Kansas needs to give more temporary assistance

By Lisa Mills

As I was waiting at an intersection today, I noticed a depressed and tired-looking woman holding a sign that said “Homeless. Please Help with Food.”

I overheard a man in a group next to me say very loudly to someone, “If she needs food so bad, why is she so damn fat? She’s not homeless.”

I walked up to her and handed her a couple of crinkled dollars I had in my purse. She gave me a warm “Thank You” and a strangely innocent smile.

It doesn’t matter to me whether she is actually homeless or not. What matters is that she felt the need to stand outside and beg for money on a busy street in the cold while people just passed by without even seeing her.

She was probably invisible to most people, who were holiday shopping on a busy Saturday, just trying to get to their next errand as they hurried to their cars.

She had a small dog with her in a cardboard box and what looked like a garbage bag filled with books, clothes and a flowered-print pillow decorated with blue lace.

I don’t know who she is, where she lives or doesn’t live. I don’t know if she dines out lavishly over five-course meals each evening or is really hungry. I don’t know if her situation was the fault of her own or just due to some very bad luck.

The fact is that she was there, and our human paths crossed at this exact time on this earth. And I feel grateful that I am not the one who was there with a cardboard sign, a box, a garbage bag and a thirsty dog.

A few questions

Doesn’t the man who made the rude comment know that many people who suffer from poverty also suffer from obesity and are actually malnourished, since cheap fast foods are extremely high in calories and devoid of any nutritional benefits?

Doesn’t he understand that maybe, just maybe, she might have been mentally ill or challenged in some way and that she was doing whatever she could to survive, at least for today?

Doesn’t he understand that the fact that she was standing there at all and asking for money and food means that she was asking for help in some way, and willing to ask complete strangers?

Doesn’t he understand that not everyone has it easy or even partly easy and that we all end up where we are, and that often there is nothing at all that we can do about it?

It could be you

I have a secret.

I was once very poor and nearly homeless for about six months because I left a bad marriage, taking my daughter with me. I needed help for a short time.

I was very young and I was very scared.

I didn’t end up out on the streets and I wasn’t hungry for food. I didn’t beg and I didn’t even tell anyone. I didn’t even tell my family how bad things had gotten because I was too ashamed and worried that my daughter would be taken from me.

That fear and shame is the stigma of poverty.

But I got through it because I reached out for help from some very kind strangers. I had a “safety net” of persons who helped people in situations like mine.

One of the resources was the Kansas Department for Children and Families. I received temporary assistance as I started a new life with my daughter. It helped us get through a tough time.

I was able to get childcare for my daughter as I found an affordable place to live, a good job and got on with my life.

That safety net is no longer available for vulnerable families in Kansas. So they have to try and get help in other ways.

Kansas has turned its back on poor people

The kind of assistance I got is called "Temporary Assistance for Needy Families" or TANF. The help is just that, cash for help through a brief time that someone needs to get their life on track.

The State of Kansas has made it so difficult to get temporary assistance that only a fraction of the needy can get it now. The TANF money to help people comes from the federal government, but each state can decide how to give it out and to whom.

Kansas says that people should work and that if they get cash from the state, they won’t try to help themselves. Kansas thinks that people will take the money it gives them and just sit around.

They think people will use the money to buy drugs or to gamble. They don’t trust people to use the funds to start a new life or get through some trouble, like I did.

Kansas Action for Children has written a report called TANF:Troubling Trends in Kansas. The report explains what has happened to the TANF program that is supposed to help families through hard times. The report also gives suggestions to the State of Kansas about how it can start helping people again.

Take notice of those around you

Whenever I see anyone asking for help, I take notice—as we all should, because none of us are very far away at all from being that woman I encountered today, or the millions of others who also find themselves in her position.

She is somebody’s daughter, granddaughter and perhaps someone’s mother and sibling.

But what matters is that she is a human being and that she was asking for help, without violence, without anger and without ruining anyone’s precious day.

I hope to see her again one day.

Hopefully next time it will be under better circumstances, and we could even share a cup of coffee together..

We can only hope, and in the meantime, we can help others out whenever we can.


Lisa Mills lives in Kansas with her daughter.

Kansas needs to give more temporary assistance

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