This Christmas, what our children really need

by Kwaku Sraha and Chris Hollis
December 21, 2011

The shopping malls are filled with holiday spirit, colorful displays, and high-tech gadgets like the latest cell phones and video games.  It’s true that kids love these kinds of things for Christmas. But, as we lighten our wallets to acquire these gifts, we might want to pause for a moment and ask, “Is this the best way we can show not just our own children—but all children—that we love and care for them?” For children who are homeless and extremely vulnerable during this general time of cheer, there are things we can do to have a more lasting, positive effect.

The number of children experiencing homelessness in New Mexico is growing fast. We have 16,260 homeless children—that’s enough kids to fill The Pit, UNM’s basketball arena. These children are often hungry, frequently sick, and always fearful of what each new day may bring. They never know how long they’ll stay in one place and many of them suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or other emotional problems. They live in a world basically invisible to most of us. They have no power and no voice to be heard by the policy-makers who could help.

The current recession—accompanied by long-term unemployment, and stunning numbers of housing foreclosures and personal bankruptcy rates—has led to an increase in child and family homelessness. Up to six million families in the U.S., many of them middle- and low-income and minority families, have lost their homes due to foreclosure, and about double that number may lose their homes before the economy regains its balance. In New Mexico, the number of homeless children has more than doubled since 2007 when the recession began, yet we have no state planning effort focused on addressing this immense and growing problem.

Christmas for these children will be anything but magical. Even the massive and generous charitable contributions, the donated toys and gifts caring people provide, will probably only last through the holiday season. Then it’s back to life as usual for these kids.

As a new parent, I know that what my child needs from me—not just this Christmas, but long-term—is my presence, love, and care. He also needs a sense of security and safety much more than the high-ticket gifts of the season. This is also what homeless children in our state need, and though I cannot give that to them directly, I can stand and be a voice for them with those who make the policy decisions that can impact their young lives for better or worse.

What all children in New Mexico really need this Christmas—and year round—is for policy makers to address issues central to their health, education, and their families’ economic well-being. These are powerful issues and our action (or inaction) on them today will affect every child’s future and ability to attain the American dream. Parents can also be powerful advocates and need to ask our state’s policy-makers to improve the lives of these children and their families—to save families from foreclosure and children from homelessness, to keep food on their tables, and ensure they have access to health care and the early care and education opportunities that will set them on the path to a solid and successful future. As a parent, I hope to see more parents using their voices to speak for children in the new year—giving a more enduring and valuable gift for all our children.

For more information on how you can get involved in ending child homelessness, visit the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness,  check out the Campaign to End Child Homelessness—a program of the National Center on Family Homelessness (or go directly to the New Mexico Campaign page)—or contact direct service providers like Cuidando los Niños. You can also make a donation to New Mexico Voices for Children to support our work to improve the economic security of New Mexico’s most vulnerable families and kids.

Kwaku Sraha is NM Voices’ Finance Manager.
Chris Hollis is NM Voices’ KIDS COUNT Director.

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