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Community & Behavioral Health | Recovery | Social Change


Changing the Conversation

America’s Homeless Children: Can We Promise Them a Different Future?

11/18/14 01:48 PM | Laura Winn | Families, Youth, Homelessness

This week the National Center on Family Homelessness released A Report Card on Child Homelessness—America’s Youngest Outcasts. They found that one out of thirty children were homeless in our country in 2013 – one out of every thirty. This number is so large it baffles the mind.

I imagine the stress these kids – and their parents – must feel every day. I picture their efforts to finish their homework on car seats or feel like they belong while living on eggshells at a friend’s house. I try to envision how they must process the violence, despair, and grief they see in shelters and precarious housing. I try to imagine what it’s like to be a homeless child, and I can’t.

I haven’t experienced homelessness and can’t pretend to be able to relate to that reality. I did, however, experience insecurities as a young person that does give me some perspective. My parents divorced when I was in middle school and we quickly dropped from comfortable middle class to the poverty line.

When the heat went out that Illinois winter, I slathered on perfumed lotion so the kids in gym class wouldn’t know I was dirty and stood for an hour in my dad’s hot shower when I visited every other weekend. Things improved slightly when we moved to an apartment in high school – there was a glitch in our building, so even though we still didn’t have heat in the winter, we had hot water. Between the warm baths and the space heater in my room, it felt normal enough. Of course sleepovers at my place were off limits in the winter, and I still wince at the shame I experienced when a new boyfriend assumed I was avoiding him when I told him I couldn’t call because my phone had been cut off. There was a month when my sister and I lived with high school friends while my mother tried to find an apartment. But for the most part we still had a stable, if cold, place to live.

[pullquote]I knew this wasn’t my life – it was just a stop along the way to get there.[/pullquote]

What strikes me about those adolescent years is that I always had hope for a better future. Because my family yo-yo’ed through the income levels, I didn’t think of myself as poor. College was always assumed for the future, and I spent hours listing the contents of my dream home with the help of Pottery Barn and Ikea catalogs. I had a job at a local frozen custard stand and spent my paychecks on car insurance, Subway sandwiches, and a wardrobe that help to assure I didn’t look ‘poor.’ My parents both assured me I could do whatever I wanted, and I believed them. I knew this wasn’t my life – it was just a stop along the way to get there.

Hope. This was the key to my experience. Even though no one else in my family had yet graduated college, I had plenty of people around me who had. The insecurities of my childhood were mild enough that the flame of hope and promise still burned. Are the experiences of so many of the children experiencing homelessness today so dark that the fire burns out? What services and supports can we provide so that they know their experience of homelessness can be just “a stop along the way” to a different life, too?

The Report Card on Child Homelessness demands attention. It’s imperative to ask what causes so many kids to be without a home. Then, we must ask what we can do to prevent it.

However, what I’m asking today is: What can we do for those kids who are already in it?

What can we do to minimize their trauma, support their resiliency, and provide hope? How do we help them feel safe and loved when they lay their heads down at night?

I know there are programs out there – parenting supports, travelling tutors, and subsidized, specialized preschool. The availability of these supports is not enough, but it's start. My hope is that supports like these increase in scale and help the 2.5 million kids experiencing homelessness see beyond the days and weeks ahead of them to a brighter future.


Image by Jeff Olivet


Laura Winn

Written by Laura Winn

Laura Pannella Winn is an applied social scientist interested in health care policy and its intersection with substance use, mental health, and homeless services. As an Associate at the Center for Social Innovation, she has led the implementation of many related federally funded research and training grants. She currently serves as the Deputy Project Director of Project Amp, an intervention research project aimed at preventing substance use disorders in adolescents though a brief mentorship with young adults in recovery. Laura received her master’s in social sciences from the University of Chicago. She lives in Chapel Hill, NC with her husband and two children. Her work is informed by a family history of addiction.