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November 10, 2013
Fatherhood Within Reach for Formerly Homeless Men

by Harriet McDonald

Conventional wisdom says that young, poor African-American fathers don't care about their children. Too often, the stereotype goes, they abandon them to single mothers, who struggle to cope on their own.

It's true that the proportion of children raised by single mothers has skyrocketed in poor, urban communities over recent decades, as it has for the population at large. But it is also true that many young African-American men care deeply about their children.

I have been working for 25 years with homeless men in New York City, the vast majority of whom are African-American. I have gotten to know thousands of men whose lives were altered by substance abuse, alcoholism, crime and imprisonment -- and who were essentially lost to their families.

Among the many things that these men have taught me is that when given an opportunity -- when they receive training that leads to a steady job and when through work they gain self-respect - they are eager to re-establish enduring ties with sons and daughters with whom they had all but lost touch.

I have seen repeatedly that when a formerly homeless man is able to get back on his feet, among the first things he wants to do is to repair frayed relationships with his children.

How do we encourage men to be true fathers to their children, especially in minority communities where poverty is most extreme, where hopelessness often trumps possibilities?

Many of these men themselves grew up in extreme poverty and were raised without a father as a consistent, supportive presence in their lives. And many of them are determined to be better fathers than their own fathers were. They often struggle to create strong bonds with youngsters who hardly know them, but the desire to reconnect is remarkably strong and many men persevere until they succeed.

Herbert, 44, is a resident of The Doe Fund's center on Porter Avenue in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn. He has a son who is 21 and a daughter who is 11. He was there when each child was born, but eventually disappeared each time because of struggles with drug addiction.

"I didn't realize how important it was to be part of a kid's life,'' Herbert said. "During my addiction I wasn't part of my son's life. I had my son when I was 18. I was too young. I was in the streets, going to parties.''

Even though he was so young, Herbert said the birth had been planned and his motivation had been clear. "I felt that if I got her pregnant, I thought she'd stay in my life,'' he said.

Instead, he failed to stay in hers. But now, Herbert's life has improved drastically: He is drug-free and performing paid transitional work, and he desperately wants to see his children. He speaks on the telephone with his son, Daishon, who is in college in New Jersey.

"I talk to him every day,'' Herbert said. "That bond, we're trying to get back. I haven't sat down and explained to him the facts of who I am and why I wasn't there with him. But I will and I hope he'll understand.''

It seems likely that he will, because Herbert said Daishon does not appear to be angry with him. The odds are more daunting with his daughter, Kieana, because her mother has not allowed him even to speak with her.

Like many men who grew up in extreme poverty and endured racial bias, Herbert had few opportunities to observe good parenting during his own childhood. His father was an alcoholic who abused his mother. At one point, Herbert's father simply dropped him and his siblings off with a relative and moved on. Herbert grew up in the streets.

Many contemporary fathers who struggle to make a connection with their children carry with them deep anger with their own fathers, either because they were absent or because they behaved badly when they were at home with their families.

It's not surprising that men who cannot get work and are unable to support their families find it difficult to provide their children with emotional support and consistent attention. But that doesn't mean that they don't want to or that they are unable to once given sufficient support themselves.

When men begin to feel self respect, when they are working and staying sober, they want desperately to re-connect with their children.

Michael is one of them. Michael, who is 42, is busy helping to care for his seven-year-old son, Johnathan. After Michael is done with work most days, he picks up Johnathan at school, often bringing him back to the residential center in East Williamsburg to sit in on classes with him.

"I'm in his life more now than I was five years ago,'' Michael said. "I was in and out of incarceration and I didn't see him much. I didn't want him to see me behind bars.''

"I like to spend time with him,'' Michael added. "I keep him around as much as I can, because he's my little boy.''

Then there is Gordon, a bright and promising young man. His son, Jasiah, is almost four. Gordon, who is 28, lived with his son and Jasiah's mother, Ciara, until he was laid off and the family became homeless last year. Gordon said he has missed his son terribly while he's been living at Porter Avenue and working at a paid transitional job. Jasiah and Ciara have been living temporarily with Ciara's mother.

"I miss tucking him in at night,'' Gordon said.

He awakes at 5 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays so he can arrive in time to have breakfast with his son. Then they watch cartoons together. "I'm there every weekend and he knows to expect me,'' Gordon said.

Gordon recently completed his training and was hired to work as a dispatcher. As quickly as he can, he hopes to rent an apartment and be living together again with Jasiah and Ciara.

I have no doubt that he will, like countless others before him.


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