easily spot them and prey on them.

Migration and Homelessness

Here in the Quad Cities, a family experiencing homelessness will often turn to a relative or friend. They’ll double up or triple up in someone else’s house or apartment. If they stay with someone who’s renting, that host risks losing their own housing by breaking their lease agreement. Staying with an acquaintance is risky for the guest, too, because they’re at the mercy of their host. They can be turned out unexpectedly, sometimes even after “paying” whatever funding they can manage. With no proof and no lease backing them up, they can lose their borrowed roof despite their best efforts.

live in a car

Families without homes sometimes sleep in a car or van so they can stay together.

Families sometimes turn to living in a car or van to stay together. This is unsanitary and uncomfortable. Worse, life on the streets is dangerous. It also lacks stability. Kids miss school. Parents can’t find regular employment when they’ve got no permanent address. Families sometimes separate to provide for the daily functioning of the various members of the family. It’s generally a “last resort” effort. Families want to stay together.

Scott County’s Current Reality

Humility of Mary Housing program lets the family experiencing homelessness live together in a stable environment. Unfortunately, HMHI receives four times more inquiries for assistance than they have the ability to accept. They can help a limited number, and the need is great. Need is growing, not only in Iowa but also in Scott County, according to the newly-released ALICE [Asset-Limited, Income-Constrained, Employed] Report from the United Way.

ALICE report

Excerpt from ALICE report shows growth in number of families in extreme poverty and also those working but not earning enough to survive.

I can’t fix these national and international problems. But, by dedicating some of my time to those affected by them, I do what I can to address problems that are beyond my ability to solve. Working with others who really care (and who know more than I do) both uplifts and educates me. And, most of all, the inspiration from the families affected by homelessness and migration—both in Davenport and in Mexico–continually remind me what’s really important. They keep going in the face of what looks like insurmountable obstacles. They show me that family is their priority.