Emergency housing alone will not solve the crisis of record homelessness among children in U.S. schools, says a report released this week. Rather, cross-sector efforts that address underlying causes of homelessness—such as mental illness and inadequate childcare—will be needed to change trend lines in a sustainable way.
As I reported in September, U.S. schools reported a record 1,258,182 homeless students during the 2012-13 school year, a nearly 8 percent increase from the previous year's levels. This week's report, by the American Institutes for Research and the National Center on Family Homelessness, combined that U.S. Department of Education data with census data to determine that there are about 2.5 million homeless children (school- and below-school-aged) in the United States, about one in every 30 children.
Not surprisingly, homeless children documented in past research often struggled in school because they were "more often hungry, sick, and worried where their next meal and bed would come from; they wondered if they would have a roof over their heads at night and what would happen to their families," the report says.
And, just as homelessness has effects that trickle into many areas of a child's life, its causes are often multi-pronged, and extend beyond a temporary financial shortfall, the report says. Homeless families are frequently headed by single mothers who lack the education, child care, transportation, and social supports to find a long-term, stable home for their children, the report says.
"A shockingly high number of homeless mothers experienced interpersonal and family violence—often witnessed or directly experienced by their children. Not surprisingly, many of the mothers had high rates of major depressive disorders, post trauma responses, and anxiety disorders, interfering with their capacity to support their children," the report says.
What's the answer, then?
According to the report, effective responses to child homelessness must include:
• Safe, affordable housing
• Education and employment opportunities
• Comprehensive needs assessments of all family members
• Services that incorporate trauma-informed care
• Attention to identification, prevention, and treatment of major depression in mothers
• Parenting supports for mothers
• Research to identify evidence-based programs and services
The Annie E. Casey Foundation recently released a similar report, which called for a "two-generation approach" to child poverty that addresses the needs of parents while working to help their children flourish.
Schools are increasingly involved in these efforts, through high-profile competitive initiatives like Promise Neighborhoods, which package social and educational supports in "place-based solutions."
And even when educators aren't directly involved in tackling the causes of a child's homelessness, they are often working to address its effects. Through homegrown community schools efforts, schools coordinate services for students through community partners, like food pantries, mentoring programs, and mental health providers. I saw this recently on a trip to Baltimore, where a high school I visited had its own food pantry, a "mindful moments" room for students to clear their minds of stress and work through conflicts, and a vocational training program to help students secure employment after graduation.
How is your state doing?
This week's report includes an index that ranks states based on the extent of child homelessness relative to their overall population; child well-being factors, like food insecurity and standardized test scores; risk factors for family homelessness, like a low minimum wage and high teen birth rates; and the adequacy of the state's policy response, including factors like available housing units and inclusion of children and families in statewide homelessness plans.
The top-ranked states in the index are Minnesota, Nebraska, and Massachussetts. Bottom ranked are California, Mississippi, and Alabama.
Graphic from America's Youngest Outcasts: A Report Card on Child Homelessness.
Title Image by Jeff Olivet