One of my sons and his wife bought a modest starter house. Next door to them was a woman with two of her children, 14 and 8, living in a similar house.
She had a job and, fleeing domestic violence, had bought the house with a subprime mortgage at a price above its market value. My son and his wife knew her and the two children. One child was gifted and in a magnet boarding school. The other had learning problems and a nice personality. Absent a father, he liked it when my son came out to throw a football with him.
A few weeks ago, my son told me that the mother and her family had been evicted, the mortgage on the house had been foreclosed, and she had probably lost her job. The family were sleeping some of the time in their car. My son and his wife and other neighbors were helping them -- showers, food -- but their problems were clearly more than they and the other neighbors could cope with.
Purely by coincidence, a few days later, a friend of ours invited my wife and me to attend a luncheon sponsored by a Pittsburgh organization, HEARTH, which stands for "Homelessness Ends with Advocacy, Resources, Training and Housing." It targets homeless women with children, frequently victims of domestic violence, who find themselves in just the dilemma that my son's neighbors had found themselves in, which is about as hopeless a situation as people can fall into. The objective of HEARTH is to deal with these families' problems in the short run, and put them back on their feet in the long run.
It is perfectly clear that circumstances like this, when no way out is found, perpetuate in American society the grinding, multi-generational poverty that has decimated the American dream for millions -- and which is increasingly being noticed and documented as the country wrestles with its economic problems.
I grew up reading Horatio Alger books, literally the stories of poor boys who through hard work and other virtues rose from poverty to success. (I'm not that old; an older neighbor gave me his collection of them, but I took them on board.) But hard work does not always suffice.
HEARTH, in existence since 1995, takes on the problems of people in Pittsburgh who fall out of the economy in the way that my son's neighbors did. At the moment, it sees to the needs of some 15 families, with plans to expand to take on 20 or 25. These have to be families headed by homeless women, with children, with no man around. The women must have no current drug or alcohol abuse problems.
According to HEARTH leaders, the demographics of the families helped parallel the demographics of Allegheny County. HEARTH is supported by federal money from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, but also by private and commercial donors and volunteers.
When I asked, thinking of my son's neighbors, I learned that while HEARTH is a Pittsburgh organization, there may be comparable organizations in the area where he lives.
So how did my son's neighbors get into this mess?
First, there was the bank or other lending institution that took advantage of the mother's desire for a home for her children and the fact that she had a job to lend her more money than she could possibly repay to buy a house she clearly couldn't afford. All along that road, from the loan to foreclosure to eviction, people were making money off the transactions, completely regardless of the human carnage they were creating along the way.
The mother was at fault as well, although it is possible she didn't understand what was being done to her, thinking primarily of providing shelter and decent schools for her children. Where the father of the children was in the picture is hard to say, although it may have been a case of breathtaking irresponsibility. Whatever he thought about the mother, he couldn't not be aware of the impact on the children of being evicted, sleeping in a car, seeing their schooling put in jeopardy and their mother defeated and humiliated.
We will find out if the social services in the place where they live are able to respond to the situation to save the family. I, for one, hope that if the city, state or federal government cannot respond there is a HEARTH to step in.
If anyone wants to help HEARTH in Pittsburgh, it needs money to help more families, and it needs volunteers: www.hearth-bp.org.
Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is an associate editor and columnist for the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1976).