According to a recent report, 2.5 million children in the United States were classified as homeless in 2013. Uncommon Journalism speaks with Center for Social Innovation founder Dr. Ellen Bussak about the factors leading to child homelessness, and the policy changes she believes are needed to solve the problem.
By: James Swift
Last November, the National Center on Family Homelessness, part of the American Institutes of Research’s Health and Social Development Program, released America’s Youngest Outcasts: A Report Card on Child Homelessness.
Evaluating 2013 data from the United States Department of Education (DOE), researchers determined national child homelessness increased 8 percent from the year before. Thirty-one states recorded increases, with 13 states and the District of Columbia reporting upticks exceeding 10 percent.
In total, the NCFH estimates nearly 2.5 million U.S. children -- approximately half believed to be under the age of 6 -- experienced homelessness during the 2012-2013 school year. The figures represent a nearly 65 percent increase from 2010, when the organization recorded about 1.6 million children as homeless.
NCFH founder Dr. Ellen Bassuk, however, said those results are almost certainly an undercount of the total number of U.S. children who experience at least one week of homelessness throughout the year.
“In many school systems, the way this data is collected is that it’s done on a single day,” she said. “So the kids who aren’t there and the kids who have dropped out aren’t counted.”
Under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, all local-level education agencies are required to conduct annual counts of the number of homeless youths attending public schools.
The DOE uses criteria similar to the definition of homelessness outlined by a version of the McKinney-Vento Act reauthorized in 2009. That definition -- which is also used by the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services, Labor, Justice and Agriculture -- is more expansive than the definition used by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Under the DOE definition, children who lack fixed and adequate nighttime residences or live doubled-up with friends or relatives are considered homeless, as are children living in motels, hotels, cars, public spaces, abandoned buildings, campgrounds, trailer parks and bus stations.
The DOE data may be the most reliable available for child homelessness numbers, but Bassuk said their methodology is not without some faults. Many children, she said, may not self-report being homeless out of shame and others may not even know if their parents are the primary lease holders of their residences.
Further complicating things, she said collection data efforts fluctuate not only from school system to school system, but in terms of state-to-state standards.
“A lot of the liaisons end up being generalists and they are not specifically focused, whereas other schools systems that have a little more resources are,” the Center for Social Innovation founder said. “Across the U.S., the liaisons don’t have standards that are consistent … for example, in Louisiana, there was a tremendous push to identify the number of homeless kids and they have very detailed data, whereas other states have very skimpy reports.”
Which states are the worst for child homelessness?
In America’s Youngest Outcasts, the NCFH assessed all 50 states, ranking them across four domains: the extent of child homelessness, risk for child homelessness, overall child well-being and state policy and planning.
Well-being measured food security, reading and math proficiency and the percentage of children living below 100 percent of the federal poverty line with at least one chronic health condition. Homelessness risk was determined using a litany of data, including the percentage of children living in poverty, foreclosure rates and the hourly wage needed to afford a two-bedroom apartment. Policy and planning rankings were based on total number of emergency shelters, transitional and permanent supportive housing units, as well as whether states have housing trust funds and partnerships with the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH.)
Kentucky was found to have the highest population-adjusted rate of child homelessness in the country, surpassing even New York and California. Despite its relatively small population, Bassuk said a confluence of factors put children in the Bluegrass State at an elevated risk for homelessness.
“Foreclosure rates, the number of children living in poverty, the number of children without insurance and the number of female heads-of-households, they’re all high,” she said. “The state minimum wage is $7.25, which is not a livable wage -- if you were a full-time worker, you could not afford an apartment.”
Tennessee was at the bottom in terms of child well-being, while Arizona was rated the worst for child homelessness risks. Wyoming, ahead of California and Arkansas, was ranked worst in terms of policy and planning.
Factoring in composite scores, the 10 worst-ranked states form a contiguous block across the sunbelt, stretching from the foothills of Appalachia to the West Coast. Alabama was rated the worst overall, followed by Mississippi, California, Arkansas and New Mexico.
While Bassuk attributed California’s poor showing primarily due to its enormous general population, she said there are a host of common factors that led to the other sunbelt states posting such dreary figures.
“The majority of the population that is homeless is African-American,” she said. “There have been a lot of problems with schools, family supports and men having difficulty finding jobs … a lot of these families are female-headed, and the pool of families that become homeless come more from female-headed families.”
In these states, Bassuk said politics are also an undeniable factor.
“It’s a problem across the aisle, but the states that tend not to support poverty programs or impoverished groups of people,” she said, “are republican.”
The factors behind child homelessness
In the NCFH report, researchers listed several major drivers for the uptick in the nation’s child homelessness rate. Both persistently high family poverty rates and a lack of affordable housing units were cited as primary factors.
“In the late 1980s when I began working in the field, I think there were something like one-in-20 families that were female-headed,” Bassuk said. “Now, I think we’re down to one-in-five … the pool of families that are likely to become homeless has just exponentially increased.”
Single mother families, she said, are at greater risk for homelessness than either the disabled or the elderly. Without high school diplomas or professional certifications, she said many moms are forced into low-wage, service industry jobs, oftentimes without childcare vouchers.
Making matters worse, to afford a two-bedroom apartment without subsidies, Bassuk said single moms earning minimum wages would have to work at least two full-time jobs. With the nation’s low-income housing inventory dwindling, she said single moms and their children are at a greater risk for homelessness than ever before.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, she said cities like Indianapolis and Boston had a fairly high number of housing options for lower-income families. However, a lack of renovation initiatives led to a nationwide reduction in affordable units.
“A lot of those units got town down, and many of the old brownstones were gentrified and renovated and became high-rent housing,” she said.
Even in states the performed well on the last report card, Bassuk said a lack of affordable housing remains a serious concern. In her home state Massachusetts, she said the number of homeless families living in motels has “exploded” since last fall’s study.
“We don’t have a national housing authority that will guarantee rehab of these units or guarantee a stock of housing for low-income families,” she said, “all while the number of subsidies [decrease.]”
What are the possible solutions?
In 2010, 19 federal agencies came together to publish Opening Doors: Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness.
A 2013 update to the USICH report shows some improvements, with chronic homelessness dropping by almost 16 percent over the three year window. Furthermore, the report found veteran homelessness decreased by a quarter during the same period
A HUD “point-in-time” evaluation from last October also showed a decrease in family homelessness, with the national rate falling approximately 11 percent from 2010 to 2014. The HUD report, however, did not factor in families living doubled up with friends or relatives or in temporary housing.
The most effective means of getting families off the streets, Bassuk said, is rapid rehousing -- a policy that seeks to move families out of shelters and into fixed housing arrangements as quickly as possible.
The inherent problem, Bassuk said, is that programs of the like are only effective if there is already a large inventory of low-income housing in a service area.
“In many places, there is a limited number of low-income housing available to move people out of shelters,” she said. “Many times, there isn’t a decent stock of affordable housing so you can implement a rapid rehousing policy.”
The same way veteran homelessness was curbed by an increase in housing vouchers, Bassuk said she believes more subsidies are needed to combat child homelessness.
“Some of the states have set up these things called housing trusts that are going to be funded through other sources, like excise taxes, but they are not properly funded anywhere in the country,” she said. “It’s a policy that might work, but what’s needed are more housing subsidies.”
Faced with numerous challenges -- including a lack of transportation and child care services -- Bassuk said single mothers also need additional supports to maintain housing.
“If they are shallow subsidies, they may only cover a short a short period of time, and families who get into trouble are not going to be able to pay their rent after awhile,” she said. “Some deep housing subsidies covering rent for extended periods of time is what’s necessary.”
The ‘package’ response
Throughout the nation, Bassuk said there are many exemplary programs focusing on homeless families. Among the best of the best, she said, are the People's Emergency Center in Philadelphia, the Horizons for Homeless Children program in Massachusetts and Minnesota’s Hearth Connection.
Not only do these programs work diligently to secure housing vouchers for homeless families, Bassuk said, they also incorporate support services for parents and children alike.
“When a family comes into a shelter, the providers should do an assessment to understand the needs of the family, plus their priorities, goals and preferences,” Bassuk said. “While they are in the shelter, and then in transitional programming to get back to housing, what’s really necessary are appropriate parent supports, which include attention to maternal depression.”
Especially important for homeless families, she said, are trauma-informed services.
“The rates of domestic violence are extremely high, as are the rates of physical child abuse,” she said. “In the studies that we’ve done, which have held up fairly well, 92 percent of the mothers have experienced at least one serious traumatic stress in their lives.”
Approximately two-thirds of homeless single moms, she said, have had at least one domestic abuse experience. About a third, she added, enter shelters while fleeing from a violent partner.
While Bassuk said housing vouchers and more low-income units are essential in reducing child homelessness, those aren’t the only things needed to keep families off the streets. Additionally, she said at-risk families require parenting supports, trauma support care and targeted services for children.
“There needs to be a full package of services to support these mothers, so they can go back to school and learn some skills so they can become self-sufficient,” Bassuk said. “At the same time, there have to be support programs for the children that are developmentally appropriate … the supports for a three-year old are going to be far different from the supports for a 12-year-old.”
A wealth of research, Bassuk said, demonstrates the detrimental neurological impact of traumatic stressors, such as homelessness, on the developing child brain.
“The consequences are profound,” she said. “At a certain threshold of stress, the long-term medical and mental health outcomes as adults are terrible.”
The long-term economic outlook for children who spend long periods of their youth without fixed housing, Bassuk said, are especially grim.
“These kids generally don’t finish high school, which sets them up to not be able to earn a living wage," she said. "It perpetuates the cycle of poverty, and perhaps even the cycle of homelessness.”
Uncommon Journalism, 2015.