A homeless family at the DC Village shelter. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
More than one-third of Americans who use shelters annually are parents and their children. In 2011, that added up to more than 500,000 people.
According to Joe Volk, CEO of Community Advocates in Milwaukee, prevalent family homelessness is no accident.
“In 2000, we as a nation—and the Department of Housing and Urban Development—made the terrible decision to abandon homeless children and their families,” said Volk, speaking at a Congressional briefing on The American Almanac of Family Homelessness, authored by the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness. “Families for a decade have been ignored.”
As the Almanac makes clear, federal attention and resources have focused instead on chronically homeless single adults—usually the most visible homeless people in communities across the country, most of whom have severe intellectual or physical disabilities. There was a recognition that it is far less expensive to place these men and women in their own apartments with access to social services—called the “Housing First” model—than to continue paying the long-term costs associated with jail time, and recurring treatment at emergency rooms and hospitals.
The federal government’s plan was to use the savings gained by reducing homelessness among single adults to fight family homelessness. But that hasn’t happened.
Since 2007, there has been a 19 percent decline in chronically homeless single adults. In contrast, family homelessness has increased by more than 13 percent over the same period. Matthew Adams, principal policy analyst for ICPH, noted that the number of homeless school-aged children surpassed 1 million for the first time during the 2011-12 school year—a 57 percent increase since 2006-07.
“This is basically all a result of focusing our fiscal and human capital solely on single adults,” said Adams. Despite a rise in extreme poverty, a decline in affordable housing, a shortage of rental subsidies, high unemployment and a foreclosure crisis, this strategy hasn’t changed—with the exception of provisions in the Recovery Act that are now expired.
While the long-term costs of family homelessness are more difficult to quantify than are those costs associated with single adult homelessness, they are nevertheless significant and real (costs to the nation’s character aside).
The Almanac explores the toll that housing instability, poor nutrition and lack of quality health care takes on homeless children: they experience twice the rate of chronic illnesses; twice the rate of learning disabilities; and three times the rate of emotional or behavioral problems as their peers who have stable housing. Homeless children have less than half the rate of proficiency in math and reading as their housed classmates. It’s not surprising that less than one in four homeless children graduates from high school—what’s surprising is that that one child manages to graduate at all.