A record 2.5 million children were homeless at some point across the United States in 2013. The historic high represents one in every 30 children in the U.S., says a new report released by the National Center for Family and Homelessness.
The 126-page long report titled America’s Youngest Outcasts — authored by Ellen L. Bassuk, Carmela J. DeCandia, Corey Anne Beach and Fred Berman — says the staggering new numbers about child homelessness represent an 8 percent increase over 2012. Nearly half the children are under the age of six. Child homelessness increased in 31 states and the District of Columbia from 2012 to 2013. The report says homelessness among children increased by 10 percent in 13 states and the District of Colombia.
The report identifies six major causes of homelessness for children, including: (1) the nation’s high poverty rate; (2) lack of affordable housing across the nation; (3) continuing impacts of the Great Recession; (4) racial disparities; (5) the challenges of single parenting; and (6) the ways in which traumatic experiences, especially domestic violence, precede and prolong homelessness for families. The report says most of the children come from single parent households, and 20-50 percent of the mothers of homeless children have experienced intimate partner violence, according to the report.
While the problem is most prevalent in Alabama, Mississippi, and California, it exists in every city, county, and state in the country.
The effect of even temporary homelessness may lead to serious mental health issues and affect a child for the rest of his or her life, the report says, adding trauma stemming from residential instability has been shown to interfere with learning and lead to poor cognitive skills and emotional self-regulation.
The impact of homelessness on the children, especially young children, is devastating and may lead to changes in brain architecture that can interfere with learning, emotional self-regulation, cognitive skills, and social relationships. The unrelenting stress experienced by the parents, most of whom are women parenting alone, may contribute to residential instability, unemployment, ineffective parenting, and poor health.
The report doesn’t limit its definition of homelessness to families who are chronically homeless and living on the streets, but also includes children who are doubling up with friends or relatives or staying in cheap motels. This definition is more in line with the one used by the Department of Education, as opposed to the one used by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which only counts people living in shelters and the streets as homeless. By HUD’s last count, there are 610,042 homeless people in the U.S., including 130,515 children.
Child homelessness surfaced in the U.S. as a major social problem in the mid-1980s. Before that time, families and children were rarely homeless in significant numbers except during the Great Depression. Since that time, the number has continued to climb (Bassuk, 2010). Data from three editions of America’s Youngest Outcasts document a steady increase in the number of children experiencing homelessness. While there have been improvements in counting homeless children
over this period, these do not explain the recent increased in number.
The report says more than 45 million people were estimated to be living at or below the federal poverty rate in 2013—a number that remained unchanged from the previous year’s estimate. “This translates into an income of $19,530 for a family of three and to $23,550 for a family of four. For the first time since 2000, the poverty rate for children under 18 years declined from 21.8% in 2012 to 19.9% in 2013.”
An estimated 20 million Americans account for the “poorest of the poor”—people living at 50% or less of the federal poverty level. Comprising about 7% of the U.S. population, this group had an income of $5,570 for an individual and $11,157 for a family of four (Hayden, 2011)— resulting in a weekly family budget of about $215.
The government wants to effectively end homelessness by 2020 and end veteran homelessness by 2015. Broadening HUD’s definition of what constitutes homelessness would make this goal much more difficult to achieve. But critics say HUD’s method ignores millions of children and adults that also lack a stable home and grossly underestimates the national homeless population. This limited recognition results in insufficient resources being allocated to combat the issue.
Solving the problem of homelessness as it is understood by the National Center for Family and Homelessness requires deep structural reforms that attack poverty at its roots. The report’s suggestions to solving child homelessness include providing financial and mental health support for single mothers, investment in safe affordable housing, and the expansion of education and employment opportunities across the socioeconomic spectrum.
Poverty rates are highest for families headed by single women, particularly if they are Black or Hispanic. In 2010, 32% percent of households headed by single women were poor, compared to 16% percent of households headed by single men and 6% of married-couple households (National Poverty Center, 2010). About 22% of all children in the U.S, or about 16 million children, are among the nation’s poorest families (Jiang, Ekono, & Skinner, 2014). While children account for 24% of the U.S. population, they represent 34% of all people living in poverty.
The number has increased steadily over the last few decades and will not lessen until our nation pays attention to this issue, and makes it an immediate priority. We have reduced homelessness among chronically homeless individuals and veterans by targeting additional resources in the form of housing and critical supports. It is now time to include children and families in this effort.
The report says solution to child homelessness with the acknowledgement that children living doubled-up in basements and attics with relatives and friends are homeless and need our help. The next step, it says, is to ensure an adequate supply of safe, affordable housing combined with essential services.
If we continue to look away, this problem will grow worse, and the long-term costs to our society will dwarf the costs of making this issue a priority now. We must mobilize a comprehensive response and pay attention to the millions of children in this country who have no home to call their own—or another generation of children will be permanently marginalized and lost.
Click here to read the complete report.