Heroes Of The Homeless Crisis: How Kate Barrand of Horizons for Homeless Children is helping to make sure that the experience of homelessness does not define the trajectory of a child or parent’s life

I had many opportunities as a child to overcome my challenges. Why should I receive that when so many others don’t? I want to do everything I can, personally and professionally, to make sure that other children have access to a childhood that sets a strong foundation to make the next generation better than the last. Children are our future and they all deserve the opportunity to thrive.

As a part of my series about “Heroes Of The Homeless Crisis” I had the pleasure of interviewing Kate Barrand, President and CEO of Horizons for Homeless Children.

With a vision for a better future for children experiencing homelessness, Kate took over as CEO of Horizons for Homeless Children in 2015.

Within her first five years, Kate has enriched the organization’s programs through innovative partnerships with leading edge providers in early childhood development while at the same time transforming internal business processes to create a more financially sustainable organization. Simultaneously, with the help of her Board of Directors, she has raised over $20 million to build the Edgerley Family Horizons Center that will transform the education, health and well-being of at-risk children and families in Boston.

Kate’s passion for helping children and families experiencing homelessness has been and continues to be a meaningful part of her entire career and life.

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know you’ a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your personal background, and how you grew up?

Mine was not a garden variety childhood to be sure. I spent most of my formative years outside of the United States in the Middle East, Africa and then Europe traveling with my family as my father was an intelligence officer with the CIA.

Is there a particular story or incident that inspired you to get involved in your work helping people who are homeless?

In the early 1980s, I became aware that there were children and families experiencing homelessness all across Massachusetts and they were literally invisible to most people. These were families who, for one reason or another, had lost one of the most fundamental aspects of life — a place to call home. It seemed wrong to me on so many levels, given the wealth of both our nation and our state, that I committed myself to make a difference. It’s my belief now, as it was back then, that all children deserve the opportunity to thrive, and these children and their parents deserved our support. I started supporting Horizons for Homeless Children more than 20 years ago as it was the only organization devoted to serving the needs of children experiencing homelessness. After several years, I became a member of the Board of Directors where I served for 15 years. When I retired from the Board, I became a volunteer in Horizons’ Playspace Program, going into shelters each week to play with the children. Five years ago, I took on the role of CEO.

Homelessness has been a problem for a long time in the United States. But it seems that it has gotten a lot worse over the past five years, particularly in the large cities, such as Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, and San Francisco. Can you explain to our readers what brought us to this place? Where did this crisis come from?

Massachusetts has the unfortunate honor of leading the way when it comes to the rise in family homelessness. Since 2008, Massachusetts has experienced some of the highest increases in family homelessness in the country. Homelessness is a complex issue with many causes. Every family’s experience is different but the challenges families face include housing affordability, access to employment, job training, affordable child care, racial disparity and domestic violence. Homeless families make up more than half of the homeless population in our state. It is currently estimated that 20,000 children under six experience homelessness each year in Massachusetts alone, but they remain largely invisible for two reasons:

  • Parents don’t sit on a street corner with their children, the vast majority of homeless families will typically choose to live doubled up at a relative or friend’s house when they’re displaced for as long as they can. Some end up living in cars for periods of time, as well.
  • Massachusetts is a ‘Right to Shelter’ state, which means the state or municipality is required to provide temporary emergency shelter to every man, woman and child who is eligible for services, every night. 66% of shelter residents in the state are families. However, it is important to note that the vast majority of the homeless family population in our state do not make it into the shelter system but remain in unstable living situations with their children.

For the benefit of our readers, can you describe the typical progression of how one starts as a healthy young person with a place to live, a job, an education, a family support system, a social support system, a community support system, to an individual who is sleeping on the ground at night? How does that progression occur?

There are a myriad of causes of family homelessness but, commonly, working families in our state barely have enough money to cover their daily needs (food, heat, housing and health expenses). Working at the minimum hourly wage of $12.00 in Massachusetts, a wage earner must have 2.3 full-time jobs or work 91 hours per week to afford a modest one-bedroom apartment and have 2.8 full-time jobs or work 113 hours per week to afford a two-bedroom apartment. All it takes for a family to fall into a housing crisis is a modest illness, the breakdown of a car or any number of small things that cause a parent to lose their job or income for a short period. Many of the homeless we encounter are also women fleeing domestic violence where they may have literally left in the dead of night with their child and only the clothes on their back.

A question that many people who are not familiar with the intricacies of this problem ask is, “Why don’t homeless people just move to a city that has cheaper housing?” How do you answer this question?

Boston is a great example of how this problem persists. We are a tale of two cities with the most staggering wealth on the one hand — according to Forbes, Massachusetts is in the top five states most billionaires call home — and yet overwhelming poverty on the other. There has been an explosion in luxury condominiums being built all around the city and yet the median income in Boston is $65,000. The MIT Living Wage calculator says that a single parent with two children would need to be making upwards of $75,000 to have, what is considered, a livable wage. Why homeless people don’t move to a different city is an interesting question — but why should they have to move? This is their community, the place they grew up and where their family lives. Perhaps better questions we should be asking are, “why have we not done better by our urban communities?” or “why are we not investing in their prosperity?”

Horizons is currently building the Edgerley Family Horizons Center, which is a significant investment in the Roxbury community and is part of a unique public and private partnership that will bring essential services and over 400 jobs to the diverse Boston neighborhood.

If someone passes a homeless person on the street, what is the best way to help them?

You will not pass by a homeless family on the street typically because most parents don’t subject their children to being exposed in that way. The family homeless population is largely made up of single mothers with one or two children and it’s typical for such a family to spend months ‘couch surfing’ with their children, staying with relatives or friends for as long as possible. Alternatively, they will be found sleeping in cars or, in winter, camped out at hospitals in emergency rooms where they seek refuge from the cold. This is a challenging period for children as young children under six make up a large majority of the children experiencing homelessness, and, at that age, a child thrives on routines. Routines provide children with a sense of safety — it helps them learn that the caring adults in their world will provide what they need.

Can you describe to our readers how your work is making an impact battling this crisis?

Our primary focus at Horizons is to make sure that the experience of homelessness does not define the trajectory of a child or parent’s life. Our early education program serves children experiencing homelessness year-round using trauma informed approaches to ensure that children who leave for kindergarten are fully equipped for success. We provide 80% of the children’s daily nutritional needs so family resources can go elsewhere. We work with parents on goal setting and creating a strong foundation for their family’s future financially, emotionally and practically. Our parents are strong, hardworking and resilient people — we just try to help them find the space and resources to get back on track.

Finally, for children living in family shelters, we are the only agency in the state focusing on the experiences children have in the shelter system. Over 50% of those children are under the age of six and, therefore, are in the most important period in their brain’s development — we want to make sure they have the resources at hand to support their brain’s healthy development. Children learn through interactions with people and things, so we have built playrooms in 93 shelters across the state and we staff them with over 1,000 volunteers who educate and play with the children each week. During the pandemic, we have taken our program virtual and distributed tablets to children in shelters preloaded with a year’s subscription of educational content. Our volunteers are also running virtual play periods for the children, providing a much-needed break to parents who are otherwise the only source of entertainment at this time.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the homeless crisis, and the homeless community? Also how has it affected your ability to help people?

The pandemic has hit our families in devastating ways. We have had to transform all our services to a virtual mode. In a recent survey of Horizons’ families, 82% have been left unemployed as a result of the pandemic and have, in some cases, been in shelter rooms alone with their children for long periods of time without any relief. Shelters are not designed to have residents on-site day and night with limited access to food and other vital resources. The shelter system had to be in full-on disaster relief mode, which is different than their typical focus of helping families find housing. While we were forced to close our childcare facilities, our team worked tirelessly to support our families who were struggling more than ever. 90% of our families reported food insecurity and difficulty providing for their families’ basic needs at the beginning of the pandemic, so Horizons’ Family Advocates stepped in to distribute gift cards, diapers and food. The gift cards were the easiest way for families to purchase necessary goods at local stores and bodegas.

Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?

In March of 2021, we will open the new Edgerley Family Horizons Center. This new state-of-the-art, early education and family engagement facility will provide families and children experiencing homelessness throughout Boston with comprehensive resources to support their needs. In our early education center, we will serve 30% more children, have dedicated spaces for our children to develop their skills in STEM and art, and the building will feature a beautiful library. Onsite we will also have a family medical service adjacent to our program where families can access full-service family medicine and behavioral health services.

Without sharing real names, can you share a story with our readers about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your work?

We serve more than 175 children in our early education programs and thousands more children living in shelter across the state each year. In the fall, we have the opportunity to empower one of those child’s parents by literally giving her the stage to share her story firsthand. At our last Women’s Breakfast event we got to know Leticia, a young woman who was a survivor of domestic violence and found herself pregnant with twins. Her strength and willingness to work hard to build a life for her family, coupled with Horizons’ commitment to her and her boys, have them on a strong path for their future. I can’t wait to hear from our mom (or maybe this year it’ll be a dad!) at our next Women’s Breakfast coming up in October this year. Angie Thomas who wrote ‘The Hate U Give’ will be the keynote speaker and it’ll be a fantastic opportunity to learn more about how racial disparities intersect with homelessness.

Can you share three things that the community and society can do to help you address the root of this crisis? Can you give some examples?

I was recently reminded of a quote by President Franklin D. Roosevelt: “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much, it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.” We have too many families in our country who are struggling to provide for their family’s most basic needs. This is because the average American worker has not had a raise in decades relative to real purchasing power. We need to increase our minimum wage and focus on providing employment with a living wage. We need to establish more support for our workers at the lower end of our socio-economic system, many of whom are working hard and still can’t meet their family’s needs.

If you had the power to influence legislation, which three laws would you like to see introduced that might help you in your work?

  • Increase Massachusetts’ investment in affordable housing. Without housing options, we will continue to see an exodus of the working class from our cities. Affordable housing isn’t a disincentive to working, it makes upward mobility possible.
  • Invest as a nation in universally accessible childcare. We need a significant federal investment in early education so that it is accessible to all families at a reasonable cost. Massachusetts has the highest average cost for childcare of any state in the country, putting tremendous financial pressure on working families. Giving more children access to high quality early education is important so parents can work, and it will also address many of the racial disparities we see in our country. The return on investment in high-quality early childhood programs ranges between $4 and $9 in benefit for every dollar invested in early learning programs for low-income children. When a child has a strong foundation for learning when they first arrive at kindergarten, their life outcomes are substantially improved.
  • Reimburse educators receiving subsidies based on capacity, not daily enrollment. Currently in Massachusetts, the state reimburses providers as if they were a variable cost business while 85% of the cost of early education is fixed. If a child is absent we don’t get paid. Providers bear the brunt of the challenge as we can’t send a teacher home because a child was sick or eliminate the cost of that child’s seat, meals or other supports because they are absent. If providers were paid properly like other state infrastructure investments, it would allow us to compensate our teachers at higher and more appropriate levels.

I know that this is not easy work. What keeps you going?

I had many opportunities as a child to overcome my challenges. Why should I receive that when so many others don’t? I want to do everything I can, personally and professionally, to make sure that other children have access to a childhood that sets a strong foundation to make the next generation better than the last. Children are our future and they all deserve the opportunity to thrive.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

Well, I have at least two. One thing people asked me was why, at my age, did I want to work this hard? I guess I wish I had really listened to them and understood how all-consuming this work really is, but I have no regrets. Working for the benefit of others gives me deep personal satisfaction.

Also, I was not aware when I first discussed the CEO opportunity that the strategic plan included building a huge new facility that would bring all our programs together under one roof — for which I had no background or experience. We figured it out, and, if I can say, did a brilliant job with a center that brings to life a shared vision that will address our little corner of the world with excellence. What has made this a success is something that I learned in the private sector and have frequently used successfully — understand your weaknesses and hire experts when you need them. I have surrounded myself with many gifted people who are experts at what they do — my job is just to get out of the way and let them do their magic.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :–)

To pay all workers in this country a living wage and encourage more creation of affordable housing, even if that means building tiny houses in our urban environments. All people deserve to have a place to call their own even if it is tiny — it’s a place to call home. During this pandemic, I think most of us have recognized, more than ever before, what a refuge home is and should be.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Because we traveled a great deal in my childhood, I learned how hard it was to be the one that did not quite ‘fit in.’ I was the person who looked different, or was the new kid, or the outsider. This experience taught me to always emphasize inclusivity — inviting all to the table or the discussion and valuing the diversity they bring. You have a richer life experience if you surround yourself with the many, not the few.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I think it would probably be Barack Obama — I have always found him a rather extraordinary human. His priorities are the same as my priorities in many cases and I liked the way he managed his time and interests while in office. He focused on the right issues such as universal healthcare — it’s always been a no brainer to me, the country needed it and it’s helped a lot of families that are in poverty.

How can our readers follow you online?

I’m always connecting and interacting personally on LinkedIn and can be reached there or on Twitter.

  • LinkedIn: Kate Barrand
  • Twitter: @KateBarrand

Make sure to also follow Horizons on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter where we share stories about our work and the families it touches.

  • Facebook and Instagram: @horizonsforhomelesschildren
  • Twitter: @HHCTweets

This was very meaningful, thank you so much!

Heroes Of The Homeless Crisis: How Kate Barrand of Horizons for Homeless Children is helping to… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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