Even before the financial and home foreclosure crisis hit full stride, the number of homeless children in America had reached an alarming level. The National Center on Family Homelessness released a report today that estimates that one in every 50 American children was homeless between 2005 and 2006. That totals roughly 1.5 million kids. While the center provided no previous statistic to compare against that figure, a study conducted with different measures published in 2000 put the total at 1.35 million children living in homelessness each year. The numbers are likely to get worse as the economy continues to decline. “We know the numbers are going to skyrocket,” says Ellen Bassuk, president of the Newton, Mass.-based Center and an associate professor of psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School.
Indeed, a quick survey of the country provides lots of evidence to support those fears. Chicago public school officials report the number of its 405,000 students deemed homeless soared to 11,143 last month from 9,182 in February 2006. School officials in Hillsborough County, Fla., which includes Tampa, have so far counted some 1,700 homeless students — and expect the figure to eclipse last year’s 2,020. Meanwhile, the surge in homeless families has overwhelmed Massachusetts’ shelters, forcing state officials to book motel rooms for the displaced. In January, some 4,600 homeless children were reported in the state’s shelters and motels, up from 3,411 from roughly one year earlier. (See pictures of Americans in their homes.)
According to the new report, the states with the highest number of homeless children in the period studied were Texas (337,105), California (292,624), Louisiana (204,053), Georgia (58,397) and Florida (49,886). The states reporting the smallest populations of homeless children: Wyoming (169), Rhode Island (797), Vermont (1,174), North Dakota (1,181), and South Dakota (1,545). However, the report also ranks the states according to parameters that go beyond their share of homeless children, factoring in, among other things, incidence of such health conditions as asthma and tooth decay. With that framework, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Hawaii, Rhode Island and North Dakota were rated among states that dealt best with the problem overall. At the bottom of the list: Texas, Georgia, Arkansas, New Mexico and Louisiana.
Families with children comprise roughly one-third of the nation’s homeless population. Poverty continues to be a core reason for the crisis, though the aftermath of Hurrican Katrina combined to swell the numbers in Louisiana, Texas and Georgia. Since the 1980s, single mothers have accounted for an increasing share of the homeless population, partly because of increased divorced rates, gender and wage disparities, and the shrinking supply of affordable housing. Officials believe that the current home foreclosure crisis will be adding a new demographic to these statistics: middle-class blacks and Latinos. “It’s families that were living pretty independently, doing pretty well. And, through just one event, it was, like, a domino effect — if one part of the puzzle breaks off, then everything breaks off,” says Michael Levine, who coordinates social work programs for Hillsborough, Fla.’s 206,000-student school system. (See Cleveland’s woes amid the current foreclosure crisis.)
The nation’s states and cities are awaiting an infusion of $1.5 billion from President Obama’s stimulus package devoted to homelessness prevention programs. Those programs will provide short-term rental and mortgage assistance, as well as security deposits and utility bills. A decade ago, the Department of Housing and Urban Development spent barely $1 billion on all of its homeless programs each year.
Still, measuring homelessness is tricky, partly because of varying definitions of what constitutes homelessness. It is especially difficult to gauge homelessness among children, since many teenagers are reluctant to identify themselves as such, and evade formal counts by living independently on the streets or in vacant apartments with friends. This is compounded by the scarcity of housing options for children over age 12, particularly boys, who are typically barred from entering shelters with their mothers. So any gauge merely offers a glimpse at the problem’s severity. The report’s researchers based their analysis on a broad definition of homelessness that included, for instance, children living in shelters, on the streets, or with other relatives, a practice known as “doubling up.” The findings are no less startling: Roughly three-quarters of homeless children are of elementary school age, and 42% are below age six. (See pictures of a diverse group of American teens.)
The consequences of homelessness are profound. Homeless children are twice as likely as other children to be “retained,” or held back, one academic year, or to be suspended or, ultimately, to drop out of school altogether. School districts across the country report a growing share of students who are “highly mobile” — who move multiple times within a school year. With each move, experts say, such students are at risk of falling some six months behind, or more, in their studies. Roughly one-quarter of homeless children have witnessed violence. It isn’t surprising, then, that nearly half of such children suffer from anxiety and depression.
It’s the narrative that Trisha Parker, 19, is hoping to avoid for her infant son. Parker can’t live with her mother, who receives federal housing assistance, and neither can she live with her grandmother in the Chicago suburbs much longer. Parker says she completed training to be a medical technician, but couldn’t find work in the field. She was recently hired as a security guard, earning $11 an hour. But that’s hardly enough to afford even a $600 a month studio apartment. Larger units are beyond her reach. “They want the first and last month’s security deposit” which is, she figures, about $2,000, maybe $2,500. “It really is a lot.”