15 February 2010

Number of Homeless Families and Children on the Rise in US: National Disgrace

Homeless. What image comes to mind? There’s the dirty old woman in tattered clothes who hunkers down on the sidewalk outside my office. She mumbles unintelligibly to no one in particular and smokes cigarillos. She’s known to verbally assault anyone who makes eye contact, so I don’t.

There’s the self-identified Viet Nam vet on the corner of the Interstate exit ramp holding a handmade sign in one hand and a fifth of Jack Daniels in the other.

Those two are easy to peg as homeless.

Certainly mental illness and substance abuse play a major role in the issue. But the truth of the matter is that the homeless come in all packages. It’s not as easy to peg the cute kid who sits next to my daughter in kindergarten as homeless.

Most homeless are hidden from view – in cardboard camps like the one in the woods behind the big box stores out University Drive between Durham and Chapel Hill, otherwise a shining example of capitalism a-flourishing. Or the ones bouncing from one temporary shelter to another or to the houses of classmate to classmate - perhaps never sleeping out in the cold, but homeless nevertheless.

The ranks of the homeless include hard-working families living paycheck to paycheck when the paychecks stop coming for some reason.... and runaway teens and displaced immigrants, and social renegades. And battered women and their young children with nowhere to turn. There are those who find themselves in such dire straits because of a lifetime of bad choices and others through no fault of their own.

There are those who will get their lives back together with a little help and others who will die on the streets.

They all deserve another chance.

The most tragic victims of homelessness are children, who make up about 27% of the homeless population, according to estimates recently reported by the National Center on Family Homelessness (NCFH). An alarming 1.5 million children (or 1 out of every 50 children in America) are homeless, which is unconscionable in a nation as prosperous as the US.

Families with children are now the fastest growing sub-group among the homeless population; they account for about 40% of the people who become homeless each year. About 50% of America's homeless women and children are running from domestic abuse.

The effects of the economic downturn – including increasing numbers of foreclosures, job losses, rising food and fuel prices, and inadequate supplies of low-cost housing – will surely add to the numbers of children and families among the ranks of the homeless.

Homeless Children More Likely to be Hungry, Sick and Underachieve in School

Not surprising: children without homes are twice as likely to experience hunger as other children; two-thirds worry they won’t have enough to eat; more than one-third report being forced to skip meals.

Homeless children are more than twice as likely as middle class children to have moderate to severe acute and chronic health problems.

They are twice as likely as other children to repeat a grade in school, to be expelled or suspended and to drop out of school. The graduation rate among homeless children is less than 25%.

Not only do homeless children lack basic shelter, but they also suffer from a lack of safety, comfort, privacy, a sense of routine and normalcy, adequate health care, sustaining relationships, and a sense of community. These factors combine to create a life-altering experience that inflicts profound and lasting scars.

Ultimately, homelessness is a death sentence. The average age of death for individuals living without shelter is 48 years. That’s about a 30-year shorter life expectancy than the average American.

Like most social ills, the issues surrounding child homelessness are complex. Solutions aren’t easy to find, but they do exist.

In its America’s Youngest Outcasts: State Report Card on Child Homelessness, the NCFH suggests that it is possible to “end child homelessness within a decade” but only if it becomes a national priority.

The Report provides a number of recommendations for federal and state governments which should be implemented right away.

According to the report, at least six states have created extensive plans to combat child homelessness, and a dozen additional states have done significant planning. We should learn from the states that are successful and replicate what works everywhere else.

For me, stable shelter should be considered a basic human right and among the nation’s most urgent priorities. If we fail to act, the consequences will play out for years to come as a generation of lost children grows to adulthood.

Government alone can't solve the problem of homelessness (and shouldn't be expected to).  It should, however, recognize the issue as a crisis and assert the political will to solve it.  Other sectors should follow: corporate, faith, media, nonprofits, education, entertainment and individuals from all walks of life.

The outpouring of support following the recent earthquake in Haiti once again demonstrated America's generosity and desire to lend a helping hand during times of crisis, which is inspiring. Still, there are children and families in every large and small city across the US struggling to survive, as well.

As you read this, I urge you to agree with me that it is unacceptable for even one child in the United States to be homeless for even one day. Each of us must take the actions necessary to end this national disgrace.

Homeless family living in a car - flickr