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More Homeless Families Than Ever

Photo of abandoned house. Text underneath reads: "There are 18,600,000 vacant homes in the United States. That's enough for every homeless person to have six."

According to figures from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, nearly 240,000 people are estimated to be homeless in families, which accounts for just over 40% of the homeless. In terms of child-rearing, that adds up to an awful lot of parents who don’t have the luxury of worrying about preventing a child’s obesity with nutritious home-cooked meals served at a regular time, with the family gathered around the table. They don’t have a table, or a kitchen, or very much choice about what their kids eat. Also, it adds up to an awful lot of kids who don’t have a safe, quiet place to sleep after listening to a softly read bedtime story, or even a safe, quiet place to do their homework assignments.

Another set of numbers reckons that there are over a million homeless students across the country. A lot of kids are not getting an equal chance to make something of their lives, and there is an additional wrinkle. As Sanya Dosani reported for Al Jazeera, more than half of the people experiencing homelessness in America do not live in big cities.

Suburban and rural homeless populations are often invisible to local residents and lawmakers, experts say, so social programs are scarce and funding isn’t a priority…. The neglect of homeless youth in suburban and rural swaths of the country is most dangerously apparent in schools.

Sometimes the needs of homeless rural students are met, thanks to the McKinney-Vento Act. It allows attendance at the school a child went to before becoming homeless, so you find such makeshift (and expensive) arrangements as a child being taken by taxicab to a school in a nearby town.

Leaving aside all the other problems of homelessness that impact a child’s ability to learn, there is the social stigma. When I was in grade school, my hometown, Niagara Falls, was the site of a massive hydroelectric project that drew construction workers from all over the country. Their children enrolled in the local schools. Except for being nomadic, these were ordinary families. They had homes, albeit on wheels. Each family had a mother, and a father with a car and a good job. But the kids who “belonged” avoided the trailer kids. It’s hard to imagine how much more isolating it must be for children who live in shelters with parents who can’t find jobs, and certainly not jobs that pay living wages.

In Little Rock, Ark., the local school district teaches around 500 homeless students, and many of their needs are paid for not by tax dollars but through private funding and grants. Pulaski County Special School District Superintendent Dr. Jerry Guess says:

Arkansas requires every school district in the state to have a homeless liaison. [A typical school] has backpacks for each of the homeless children to take home each weekend that gets packed with food. The school has clean clothes for the children as well.

Georgia Mjartan, director of Our House, says:

Arkansas is ranked third worst in the nation for child homelessness for a number of reasons…. No one in this state when they think about homelessness thinks about a beautiful little baby or a teenager who’s going to school, who’s studying for the ACT.

In Cincinnati, Ohio, Laura Tolbert, a military veteran who, with her husband and two small children, had been couch-surfing for almost a year, told a Fox News reporter:

When you have kids, if you are a good parent, you will do everything that you can not to show your child that something is wrong…. [You] try to make them think that everything is normal and everything is fine and let them have a great life and childhood because you only get to be a child one time.

After this family landed in a shelter run by the local Interfaith Hospitality Network, a re-housing program placed them in an apartment where their rent will be paid for up to six months as they establish themselves, as if they are magically going to find jobs that pay living wages. However, compared to what other families are going through, this was incredible good fortune — like 1-in-5 luck. Kevin Finn, director of Strategies to End Homelessness, says:

The reality is that only about 21 percent of the families that reached out for shelter last year were actually able to come into a shelter…. It’s not at all uncommon for a homeless child to change schools six or even eight times in one academic year which means they are perpetually behind…. Three out of every ten, 30 percent of our homeless population are children.

Reactions?

Source: “Rise of homeless families,” AlJazeera.com, 12/09/13
Source: “Growing Up Homeless in Suburbia,” AlJazeera.com, 03/27/14
Source: “Arkansas struggling with homeless children population,” KATV.com, 05/20/14
Source: “Homeless children: One local family’s struggle to overcome poverty,” Fox19.com, 05/07/14
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Homeless Kids, Parents, and Schools

sign reading "how many homeless families does it take to make a billionaire"

“The new face of homelessness is a kid under 18 years old.” So many people have noticed this that the quotation can’t even be attributed. Many families, even with one or both parents working, can’t make enough money for a place to live. The number of homeless American children in grades K-12 cannot be exactly known, for many reasons.

However, officials believe that more than half of them are in the elementary grades. Older kids who don’t want to reveal their condition to the authorities become part of not only the “invisible homeless,” but the uncounted homeless. The tendency of some older kids, and even of some parents, to conceal their homelessness is described by euphemisms like “underreporting” or having “reporting issues.”

Not long ago, Al Jazeera America published a guest blog titled “Living in the cycle of homelessness,” written by 33-year old Julia Cooley, mother of a 4-year-old son. They have been homeless for three years despite Cooley’s employment as a teacher’s assistant, but she still holds self-sufficiency as a goal. Cooley writes:

Self-sufficiency is defined as the ability to provide for yourself without the help of others. I could not provide for me or my son. My family was in no position to help us financially or to provide housing…. I needed stable housing, childcare for my son, and a job. (In that order.)

A friend told her about Our House, an Atlanta agency that offers free childcare, help with transportation, medical services, a childcare training program for parents, and housing referrals — and while this small family still doesn’t have a place of its own, the possibility exists more strongly than ever before.

Al Jazeera also published a story, by Azmat Khan & Lori Jane Gliha, about the tragic case of 8-year-old Relisha Rudd, who disappeared from a Washington, D.C., homeless shelter where she lived with her mother and three younger brothers. She was apparently taken by a man who worked there, who later was found dead, and Relisha is still missing. There has been a great deal of controversy over who was at fault. Terrible as the story is, it has drawn attention to the massive number of children who are experiencing homelessness in the nation’s capital:

According to the Fiscal Policy Institute, a Washington think tank focused on low-income populations, the number of families staying in D.C. shelters increased from more than 400 to more than 700 in the last year…. Advocates say the surge in homelessness in Washington isn’t just putting pressure on homeless families, but is also pushing the city to cut corners.

Even with the occasional statistical fluke that makes the numbers go down, the overall picture nationwide is dismal. There are more homeless children and less money to help them. Or is that the main problem? TakePart.com, in a story accompanying a photo essay called “The 10 Worst States for Student Homelessness,” reveals the astonishing fact that out of the nation’s 15,000 school districts, only 3,000 have applied for government grants available under the McKinney-Vento Act. On the bright side:

Many schools already have homeless education coordinators, and more districts are hiring them. These educators help students access what many of us consider life basics — a pair of shoes, a shower, and even a prepaid phone for safety. There are more than 15,000 of these liaisons in schools in the United States.

A child might be living in a place with no running water or electricity, and may not have access to a TV, and almost certainly doesn’t have a computer to work with. In fact, there might not even be a flat surface with a chair in front of it to do homework.

A lot of Americans are accustomed to thinking of homelessness as an urban problem, but more than half of all homeless people live outside of big cities. This can make their lives more difficult in many ways, including complications with getting the kids to school. According to the McKinney-Vento Act, children must have transportation provided to the school they were enrolled in before they became homeless.

Caught between the devil and the deep blue sea

When homes are lost and parents have to move their families into shelters or worse, they face the choice of putting each child through the trauma of starting at a new school, or putting themselves and the kids through the daily trauma of traveling to and from the school of the child’s last enrollment. Sometimes the district doesn’t have funds and the parents have to figure out the transportation. Some kids spend hours on buses every day.

To try and make sure that any child who needs help gets it, teachers are told to watch their students for signs like carrying a lot of belongings; not wanting to leave a coat where it might go missing; acting like they haven’t gotten any sleep; wearing the same clothes; and lack of hygiene. Sadly, it’s a danger sign when kids like getting to school early, or when they hang around after hours for the social atmosphere and to avoid having to return to a chaotic living situation. For many kids, school is their hold on stability and normalcy.

Reactions?

Source: “Living in the cycle of homelessness,” AlJazeera.com, 12/11/13
Source: “Are We Doing Enough to Protect Homeless Children?” AlJazeera.com, 03/27/14
Source: “The 10 Worst States for Student Homelessness,” TakePart.com, 12/08/13
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Head Trauma, Homelessness, and Crazy

elderly homeless woman

Scientists studied men from a homeless shelter in Toronto to discover each person’s history of head injuries. They interviewed the participants (ages 27 to 81) using the standardized Brain Injury Screening Questionnaire. The team’s own report said:

Demographic information and detailed histories of brain injuries were obtained. Participants with positive and negative screening results were compared…. A positive screening result was significantly associated with a lifetime history of arrest or mental illness and a parental history of substance abuse.

Almost half of the participants had suffered traumatic brain injury (TBI), which can even lead to seizures. Among them, these numbers relating to the precipitating incident were recorded:
— assault, 66%
— sports or recreation, 44%
— vehicle accident, 42%
— fall, 42%

Since those percentages add up to well over 100%, obviously many individuals have fallen prey to more than one head injury. Usually, the first time was in childhood, possibly as a result of being raised by parents who were substance abusers, which showed up as a positive correlation. In men who were under 40, the most prevalent cause of neurotrauma was falling because of alcohol or drug blackouts. For those over 40, sadly, assault was the most common cause. The researchers also found that 87% of the injuries happened before the participants became homeless.

Corroboration

That research team was led by Jane Topolovec-Vranic, Ph.D., a clinical researcher in the Neuroscience Research Program of St. Michael’s Hospital. Meanwhile, another research project was in progress — the Health and Housing in Transition Study, conducted by Dr. Stephen Hwang of the Centre for Research on Inner City Health. Dr. Hwang collected data not only in Toronto but in Vancouver and Ottawa as well. Among his subjects, the incidence of TBI was seven times higher than in the general population.

An attorney who represents accident victims wrote:

[T]he victims of traumatic brain injuries so often have the potential to suffer longer than almost any other group. TBI victims frequently experience problems such as loss of memory, loss of cognitive function, physical impairment and personality changes or disorders. In simple terms, a person who suffers a traumatic brain injury may never be the same after the accident…. While a TBI may result in serious problems, the problems are almost always made worse if the victim cannot afford good medical care.

In Austin, Texas, House the Homeless conducted a health survey of 501 participants, which revealed that 83 had suffered a brain injury; 45 had experienced at least one seizure; 70 had a history of panic attacks; 175 reported themselves as mentally ill; and 330 said they sometimes need to stop and rest before they can continue walking to a destination.

Richard R. Troxell fought for years to exempt disabled people, including those with TBI, from being charged a $500 fine under Austin’s No Sit/No Lie ordinance. With disability credentials, a homeless person is allowed to sit for 30 minutes to recover strength, and in extreme weather (over 100 degrees) any homeless person is permitted the grace of being able to sit or lie for a while. House the Homeless got the new rules written into the Police Procedures Manual and published small laminated versions of the rules for distribution to people experiencing homelessness.

This may sound like a trivial issue, but think again, and answer the Bonus Question: Which is more crazy — a homeless person with TBI, or a city that has spent over a quarter of a million dollars to prosecute one individual for violating a No Sit/No Lie ordinance? From Los Angeles comes the ludicrous story of how 59-year-old Ann Moody has been arrested 59 times and spent a total of 15 months in jail, mostly for sitting. The Los Angeles Times quoted Moody: “We’re human beings, not to be pushed around like cattle. We have a right to be stationary.”

Reactions?

Source: “Traumatic brain injury among men in an urban homeless shelter: observational study of rates and mechanisms of injury,” CMAJOpen.ca, 04/25/14
Source: “Almost half of homeless men had traumatic brain injury in their lifetime,“ ScienceDaily.com, 04/25/14
Source: “Homeless Men Have High TBI Rates,” May 2014
Source: “Homeless Grandmother Arrested 59 Times for Sitting on Sidewalk,” DemocraticUnderground.com, 05/02/14
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Statistics and Homeless Students

Uto Elemenary School

Here are some samples from the mystifying patchwork that answers the question of how many children are experiencing homelessness in the United States. Some sentences just give numbers from various cities, while others include interesting details, and the sources for those are in the end notes.

● 2010, Pennsylvania — 31,386 homeless children, an increase of 46% (nearly double) from the previous year. Ralph da Costa Nunez wrote:

To put this number in context, that is more than the entire University of Pittsburgh student body…. HCEF [Homeless Children’s Education Fund] has joined with U.S. Attorney David J. Hickton, and together they have made addressing the needs of homeless children a priority, shifting the conversation to rightly define childhood poverty and homelessness as a civil rights struggle.

● December 2010, Washington state — 22,000 homeless students, increased from around 14,000 just four years earlier.

● Mid-2012, Miami-Dade County, Fla. — 4,400 homeless students.

● October 2012, Philadelphia — 5,000 homeless students. The Students Without a Home summit identified available resources to increase youth opportunity in accordance with the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act of 1987.

● 2013, Baltimore — 2,800 homeless students, twice as many as five years before.

● 2013, Weld County, Colo. — 800 newly homeless students. After devastating floods, this number was added onto the number of students already homeless because of wildfires and because of the usual reasons that apply anywhere. Ann Schimke wrote:

[T]he district has been spending about $1,000 a day to transport displaced students from temporary quarters to their home schools, in some cases sending buses far afield to pick up students doubled up with relatives or staying in hotels.

● 2013, America — In 10 states, the number of homeless students increased by at least 20%.

● Early 2014, Springfield, Mo. — 727 homeless students.

● February 2014, Bryan Independent School District, Texas — 578 homeless students, up from 316 the previous year.

● February 2014, Washington state — 30,609 homeless students, increased for the sixth year in a row.

● March 2014, Williston, N.D. — 128 homeless students.

● March 2014, Alief Independent School District, Houston — 1,600 homeless students. Shern-Min Chow wrote about kids without an “adequate, stable night time residence”:

Most are constantly moving between relatives and friends…. We have 79 that are in hotels, motels, 50 that are in shelters, around 22 that we do not know and there are roughly 10 that are sleeping in their car, under a tree, they are transient…. Those students still go to school. Free breakfast and lunch on campus, along with gym showers are big draws, but not real solutions…. Directly across the street from Alief Elsik High is one the local apartment complexes that donates or leases units at a discount to homeless students.

● March, 2014, Long Island, N.Y. — over 8,000 homeless students, up from about 2,600 only five years before. NBCNewYork.com quoted an education professional:

Some of the places where we tutor, they don’t have electricity. They don’t even have a light bulb where we can sit a tutor to read with them and do their homework. The problem is a lot more widespread than people understand.

Reactions?

Source: “Pittsburgh: A Model for Addressing Child Homelessness,” HuffingtonPost.com, 05/15/12
Source: “Educational summit about homeless students to be held Friday,” TheNotebook.org, 10/11/12
Source: “Flooding adds thousands of students to district homeless rolls…” chalkbeat.org, 10/04/13
Source: “HISD schools helping homeless students,” KHOU.com, 03/13/14
Source: “Homelessness on Rise Among Long Island Students,” NBCNewYork.com, 03/18/14
Image by Kenta Mabuchi