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Child Homelessness in America

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Child Homelessness in AmericaThe National Center on Family Homelessness (NCFH) studies and reports on the phenomenon, including its causes and consequences. On March 10, 2009, it launched a Campaign to End Child Homelessness, and on the same day released "America's Youngest Outcasts: State Report Card on Child Homelessness." It discovered one in 50 homeless children annually (about 1.5 million), saying it's dedicated to ending the problem - now even greater than during the timeline of the study, largely preceding the current economic crisis.

Whether homeless "by economic hardship, domestic violence," war, or other reasons, affected families lose more than homes. They lose health, safety, and the ability to support themselves, their children especially impacted.

Data from 2005 - 06 was the most complete available for the report. Selected 2007 - 08 data was used when possible, including for minimum wage and Fair Market Rent. The last National Survey of Children's Health was completed in 2003.

Though perceived as an urban issue, rural homelessness is some of the most hidden - complicated by limited access to services, transportation, and affordable housing. Some families move in with relatives or friends. Many others find shelter in abandoned shacks, vehicles, campgrounds, or dilapidated structures on private land. Overall, an estimated 9% of homeless people are rural. Their lower visibility, however, "suggests that this subgroup is not fully represented (in the study) and may contribute to a significant undercount."

NCFH states:

"It is unacceptable for one child in the United States to be homeless for even one day." What does it say about a nation willing to bail out criminal bankers, but won't address "our smallest, most vulnerable citizens."

Its study updates an earlier 1999 one, showing today's problem is worse. It covers the status of homeless children in four categories:

  • "extent of child homelessness;
  • child well-being;
  • structural risk factors; (and)
  • state-by-state policy and planning efforts."

The long-term effects of economic decline, including joblessness; home foreclosures; rising food, fuel, shelter and medical costs; and dwindling supplies of low-cost housing will severely keep impacting the fate of young children and parents unable to provide proper care - Washington doing nothing to help them.

Definition of Homelessness

Children or youths:

  • "Sharing the housing of other persons due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or a similar reason (like doubling-up);
  • Living in motels, hotels, trailer parts, or camping grounds due to lack of alternative accommodations;
  • Living in emergency or transitional shelters;
  • Abandoned in hospitals;
  • Awaiting foster care placement;
  • Using a primary nighttime residence that is a public or private place not designed for, or ordinarily used as, a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings;
  • Living in cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, substandard housing, bus or train stations, or similar settings; and
  • Migratory children who qualify as homeless because they are living in circumstances described above."

In addition, most families with homeless people live at 50% of the federal poverty level (FPL) or below, based on US Census Bureau guidelines. Middle-income children affected are in families at up to 400% or higher of the FPL.

The Consequences of Homelessness

Homeless children are twice as likely to experience hunger. Two-thirds feel they won't get enough to eat. Over one-third report being forced to skip meals. Homelessness increases illness and the ability to pay for it. "Children who experience homelessness are more than twice as likely as middle class children to have moderate to severe acute and chronic health problems."

They're twice as likely to repeat a grade in school, be expelled or suspended, or have to drop out and be deprived of education during their formative years. "At the end of high school, few homeless students are proficient in reading and math - and their estimated graduation rate is below 25%."

Yet with enough federal, state and local funding, child homelessness could end in a decade. Instead, it's increasing because Washington ignores it. States aren't doing enough - nearly half of them very little.

NCFH's report reviews several state programs with enough "infrastructure and programs needed to turn the tide. At least six states have created extensive plans to combat (the problem), and a dozen (more) have done significant planning."

If them, why not all? Why not a federal program as well? Innovative ones exist with effective ideas, strategies, and plans that work. Implementing them is the challenge, but too little is being done. Without them, "It is virtually impossible to reclaim the life of a child who has spent his (or her) childhood without a home....Failure to house one child for even one day represents an unacceptable societal failing."

Yet, from 2.3 - 3.5 million Americans experience homelessness at least once a year. They include single adults (some "chronically homeless"), unaccompanied youths (including runaways), and families with children.
NCFH's report covers the latter group, comprising over one-third of the homeless, a number steadily growing.

In any year, around 97% of homeless children have moved. One-fourth or more witnessed violence, and 22% were separated from their families. About half of school-age homeless children experience anxiety and depression, another 20% of pre-schoolers have emotional problems requiring professional care.

Homeless Subgroups

Single adults comprise about half of the population, the majority being male. Thirty-seven percent of single adults have been homeless three or more times as adults, and over one-third homeless for over 25 months. Twenty-three percent are veterans. More than 20% experienced homelessness as children.

Homeless single adults face problems of street violence, hunger, illness, social isolation, and challenging outdoor living in extreme cold or heat without enough protection or access to showers and bathroom facilities. Traumatic stress usually follows, including mental illness and addictions. Nearly 70% report using alcohol and/or drugs, or having had mental problems in the past 30 days. Many have poor education and job skills.

From "575,000 to 1.6 million unaccompanied youth(s) are on the street and in shelters annually in the United States," sometimes called runaways. They're young, unattached to families, and aged 16 - 22. Family conflicts and violence, including child abuse, drove them away. From 20 - 40% are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, "questioned, intersex, or two-spirited, and their coming out often leads to being kicked out of their homes or physically assaulted." Vulnerable and on their own, they're seven times more likely to become violent crime victims.

Families with children comprise 34% of the homeless, 84% female-headed. The average single mother is poorly educated, in her late twenties with two young children. Nearly all have histories of severe violence. Over one-third have post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), triple the general population rate. More than half experience depression, and 85% report a previous depressive episode.

Around 41% resort to alcohol and/or drugs, twice the general population rate. They're also affected by health problems. Over one-third have chronic asthma, bronchitis, and/or hypertension. Their children suffer as a result.

Rating the States

Each got a score from one through 50 based on a composite performance on:

  • child homelessness;
  • their well-being;
  • risk for child homelessness; and
  • state policy and planning efforts.

States were then ranked from best to worst as follows:

  • Connecticut
  • New Hampshire
  • Hawaii
  • Rhode Island
  • North Dakota

Note about North Dakota:

It's the only state with a state-owned bank, able to generate strong internal growth - why it's the only one showing a budget surplus, last year the largest in its history that let it increase, not decrease, benefits for its residents while virtually all other states cut theirs.

North Dakota also has the lowest unemployment rate in the country at around 4% and added jobs throughout the crisis. At issue, of course, is why don't other states operate the same way and be as prosperous as North Dakota. Effective policy is key, not state size.

The other states from best to worst are:

  • Minnesota
  • Wisconsin
  • Massachusetts
  • Maine
  • Vermont
  • Iowa
  • South Dakota
  • Illinois
  • Pennsylvania
  • West Virginia
  • New Jersey
  • Virginia
  • Maryland
  • Delaware
  • Ohio
  • Wyoming
  • Alaska
  • Idaho
  • Tennessee
  • Washington
  • Oregon
  • Missouri
  • Kansas
  • Michigan
  • Indiana
  • Oklahome
  • Alabama
  • Montana
  • Nebraska
  • Colorado
  • Arizona
  • Utah
  • New York
  • South Carolina
  • California
  • Mississippi
  • Kentucky
  • Florida
  • North Carolina
  • Nevada
  • Louisiana
  • New Mexico
  • Arkansas
  • Georgia
  • Texas

Other rankings were made for child well-being and risk of child homelessness. For policy and planning efforts, states were scored either "extensive, moderate, inadequate, or early stages," the rankings changing for each category on their programs for housing, income, food security, health, and education.

Reported data also showed one in 50 homeless children (2% of the national total), but 11% of children live in poverty. The numbers exclude youths living without their families, so real child homeless rates are higher.

Also, 75% of identified homeless children are in 11 states. In 20 others, they comprise less than 1% of the child population.

Based on population size, states ranked worst were Texas, California, Louisiana, Georgia, and Florida. Best were Rhode Island, Wyoming, Vermont, North Dakota, and South Dakota.

The US Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) is developing the first ever "Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homeless," presented to Congress in May 2010, but in a retrenchment mode won't be effectively implemented, if at all.

It states it "will serve as a roadmap for joint action by Council agencies to guide the development of programs and budget proposals towards a set of measurable targets. (It will) reflect interagency agreement on a set of priorities and strategies the agencies will pursue over a five-year period," and will encourage states to develop their own plans based on the federal model. Given their dire conditions, expect little accomplished beyond lip service at a time budget cutting is top priority.

NCFH Recommendations

  • allocate $10 billion for National Housing Trust Fund for two years to rehabilitate or build 100,000 rental homes for the lowest income households;
  • provide $3.6 billion for 400,000 new housing units for two years;
  • Budget $2 billion for the homelessness prevention component of the Emergency Shelter Grant for two years;
  • devote one-third of housing program resources for homeless families or ones at risk;
  • protect in jeopardy renters in properties in or facing foreclosure by requiring banks and other mortgage holders to approve affordable loan modifications;
  • provide $210 million for Subtitle B of title VII of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act;
  • ensure that the proposed $2 billion for the Emergency Shelter Grant goes for trauma-informed services for children and families;
  • spend $3 billion for child care vouchers for at risk children;
  • allocate more funding to produce jobs and develop the workforce;
  • expand TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families);
  • increase the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps);
  • fund $175 million to comply with the Violence Prevention and Services Act;
  • fund $717 million annually for the Victims of Crime Act;
  • require the federal Interagency Council on Homelessness (ICH) to make child and family homelessness a high priority, not a rhetorical one; and
  • coordinate ICH with congressional committees on homelessness.

States should place homeless families in permanent housing, not motels; keep homeless children out of foster care; enroll eligible families in Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance, and WIC (supplemental nuitrition for women, infants and children); pay for stabilization services for families exiting shelters to keep them housed; and make homelessness a priority at a time of great urgency.

Overall, NCFH wants quick administration and congressional action to end this growing crisis. We must "muster the public and political will" to do it. Fundamentally, the problem is affordable low cost housing. Assuring it is a core solution, along with jobs, education, health care, family preservation, hunger elimination, violence prevention, and lawmakers caring enough to act. "Only then can we end child homelessness." It will take a coordinated federal, state and local effort with committed federal funding to help.

Final Thoughts

At a time banker bailouts and imperial wars take top priority, expect little from our nation's lawmakers, short of grassroots pressure to force them. Even then, having America care again faces long odds. As a result, the outlook for disadvantaged kids and adults looks grim, their numbers sure to grow when no one in government cares, social benefit cuts are planned, and most people don't know the kind of future they'll face or for their kids. Most likely, it will be too little, too late when they find out America isn't America anymore, if it ever was.

While better under New Deal/Great Society programs, it was always a "democracy for the few" (the kind Michael Parenti explained), never dedicated to beneficial social change, especially for the nation's poor and disadvantaged, always most cheated and least able to cope.

Will this time be different? Unlikely, despite NCFH's efforts to explain the problem and recommend sensible solutions, ones a true democracy would implement. Not in America. Not now. Not planned. Perhaps never in a nation caring only about wealth and power, not its people. For most, one no longer fit to live in.


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