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Homeless Families on the Rise

children's drawing of mother and child

Imagine that you’re a mother with two kids, one sleeping on a sofa with you, the baby on the floor next to you sleeping in a bureau drawer that your host emptied out for the purpose. You and your kids are taking up space and making noise, causing inconvenience by sharing the bathroom and using the kitchen. In determining eligibility for help, different agencies have their own definitions of what constitutes homelessness. On this topic Saki Knafo wrote for Huffington Post:

The problem is that HUD’s definition leaves out thousands who lack permanent homes — people who sleep on the couches of friends and relatives, or many who live in cramped motel rooms. Before approving aid in these cases, HUD requires proof that their arrangements are very tentative: either documentation of a lack of funds to afford a hotel room for more than two weeks, or confirmation from the friend offering the couch that this setup can not be permanent.

So now, on top of everything else, you have to ask your friend to write a letter confirming that you and your kids will be kicked out soon. Imagine the humiliation involved in such a simple-sounding request. Maybe this is a subject you didn’t really want to bring up, hoping that the kind person sharing the apartment will get used to having extra people around, and prolong the invitation. And about that documentation — a pay stub can show that you have some money, but what verifies that you’re stone broke? How do you prove a negative?

A couple of years ago, the Department of Education guessed that about a million American kids were homeless, but the HUD definition only covered about one-third of them. Early in 2012, legislators in Washington considered H.R. 32, a bill that would expand HUD’s definition — which sounds like a good thing, right? Or maybe not. If a family camping out in a relative’s living room came under the homeless definition and got in line for help, then ultimately there would be less help available for a family in an even worse situation, like living in a car or a condemned building with no heat or water. (At any rate, the bill died.)

One small corner of America

Earlier this year, after the annual census, the total number of people experiencing homelessness in Bakersfield, Calif., was found to have decreased, but a larger proportion of the remaining homeless were children. (Granted, kids might be easier to count because they are supposed to show up for school.) An official told the press that the Bakersfield Homeless Shelter contained parents with as many as 10 offspring, and expressed despair at the challenge of finding permanent housing for such large families. Overall, the shelter was hosting 40 more children than it had in the previous year, and nearly half of those additional kids belonged to just two families.

Never enough

As in a game of musical chairs, someone is always left out. Poverty columnist Greg Kaufmann noted that a third of the Americans who use shelters are families — totaling about 500,000 parents and children each year. He listened to a speech given by Joe Volk, the CEO of Community Advocates in Milwaukee, and came away with the following quotation:

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. Families for a decade have been ignored.

Supposedly, the underlying rationale was to first do something about the homeless people who are most noticeable and most annoying to downtown businesses, and the most expensive in terms of services — the single adults who run up huge hospital emergency room bills and take up the time of police and firefighting personnel. That’s what the Housing First approach is all about, and it’s a great idea as far as it goes.

Then, with the money saved, fiscal attention would theoretically be focused upon families with children. But apparently that hasn’t worked out according to plan. There are still plenty of homeless single adults, and still plenty of homeless families with children who are, even as we speak, maturing into homeless single adults.

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Source: “Homeless Advocates Divided Over Bill Aimed At Helping Kids,” HuffingtonPost.com, 02/11/12
Source: “Survey finds increase in homeless children but overall drop in homelessness,” BakersfieldCalifornian.com, 02/18/14
Source: “America is Ignoring Homeless Families,” BillMoyers.com, 04/21/13
Image by Valerie Everett