FEBRUARY 2013 Volume 3 Issue 2
Stressful experiences can be beneficial. Moderate stress can increase one’s preparation, concentration and overall performance. Too much stress, on the other hand, can be debilitating. We have heard stories of soldiers who had returned from Vietnam or Afghanistan with “post-traumatic stress syndrome.” Chronic stress wore them out mentally and physically. Long-term acute stress is known as “toxic stress.” Children growing up in poverty often live with “toxic stress.”
Although there are many sources of “toxic stress”, housing issues provide some of the most profound examples. For the typical middle class family, a home provides shelter, safety, and security. The homes of children growing up in poverty, however, tend to be crowded, loud, and a source of unwanted drama. One can detect a sense of insecurity in the way these children speak about their homes. They don’t ask “Where do you live?” Instead, they ask, “Where do you stay?” The stays are often short-lived.
In the ‘hood, when a family loses its home, family members will “push over”, making room for them to live in their home. These arrangements can last for a few weeks or several years. Due to“pushing over”, it is not unusual to see several families living in small, two bedroom apartments.
In September, two children began to attend our program while they were living with their mom in a women’s shelter. The family moved into their own apartment in November. Having very little furniture, they slept on the floor. Not having a car, we picked the kids up for tutoring. They stayed “in the back” the Mom told us and “You don’t need to come to the back. It is not safe. I will bring them to the front.” We told her that if it was safe enough for a mom and two kids, it was safe enough for us. We went to the back.
Unsurprisingly, this unsafe apartment was also dirty; it had bugs and mold. Her kids were constantly sick after she left the shelter. One month later, she and her kids moved in with another family. Another three weeks later, she moved again to a different dangerous neighborhood on the other side of town.
This winter, a single working mom with four kids lost her job. She found another one several weeks later, but got behind on her rent. When the second month’s rent was due, she could only pay the first month’s rent. That was not enough. She and her four kids were given a 24-hour eviction notice. She had lived in that apartment for five years. One bad month and she was evicted.
She moved all their belongings into a storage unit. One of her sisters “pushed over”, but could not accommodate the entire family. The 2nd grade boy will stay with Grandma in New Orleans. It is unlikely he will attend school while staying there.
There are so many stories, but I will share just one more. In one 2-bedroom apartment, there are five kids and 2 adults. This summer, they “pushed over” for “Tameeka’s” sister and four kids for about 6 months. There are 11 people living in a 2-bedroom apartment. During that time, there were three kids sharing one bed and three children were sleeping on a couch sitting upright. They were all leaning up against each other. How can those children ever get a decent night’s sleep?
Studies have shown that this type of chronic stress actually changes the function and structure of children’s brains. Kids growing up in poverty have 20% less working memory than other children. “Toxic stress causes their lymphatic system to take away the blood supply from their pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain that is responsible for speech and reasoning. “Toxic stress” has been shown to reduce their ability to concentrate and impairs judgment and short term memory. For older children, “toxic stress” results in impulsive behavior and acting out.
At New Hope, our first value is to be a “Safe Place.” We have observed that unless they feel safe, they cannot learn. Down the road, we hope to find ways to help our families to earn their own homes. Then, the kids will no longer ask, “Where do you stay?” but they will ask, “Which home is yours?”