When a family shows up at a homeless shelter, it usually means they've run out of much more than housing.
They're out of money. They've burned bridges with family members. They can't call in favors any more, not even a couch in a friend's basement. They've used up any chances they've earned and maybe squandered a few gifts on the way to the bottom.
In many respects, they're shell-shocked refugees, carrying a few possessions in garbage bags, arriving at the last place that will take them.
And most of them are children.
At People Serving People through the first half of the year, 652 families have come through those doors, including 510 single parents and 61 teen parents.
About 60% of the guests are under age 18 and 34% are 5 or younger.
That means most of the residents didn't make the choices that brought them here.
In my preschool class are two brothers. Let's call them Jackson and Braxton.
If they'd just gotten off an airplane from the Sudan or Southeast Asian refugee camp, it might be easier to understand their behavior — why they're alternately aggressive and tearful, why they have a hard time with structure or following directions, why they fail to acknowledge adult authority.
I hesitate to look too far down the road with boys like these, who each by himself is capable of disrupting the entire classroom. I focus instead on helping Jackson to stop a dangerous activity or calm himself when he's frustrated. To help Braxton see how the choice he makes right now will affect his options later in the morning.
But what's happening here will also affect the choices available to them in the future.
Before they start kindergarten, they must learn to gain control over their impulses. It's more urgent than learning to reproduce the alphabet. But they've come from a disordered world, where they can't see how certain behavior leads to predictable results.
Things are never the same from one day to the next, so why should they strive for constancy? It may only make them feel more vulnerable. Lashing out may make them feel in control but some day on the street, it may get them killed.
The national debate about helping the poor never gets to this level. It never talks about kids who are kicking like hell to reach a life ring that's beyond their grasp. Instead it's judgmental. Political candidates talk about these families as if this is what they chose and they want to be subsidized to stay in it.
That's not what I see.
I see Jackson and Braxton thrashing in the water.
I'm not going to scold them about their momma's choices. I'm not going ask about who was driving the boat before I reach in to pull them out.