Why I Took My Daughters to the Homeless Shelter…

This is the exercise: have your children pick out their 10 most very favorite, most special things in the whole world. Have them take their time. It can be anything – ice cream, football, an adored older brother, a beloved grandparent, their father, their pet, You…Have them tell you about what they love about that thing most. Everything about how it makes their life a place that is safe and happy and complete. Now…I’m going to take 8 of those things away from them.  That is what has been done to my 5 year old daughter.


For much of those 5 years, her life has been chaotic, unpredictable and out of her control. It has been full of losses impossible to imaginable, and dependant on the decisions of other people. Often those people, while they loved her, have not been able to accurately judge or sustain even her most basic needs. They have been ill with the demons of addiction and efforts to come to terms with deeply troubled pasts of their own. At times, this has made them a danger to her.

And not knowing any other choice was available to her, she has loved them anyway…because they were the source of warmth and life and food, which you need to survive. Because you can always love someone who is dangerous to you if you aren’t taught not to. Loving in a healthy way is entirely learned behavior.

At 5, my youngest child has already had to “overcome her circumstances”. And while I have been able, with much education on my part, to help her do that, I have not been able to do the same for her mother.  At various times over the past 3 years, I have tried to be available to support them both, but in reality my job here, is to choose between the mother and the child when it becomes necessary.  My actual job is to choose the children over her.  It’s not a job anyone would willingly sign up for, but it is also not one that can be walked away from.

And so, yesterday was another step on an unchosen journey of courtrooms, visits with social workers, therapists’ appointments and supportive participation in a variety of drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs. Another one of the endless meetings seeking a course through the havoc that addiction brings to the lives of everyone around them.

Why do it at all you ask? Well, to the people who have said it is too much, and they are many, I make the point that life is often messy. No one chooses for their mate to get cancer, or their child to get sick, or for the terrible car accident that steals a life. It happens and you simply have to respond.  It happens to these children and just because their parents are sick, that does not mean that their need to have contact with those parents, where possible, doesn’t have to be managed as best as one can.

Currently, their birth mother, my niece, is the resident of one of the numerous Salvation Army shelters for drug and alcohol rehabilitation.  This is at least the second or third such place that she has lived, and there have been other out patient programs.  One statistic I heard said that is takes an addict between 7 and 8 separate attempts to get sober. It takes that long to accept that there won’t be an easy way. That either you or the vice will have to die. Many never reach that acceptance.

The story of how they came into our family is a long one. I’ll likely write it here in time, but by way of a short summary, I have guardianship of the two children who I call my youngest son and daughter. They are biologically my great niece and nephew, but that distinction is biological only at this point. They are my children, brother and sister to my other 4. But they are also still her children. And that is the balancing act that we are learning.  The journey of an unintended open adoption.

All day leading up to the visit, I watched my youngest daughter act out on her stress and excitement and mixed up feelings in a mind-spinning number of ways, as she struggled to cope with everything she was feeling. Feelings that I worked at helping her to understand and find the words for. I spent the day telling her that I would be there and make everything OK for her. That everything she was feeling was OK.  I worked to strike the right balance for her, one that would allow her to view her mother’s circumstances as something she should not accept as normal.  And I worked to impart to her that they were circumstances that were no longer hers (gone are the days when she talks about how she used to live at the “Celebration Army”). And I worked to do all this in a way that would not stigmatize her mother.

I have to admit that I didn’t think about the kind of place that we would be going to. They have visited her in treatment programs before. For a period, when she had regained custody of them briefly, and seemed to be on the road to rebuilding her life, they lived with her in another Salvation Army facility that provided recovery services and a sober living environment.  But  when I drove up to this place, 3 of my children in the car with me, and saw it’s industrial rundown location, the homeless dejection of it’s exterior and it’s occupants my stomach began to clench…

OMG,Omg,omg,omg, I’m thinking, did I do the right thing agreeing to this visit? Did I do the right thing bringing my 10-year-old daughter along as additional family security for my youngest daughter, who was about to see her mother again for the first time in months.  Was I asking too much of her to help me wrap this 5 year old in a blanket of female safety as she sees her mother in these horribly institutional circumstances? Omg, omg, omg, I’m thinking as we are walking into a place that makes me think of correctional institutions and they hand us visitor’s badges, even for the 2 year old. How can she want her kids to be here?  Why didn’t she tell me before we were on our way here that it wasn’t like the other places she had been. Places where children were an expected feature.

It is clear as we walk to the metal tables in the dining hall that the children are attracting attention, and my mind is flying, searching for the words and gestures that will normalize the entirely abnormal.  I am mostly watching my 10-year-old daughter intently, but surreptitiously for her reactions.  She is looking around. At the place, at the people, at me…and I am sending off waves of competence and authority and all of the “I have this handled” energy that I can. Literally shedding it onto her. And as we sit down and my niece is settling the children we have ended up sharing in this strange way, she leans over to me and says, “Some of the people here look…you know, kind of worn down.”  OMG, OMG, OMG.

Suddenly I am appalled even more that my niece was no longer able to judge that this wasn’t an appropriate place to have asked for the children to come. Suddenly these children, who people are working their asses off to give a safe, secure and very normal life are being introduced to homeless people and addicts, as they have become an instant novelty in this place.

I want to leave, but we’re already there and the 5 year old is engaged with her birth mother and I can’t do that to her. I have to ride it out. I remember when I worked at my first job in food service at Nevada casino that I would regularly volunteer to serve meals at the local shelter every Christmas and Thanksgiving, because it seemed like a great combination of good service and the chance to get paid double time. And I also remember being afraid and uncomfortable most of the time…but I was 6 years older than my oldest girl was now. This is not fair. Any of it.

But as moments pass, and the children are greeted politely by the other residents, I have a chance to get past the immediate shock of our unexpected circumstances. I have a chance to broaden my narrative of the event, to challenge my opinions and automatic biases.  Who are the people living here? What is their story and how did they come to be here?  Surely not all of them are drug addicts and alcoholics…surely some of them never imagined themselves living here. I mean who grows up and thinks, “I want to be homeless!”

I start to think of the most recent statistics I have seen on the homelessness of our nations Veterans. Over 100,000 from the recent wars. Some of these men are surely veterans who couldn’t get past the PTSD and other physical injuries to rejoin their lives back here.  Veterans who have resorted to self-medicating themselves as a way of coping with their memories and the lack of opportunity awaiting them upon their return from the war zone.

I looked again at my daughter and thought of all the children her age who are currently living in such circumstances because of the devastating economic setbacks America has experienced of late.  Or even the thousands of other children like her younger sister, whose parents are simply unable to win their battles against addiction.  I don’t want her here, but suddenly, it isn’t the biggest mistake I’ve ever made as a parent. And my girl, bless her heart, is taking it pretty much in stride, although she will later state in the car, “I feel really sorry for those people.” This is said without judgment and I marvel as I always do at her unadorned compassion. My girl has such a very good heart, tempered by a good and sensible head on her shoulders.

So while I am not in a place of comfort internally about taking my children into such a place, neither do I think, in the long run, that it have a negative effect.  They will know the results of drug and alcohol abuse in real terms. The next Red Ribbon Week at her school will have context for her that may teach a more valuable lesson.

More importantly still, my 5 year old drew a picture while we were there and gave it to her birth mother. In it, she drew herself, crying and told her mother matter-of-factly that in the picture “she was sad because she had lost her mother.”  She didn’t put me in the picture either. Neither of her mothers were drawn in there and so handily avoiding conflict. No, she drew the only safe figure she knew.  She drew her 10 year old sister in the picture with her.   So while it had a price, this one moment told me that taking my older daughter had done what it needed to do. It gave the 5 year old the safety she needed to get through it.  I shared this story with my oldest girl so she would know why we did what we did and how she had helped her sister.

For me, the visit left more questions than answers and it allowed me to identify another obstacle in the landscape ahead. I was troubled by the fact that her desire to see them out-weighed her ability to choose self-denial at a moment when it likely would have been the better choice for the children not to have them come there to see her.  This was made even more significant by the fact that she was going to be free to leave the treatment facility in less than 2 weeks and come to see them in an environment more comfortable to them.  For me that said that at some level, living in these circumstances has become normalized to her.  And how are we going to do this going forward, because it was anything but normal to me.