America’s Youngest Outcasts—The Report Card of Child Homelessness, released this week by the National Center on Family Homelessness, documented that a staggering number of children experience homelessness annually---2.5 million or one out of thirty. Why are the numbers so large and dramatically increasing?
The Report Card discussed the combination of factors that lead to homelessness.
Poverty sets the stage for homelessness in America. An estimated 45 million people were living at or below the federal poverty level in 2013. Imagine being a single parent with two children and trying to survive on an income of $19,530. How would you manage to pay rent, buy food, and have adequate transportation? Almost half of these families (an estimated 20 million) are among the “poorest of the poor” –people living at 50% or less of the federal poverty level. This group’s average income is $11,157 for a family of four—translating into a weekly family budget of $215.
Lack of affordable housing causes low-income families to play musical chairs with dwindling numbers of available units. As the National Low Income Housing Coalition reported, nowhere in our country can a family earning minimum wage and working a 40-hour week afford a two-bedroom apartment. With the unavailability of both adequate housing and subsidies (and very long waiting lists), combined with more and more people in poverty, low-income families are at high risk of homelessness. Many families are living in precarious circumstances—one paycheck or illness –away from the streets.
The 2007 Great Recession is another factor that has contributed significantly to the spike in numbers that we are witnessing. The Recession represented the deepest downturn in the labor market in the postwar era. Many families were unable to meet mortgage payments, leading to high numbers of foreclosures and personal bankruptcy. Between 2007 and 2009, the numbers of renters with “worst case housing needs” jumped by 20% --from 5.9 to 7.1 million. More families doubled up with families and friends, and many joined the pool waiting for affordable housing.
Within this context, the challenges of single parenting are compounded. Homeless families are typically headed by women parenting alone. With sole childrearing, homemaking, and breadwinning responsibilities, they have few resources to survive in the community. As the Report Card describes: “some single mothers survive with the help of kin and non-kin supports, but with the lack of affordable housing, the explosion of violence and drug abuse, collapse of institutional supports in many inner-city neighborhoods, and lack of education and flexible jobs that pay livable wages, they find themselves isolated and in desperate circumstances” (p.78).
Racial disparities run through American life, also contributing to homelessness. Minority families, especially those who are Black, are overrepresented in the shelter population. A 2010 study found that while Blacks are three times more likely than Whites to live in poverty, they are seven times more likely to be homeless. Research confirms that the presence of racial disparities across multiple systems, such as housing, education, employment, and health, are associated with structurally rooted discrimination (See part III.D of the Report Card).
Finally, the majority of mothers and children who are homeless have experienced traumatic stress that has contributed to their current circumstances. Many mothers become homeless because they are fleeing abusive partners and have nowhere to go. Traumatic exposure and its mental health consequences—including substance use, high rates of major depressive disorder in mothers, and post trauma responses and their impact on child development—highlight the importance of addressing children’s needs within the context of the parental relationship. Unless housing combined with supportive services are offered to families and children, many of these families will remain residentially unstable. Policymakers, whose role it is to look towards the future, should be especially concerned that many homeless children are below the age of six and have already experienced significant trauma.
Policy makers must be alarmed about the dramatic increase in homeless families and children and act now.
Unless the political will is mobilized to acknowledge and address the needs of these families and children, another generation of children will be lost.