When was the last time you heard a political talking head say anything about helping homeless families? Probably never. One political party continually demonizes these people, mischaracterizing them as lazy parasites who just want to live off of taxpayer dollars. Shame on these heartless morons because nothing could be further from the truth!
Let’s create a clearer picture about homeless families, the awful impact homelessness has on children and some strategies to address this problem.
Among all industrialized nations, the United States has the largest number of homeless women and children. Not since the Great Depression, have so many families been without homes1. Approximately 1.6 million children (1 in 45), will experience homelessness over the course of a year2. In any given day, researchers estimate that more than 400,000 children have no place to live2. About 45,000 kids show up in homeless shelters each year–unaccompanied by an adult.
Among all homeless women, 60% have children under age 183. A typical sheltered homeless family is comprised of a mother in her late twenties with two children. 79.6% of homeless adult women are in a family, compared to just 20.4% of homeless adult men4. Over 92% of homeless mothers have experienced severe physical and/or sexual abuse during their lifetime; 66% had violent experiences as children; and 44% had some type of out-of-home/foster care placement. Foster care placement has been identified as a childhood “risk factor” that predicts family homelessness during adulthood.
Let’s consider some Myths about Homelessness.
- Homelessness is a long-term condition. Fact, over 50% of people entering homeless shelters leave within 30 days and don’t return. Does that mean they find appropriate permanent housing? Not necessarily.
- Most homeless have serious mental illness – amongst homeless children and families, about 12-15% have mental illness issues.
- Homeless people don’t work. Again, this is untrue. According to the Urban Institute, 50-70% of homeless adults have some type of work, either formal or “off the grid.” Homeless families are generally the working poor, unable to afford adequate housing!
So, why are so many families homeless? Three reasons: Lack of Affordable Housing, Poverty and Domestic Violence.
Housing is a huge problem! In the area of California were my agency serves, the vacancy rate is .6%. In most of the country, working/middle-class families are having difficulty finding affordable housing, let alone those with low incomes. Right now, 5.8 Million units are needed nationally to fill the gap in affordable housing for extremely low-income households. Housing costs have far outweighed wage increases. A full-time worker earning minimum wage cannot afford a one-bedroom unit priced at the Fair Market Rent anywhere in the United States. Nationally, a full-time worker must earn $18.32 per hour to afford a two-bedroom apartment at Fair Market Rent5.
Poverty in America is real. Among the nation’s working families, 10 million are poor6! According to the Annie E Casey Foundation-Kids Data, 17% of all American families with two parents and 34% of all single parent families live below the poverty line. The issue is inadequate wages. In the US, 20% of jobs (24 million) do not keep a family of four out of poverty. By contrast, last year, Wall Street paid out bonuses equivalent to over two times the total earnings of all USA minimum wage earners7! We are paying the consequences of severe income inequality.
Those fleeing Domestic Violence are more likely to become homeless or have a problem finding housing because of their unique and often urgent circumstances. They may lack income; have issues with credit or rental history; have limited, tangible social/community supports; and have limited abilities to enforce and collect alimony and child support payments. Basically, these are traumatized, victims forced into a very challenging situation due to family violence.
Children are the group most negatively impacted by homelessness. The act of being homeless in and of itself, is considered an Adverse Childhood Experience which will have lifelong consequences. The data on the negative impact of homelessness on children is alarming:
- By age twelve, 83% of homeless children have been exposed to at least one serious violent event and are much more likely to exhibit violent, aggressive and/or antisocial behavior8
- Children experiencing homelessness are sick four times more often than other children. They have: four times as many respiratory infections; twice as many ear infections; they go hungry at twice the rate of other children and have five times more gastrointestinal problems9
- Children experiencing homelessness have three times the rate of emotional and behavioral problems compared to non-homeless children9
- 12% of homeless children end up in foster care, compared to 1% of other children9
- Among school-age homeless children, 47% have problems such as anxiety, depression and are withdrawn compared to 18% of other school-age children; and 36% manifest delinquent or aggressive behavior, compared to 17% of other school-age children9
- Children experiencing homelessness are four times more likely to show significantly delayed development. They also have twice the rate of learning disabilities as non-homeless children9
Obviously, homelessness is devastating to children and families which in turn affects all of us. The hard Fact is this: the majority of homeless families want to be self-sufficient and not consume public resources. So, what can be done? A few considerations:
- Join efforts to end the serious wage inequality the majority of Americans are experiencing. Raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour is only a start. But, at that rate, a family of four would still be unable to afford housing! The profits of Corporate America are higher than ever, so should be the salaries of the workers putting them in this status.
- Volunteer with or donate to organizations which are working hard to end family homelessness.
- Nonprofit human services organizations need to emulate what we have done within my organization, the Family Care Network, and begin providing Housing Support Services (HSP), including, Affordable Housing for low income families. The feds have initiated the Rapid-Rehousing program as a start to addressing this critical need. California has an HSP pilot program running, and this needs to be expanded statewide. The Family Care Network has begun purchasing small apartment units and has secured an HSP services contract to begin helping the hundreds of homeless families in our communities. More agencies need to do likewise.
- Become a political advocate for homeless families!
Every family deserves a safe home to live in – let’s create a chorus of concern to make sure this happens.
America’s Youngest Outcasts: (2011). National Center on Family Homelessness, Needham, MA.
Burt, M. et al. America’s Homeless II: Population and Services (Washington, DC: The Urban Institute).
Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress. 2007
National Low-Income Housing Coalition
Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University
Working Hard, Falling Short: America’s Working Families and the Pursuit of Economic Security
Homeless Children: America’s New Outcasts. Newton
National Center on Family Homelessness