The following is a compilation of information and direct quotes from the National Center on Family Homelessness, the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, and an article in the Huffington Post by David Crary and Lisa Leff of the Associated Press.
America’s Youngest Outcasts, a new report prepared by The National Center on Family Homelessness, ranks the 50 states on how they are addressing child homelessness from best (1) to worst (50). The number of homeless children in the U.S. has surged in recent years to an all-time high, amounting to one child in every 30, according to the report.
The National Center on Family Homelessness calculates that nearly 2.5 million American children were homeless at some point in 2013. The number is based on the Department of Education’s latest count of 1.3 million homeless children in public schools, supplemented by estimates of homeless pre-school children not counted by the DOE.
Child homelessness increased by 8 percent nationally from 2012 to 2013, according to the report, which warned of potentially devastating effects on children’s educational, emotional and social development, as well as on their parents’ health, employment prospects and parenting abilities.
Carmela DeCandia, director of the national center and a co-author of the report, noted that the federal government has made progress in reducing homelessness among veterans and chronically homeless adults.
“The same level of attention and resources has not been targeted to help families and children,” she said. “As a society, we’re going to pay a high price, in human and economic terms.”
Major causes on child homelessness in the U.S. include: (1) the national’s high poverty rate; (2) a lack of affordable housing across the nation; (3) the continuing impacts of the Great Recession; (4) racial disparities; (5) the challenges of single parenting; and (6) the ways in which traumatic experiences, especially domestic violence, precede and prolong homelessness for families.
Every year, hundreds of thousands of American families become homeless. These families are hidden from our view. They move frequently, and many are doubled-up in overcrowded apartments with relatives or friends. Others sleep in cars and campgrounds or send their children to stay with relatives to avoid shelter life. Once in a shelter, despite the efforts of dedicated staff, life can be noisy, chaotic, and lack privacy. Homelessness increases the likelihood that families will separate or dissolve.
As the gap between housing costs and income continues to widen, more and more families are at risk of homelessness. Even a seemingly minor event can trigger a catastrophic outcome and catapult a family onto the streets.
Families experiencing homelessness are under considerable stress. Homelessness is a devastating experience that significantly impacts the health and well-being of adults and children. Often, members of homeless families have experienced trauma. These experiences affect how children and adults think, feel, behave, relate, and cope.
The report includes a composite index ranking the states on the extent of child homelessness, efforts to combat it, and the overall level of child well-being. States with the best scores were Minnesota, Nebraska and Massachusetts. At the bottom were Alabama, Mississippi and California.
Shahera Hyatt, age 29 and director of the California Homeless Youth Project, was homeless on and off throughout adolescence, starting when her parents were evicted when she was in 7th grade. At 15, she and her older brother took off and survived by sleeping in the tool sheds, backyards and basements of acquaintances.
“These terms like ‘couch surfing’ and ‘doubled-up’ sound a lot more polite than they are in practice,” she said. “For teenagers, it might be exchanging sex for a place to stay or staying someplace that does not feel safe because they are so mired in their day-to-day survival needs.”
Near San Francisco, Gina Cooper and her son, then 12, had to vacate their home in 2012 when her wages of under $10 an hour became insufficient to pay the rent. After a few months as nomads, they found shelter and support with Home & Hope, an interfaith program in Burlingame, California, and stayed there five months before Cooper, 44, saved enough to be able to afford housing on her own.
“It was a painful time for my son,” Cooper said. “On the way to school, he would be crying, ‘I hate this.'”
Executive director Kathleen Baushke, of Transition House homeless shelters in Santa Barbara, said that even after her staff gives clients money for security deposits and rent, they go months without finding a place to live.
“Landlords aren’t desperate,” she said. “They won’t put a family of four in a two-bedroom place because they can find a single professional who will take it.”
She said neither federal nor state housing assistance nor incentives for developers to create low-income housing have kept pace with demand.
“We need more affordable housing or we need to pay people $25 an hour,” she said. “The minimum wage isn’t cutting it.”
The new report by the National Center on Family says remedies for child homelessness should include an expansion of affordable housing, education and employment opportunities for homeless parents, and specialized services for the many mothers rendered homeless due to domestic violence.
But efforts to obtain more resources to combat child homelessness are complicated by debate over how to quantify it.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development conducts an annual one-day count of homeless people that encompasses shelters, as well as parks, underpasses, vacant lots and other locales. Its latest count, for a single night in January 2013, tallied 610,042 homeless people, including 130,515 children.
Defenders of HUD’s method say it’s useful in identifying the homeless people most in need of urgent assistance. Critics contend that HUD’s method grossly underestimates the extent of child homelessness and results in inadequate resources for local governments to combat it. They prefer the Education Department method that includes homeless families who are staying in cheap motels or doubling up temporarily in the homes of friends or relatives.
The bipartisan Homeless Children and Youth Act of 2014 would fix HUD’s definition to include homeless children and youth who have been verified as homeless by its own homeless assistance programs, other federal programs, and public school district homeless liaisons. It doesn’t cost taxpayers a single penny, and it includes no new mandates. The Homeless Children and Youth Act of 2014 will help over one million homeless children and youth lead safer, healthier lives and have a better chance for a brighter future. And it will help to ensure that the federal government’s response to homelessness is based on an honest and accurate understanding of the problem, and by empowering those closest to the problem to design and implement the best local response.
It is easy for you to Take Action on this important legislation by clicking here.