Tag Archives: education

America’s Refugees

America’s Refugees

Seventy-five percent of extremely low income families cannot find affordable rental housing, but it’s not for lack of effort (iii). Rather, a deficit of affordable housing leaves more than 10 million U.S. families either stranded or teetering on the edge of homelessness. This is particularly common in Florida, where only 22 units of affordable housing are available per 100 extremely low income families (6). Regardless of political affiliations, we can all agree that increasing the inventory of affordable rental housing is a prerequisite for ending homelessness and giving hope to America’s refugees – extremely low income families making less than 30% of the average median income (1).

“Affordable housing” is defined as housing that costs 30% or less of a person’s monthly income. A household that spends more than 30% of their income on housing and utility costs is considered “housing burdened” and at risk of becoming homeless. HUD Secretary Julian Castro states that “there is a shortage of 7.2 million affordable housing units for the nation’s more than 10 million extremely low income families.” The direct result is that 75% of these families are forced to pay over 50% of their wages on rent, making them severely cost burdened.

Eventually, this burden will catch up with them. A missed paycheck or medical emergency might be the the straw that breaks the camels back, as these families are forced to make hard choices and compromises to make ends meet. Necessary medications are foregone, payday loans taken out, or credit cards maxed out with unsustainable debt. The consequences of these choices inevitably lead to a Catch 22 with no way out besides shelters, doubling up, living in motel rooms, sleeping in cars, or worse – becoming homeless. And in Central Florida, one in every 50 families and one in every 17 children will experience homelessness in the course of a year (45).

These extremely low income families are the working poor. They are the subject of the Heart of Florida United Way’s A.L.I.C.E. (Asset Limited Income Constrained Employed) Report, which details the struggles of Floridians trying to survive with only the most basic necessities. According to this report, the Household Survival Budget for a family with 2 children is $47,484; which only includes  Housing, Child care, Food, Transportation, Health Care, and 10% Miscellaneous (i.e. cell phone expenses). However, the median family income is $45,040 per year. It is estimated that 3.2 million households, or 45% of total households in Florida, are struggling to afford these necessities (4).

Add to this equation wage stagnation and the fact that only 22 units of affordable housing exist per 100 extremely low income families; it’s no wonder that nearly 70,000 homeless youth were enrolled in Florida’s schools in 2013. That is, 18 % of the Nation’s homeless school-aged children live in Florida (7). The psychological, nutritional and academic consequences for these students are the only part of this that adds up, concomitantly increasing the costs of public education, social services, and future prison expenses in the worst case scenarios. But most importantly, even the brightest children may be robbed of the chance to go on to lead healthy, balanced, and productive lives. Whether your political affiliations would have you fix this by increasing the minimum wage or not, we can all agree that there is a deficit of housing that is both affordable and available. Increasing this inventory is a public good and worthwhile investment in preventing family homelessness.


Learning to Read


On my first day of kindergarten, I came home from school crying because I didn’t how to read. When I had asked my parents when I would be able to read like my older sister, they had said ‘kindergarten’ and I thought that meant immediately, on the first day. I was so disappointed to know that there was no magical trick that enabled me to read by virtue of being in Kindergarten. But by Christmas of that school year, I knew how to read books. By 4th grade, I was reading at a 9th grade reading level and I still like to read novels when I have time. However, so many children never reach full proficiency in reading by 4th grade, and will never enjoy school because of this disadvantage.

On a recent Facebook post about adult illiteracy, a friend asked me why I think it is that so many children do no learn to read in school and need remedial tutoring. I told her that I think it’s because of the lack of resources to so many single mothers who are working so hard to support their families. In fact, when I was living in Central America, I had a friend who fit this exact mold. Her son Jared was in Standard 1 (about 3rd grade) and he had never mastered basic phonics. His mother managed a hotel, owned her own business, and had two other children to care for. Jared was lost in the chaos of her life, as are most middle children. His grandmother watched him after school, and the group tutoring sessions he went to simply weren’t enough.

I started tutoring Jared 3 times a week after work, because he had fallen so far behind that he might be held back. Some thought that he might be disabled, because he would just stare at his tests. But really, I’m pretty sure that it was because he just couldn’t read them. Word problems in math were impossible for him too, because he couldn’t read. Taking notes from the blackboard was a jumble of confusion. And reading comprehension was simply out of his league. We began working together using hooked on phonics. After taking time to go back to the basics, Jared eventually began to pass his spelling tests. We were reading small books together by the time I left in December, and it was so hard to leave knowing that his mother would not have time to continue his tutoring.

There are so many Jareds in the school system in the United States, with single mothers who struggle to keep their families housed. They may not receive child support, might be working three jobs, and have zero spare time. It seems impossible to prioritize reading with their kids,when they are struggling so hard to survive. And their children will most likely never excel in school, if they don’t have a basic understanding of phonics before they reach that decisive age. It’s literally sink or swim. As one teacher in Orlando puts it: “Lack of access to quality education – you might as well be drowning in a pool.” Now that is something to cry about.

Mountain Village

Mountain Village

In May 2008, I visited an NGO in Guatemala and witnessed the most extreme poverty I have ever seen, in the 3rd most malnourished country in the world. The stories of preventable disease, death, despair, and sheer desperation were some of the worst I have ever heard. This is a long story, so I will split it up into two parts: Mayan Village and Mountain Village. I won’t use names because I don’t have permission, but feel free to contact me if you would like to know how you can support this mission work.

We drove through the desert of Guatemala to Zacapa, and up a mountain ridge to a village called Pinalito. The only way to reach the village was through a dried up river bed. My hosts worried that we might not be able to make it, since we could get stuck if it started raining. Luckily, the rain held up, and we made it to the mission at the peak of the mountain in Pinalito.

I can honestly say that I have never seen such abject poverty in my entire life as I did in Pinalito. Like in Castulo, the residents of Pinalito eat primarily corn tortillas, which leaves them malnourished. Their children die of malnutrition, usually at a very young age. Maternal mortality in labor is also common, and the closest hospital is at the base of the mountain in Zacapa. The rough terrain on the mountain side, along with the subsistence-agriculture living of Pinalito’s residents, places each family at a fair distance from its closest neighbor.

The mission began as a clinic and school for the children of Pinalito, and children walk from all over the mountain, bare-footed through the jungle, to get an education in exchange for food. The feeding program rewards students for their school attendance each month with beans, rice, and sugar; or else they might not be allowed to attend. The clinic is equipped to provide basic medical attention (stitches, broken bones, etc.), give vitamins to new mothers/children, and distribute clothes to whomever needs them. Occasionally doctors or dentists visit with teams from the states, and volunteer their services in the clinic. Some teams of volunteers help with construction projects.

The missionaries teach the farmers new techniques to generate revenue for the village. They have learned how to grow completely organic coffee (using soapy water instead of insecticides to kill bugs.) There is a factory where they collectively roast the coffee. The missionaries use their network to connect the producers with buyers in the states, without collecting a profit. Macadamia nut trees shade the coffee plants, and will eventually be another cash crop for sale. While we were there, the mission hosted a session on how to graft citrus plants. They recently started to use earth worm composting, which I thought was great. The mission itself was solar and gas powered, since there is no electricity on the mountain. In general, it was very sustainable.

I woke up the next day at the mission house and walked into the kitchen to be greeted with “Hola!” by adorable little children with their faces pressed against the bars on the windows. Later, I met 2 little girls that were playing in the school yard. Their mom had died giving birth to their youngest sister. They were so tiny. The older one was 9, and she had to take care of her 3 younger siblings, including her new-born sister after her mom died. Their dad was an alcoholic. When their mom died, he went on a drinking binge and abandoned them without any resources at all. Now he is back and still spends all of their money on alcohol. We bribed her and her 5 year-old little sister with new clothes, so that they would take showers. They were filthy from walking barefoot on the muddy mountain paths. They ate candy and chattered happily while I brushed their hair. We sent them home with soap, shampoo, and underwear that they would most likely sell to buy food, unless their dad spent the money on alcohol.

My hosts and I hiked 30 minutes through the rain forest to visit two of the poorest families on the mountain. The first family we met was a young girl with 4 kids. She used to be the smartest student at the mission’s school, but her parents married her off to a man in the village when she was 14. Her first son lost his eye due to malnutrition. We gave her food and some toiletries, along with vitamins. The one thing that struck me while we were at their house was the dogs. A mother dog had 4 puppies and the family could hardly afford to feed themselves, much less the dogs. The bitch was bloated from starvation and her nipples were sagging from nursing her puppies, which were so skinny that I could see their ribs and bones.

The next family was probably the poorest family on the entire mountain. A single mother and her 3 sons lived in a 15’ x 10’ hut made out of sticks and a tin roof. She didn’t have a husband, and her oldest son left the mountain to find migrant work when he was just 14. I was told that when the missionaries first visited the family’s home, they only had 10 sticks for “walls” and half a tin roof. During the rainy season, their house was washed down the side of the hill, and they would have to rebuild every time it rained. They weren’t home, but we hid a bag of food and other things under their (only) blanket in the tiny shanty.

It started pouring down rain as soon as we returned to the mission, and we had to leave immediately. The stream in the previously dried up river bed quickly turned into a creek, but we were still able to drive through it. We thought we might have to hike down the mountain, but we made it down only having to walk a little while. The rest of the trip was a blur. I got home on a Sunday, and started summer classes the next day. I learned about “Culture & World Politics,” and wondered how many more mountains existed with villages like Pinalito sitting on top of them – in the U.S. and all over the world. How many of them were lucky enough to have a mission? And how many more did not?

Mayan Village

Mayan Village

In May 2008, I visited an NGO in Guatemala to bare witness to the most extreme poverty I have ever seen, in the 3rd most malnourished country in the world. The stories of preventable disease, death, despair, and sheer desperation were some of the worst I have ever heard. This is a long story, so I will split it up into two parts: Mayan Village and Mountain Village. I won’t use names because I don’t have permission, but feel free to contact me if you would like to know how you can support this mission work.

I flew into Guatemala City on a Monday, and a missionary couple picked me up. Within an hour of being in the country, we drove over a bridge with armed policemen guarding each end of it. This didn’t seem abnormal until someone pointed out that in the previous two weeks, three different people had stopped cars in the middle of the bridge and jumped over the guard rail into the ravine below. The police were there to prevent another incident, or maybe just to move any empty cars that might cause traffic jams.

We drove out of the capitol, winding around S-curved mountain roads and suddenly I saw a crippled man using his arms to pull himself into the road. I shrieked, and the driver managed to swerve around him. His skin was darkly tanned, and it was obvious that he had spent most of his life in the sun. I couldn’t believe that anyone would hope to die like that.

We ended up in a town called Rio Dulce, and stayed overnight near the river. The next day we took a two hour boat ride up a tributary to visit a rural village near Castulo Creek. A decrepit wooden house sat in the middle of a farm yard on the bank, while turkeys, chickens and horses roamed around. Across the yard, a wooden bridge stretched over a swamp and into a cow pasture, where a herd of bulls grazed at the bottom of a steep hill. It was still the dry season, but there was already muddy water at both ends of the bridge from an early rain. I learned that the first time my hosts visited this village; they had to wade waist-deep through these swampy grasses to reach the hills. They built the bridge not too long before, with the help of a team of volunteers.

We hiked up the hill and 20 minutes into the jungle before reaching a village named Castulo, where the residents lived the same way that Mayan villagers have for centuries. The first time my missionary friends arrived in Castulo in the 1990s, the villagers had never seen anyone as pale as them. At that point in time, the death rate was 50% because the villagers were dehydrated and sick from drinking dirty water. My hosts showed them how to clean the water to make it drinkable, and helped them re-hydrate with a sugar-saline mixture. No one died after that.

The village was centrally planned around a soccer field in front of a school house that a missionary team built. The children learned their own Mayan dialect, as well as some Spanish. Education is their only chance to improve their livelihoods, possibly move away someday, or make a better life for future generations. Everyone in the village gathered to meet us at the 2-room school house. The students were so excited to take a break and play, and some of the kids brought us baby Amazon yellow-head parrots to hold.

Families live in thatched roof huts made with cahoon palm tree frons for roofs and bamboo as walls. The floors are dirt, and the typical ‘stove’ is an open-fire hearth in the middle of the hut. Their diets consist primarily of corn tortillas, which is not enough to sustain a person. Women use a metate (mealing stone) to grind corn into flour that they use for dough. Tortillas are flattened and baked over the hearth on a flat piece of aluminum. The village has no electricity, but a team of volunteers had built a new hand-pump well.

Idealistically, I thought that if I were Guatemalan, I would be more content to grow up insulated in Castulo than in the smoggy, over-crowded capitol. It seemed to me that without electricity, TV, or radio; people must be happier there. Surely, no one committed suicide in Castulo? Of course, I was wrong and my host told me that 2 people had chosen to take their lives since he had been to Castulo. One was a girl who drank plant fertilizer after fighting with her boyfriend. The other was a heart-broken boy. Before the end of the trip, I received notice that my cousin had killed himself and his ex wife had been found dead. I started summer school the day after I returned, and went to the funeral the following weekend.