No shoes, no childhood, reflections from the frontline

This  post was originally written in August 2012 and a year later, it is still relevant. Once again this summer I saw kids with no shoes, or shoes in such bad shape they were barely shoes.  No child in a country as “prosperous” as America, should be forced to duct taped Dollar Store flip-flops. But that is the world we live in, where some kids will walk blocks in their patched up dollar store flip flops to participate in a free summer enrichment program, that is held together with the blood, sweat and tears of a merry band of do-gooders who refuse to accept  no. While others have more than they need or even want. But we tell ourselves that in America, we are all equal, tell that to the kid with the patched up flip flops.

I rarely use this space to talk about the in-depth part of my work especially as I am no longer anonymous locally, but some things I have seen and conversations I have had frankly have me shaking my head and really needing to talk.

I got into the social/human services sector many years ago after realizing that while I was a really good advertising sales rep, that I hated it with every fiber of my being. Convincing people to do business with me felt like a form of prostitution and the job just stole my soul. Not long after it was clear that the Spousal Unit and I were looking at a life plan, I decided a career shift was in order. No more whoring my soul for cash! Initially I went into community organizing and after having shots fired across the street from my office, my days as a community organizer ended abruptly. When you are trying to rid a community of the drug dealers and they start shooting right by your job, I take that as a sign it’s time to move on. I have commitment but not that much commitment.

I went from community organizing to being the house manager at a facility that worked with women with addictions. Later I moved in to working with homeless adults and eventually working with families and youth. The hardest by far has been working with families and youth, in fact the longer I do this and see kids in need it tears at my soul.

Up until this past week, I thought I had seen it all and heard it all, but two times in the past week, I have encountered kids without shoes. Let me repeat that, kids, school aged kids with no shoes. As any parent knows, kids have that pesky habit of growing, in fact as I have joked over the years, it seems the growth spurts know when to come…pretty much as soon as you think your kid has all the clothing they need for any given season, you can expect to wake up to “Mom, my clothes are tight” or “Mom my shoes are hurting a bit” For many of us it may mean an unexpected trip to the store to grab shoes or whatever but for growing numbers of families that is not an option because there is no money to replace what has been outgrown.

The legacy of welfare reform coupled with an economy in shambles is that many families that utilize benefits such as TANF have reached their 5 year lifetime limit. That means for growing multitudes in this country they have no income, at best they have a food stamp card and if they live in a nice state maybe access to Medicaid. But cash? The stuff that buys shoes is in short supply. Thanks to the economic downturn that won’t end, it also means social service providers are doing more with less as we see donations go down. People are less apt to pass their hand-me downs to the poor if they have friends and family struggling. It means the most vulnerable, those from families are with no resources are simply screwed, it means kids walk to centers like mine in ill-fitting shoes that are broken if they are lucky to get a meal and have access to fun or they simply walk with no shoes.

At first I thought the shoeless kids were a fluke but a talk with a colleague revealed she and other providers in this area are seeing the same thing. We are seeing families being evicted when they no longer can pay rent and more and more bunking up, 4 adults and 9 kids in a two bedroom apartment is the new norm.

We live in a country here in the US that prides itself on being the best, yet how good are we really when kids have to leave their homes to get a free meal and walk there barefoot? Politicians of both stripes spend goo gobs of money for the privilege of winning but in a world where kids as young as 9 know the game is rigged and not in their favor, where is the hope?

The face of poverty is peddled as being something that happens to others but the truth is most of us are only a few paychecks away from being the next face of poverty; it’s not a black thing or a white thing. It’s a human thing and frankly we are failing our fellow humans.

This past weekend I was supposed to be at a conference that frankly while fun was about excess, and now I wonder knowing what I know and seeing what I see daily, maybe there was a reason I wasn’t there. For many of my fellow bloggers when they write or talk on poverty it’s not something that see up close and personal, yet my roots aren’t far from poverty and while on paper I am no longer there, my life’s work takes me there daily.

We need some change and some real hope, no kid anywhere on this planet needs to be without access to basic essentials.



5 thoughts on “No shoes, no childhood, reflections from the frontline”

  1. Sadly this is a nationwide issue. My mother is a teacher in rural New Mexico and the students in her school often show up without shoes because their parents just can’t afford them. My mother keeps a stash of new sneakers in her classroom, stocking up on them when they go on sale, but the issue is so much larger than that. It’s heartbreaking to know that things so basic as shoes have become a luxury these days.

  2. What are the resources for getting shoes to kids who need them in Maine? How can ignorant but well-meaning folks contribute?

    • That’s a good question, as service providers many of us have never seen this so we are trying to figure it out. At my agency I will take limited donations of clothing but when bedbugs became an issue in the area we closed our clothing closet.

      I am actually meeting with other area providers in York County to discuss how do we assist families at this level, I may write a follow up piece. I will say that for both the kids that use my agency, someone donated 2 pairs of new shoes, but really its just a band-aid.

    • I forget that most people wouldn’t know that but for those of us in social services we have feared what would happen when people reach the lifetime limit, we now know. 🙁

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