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Homeless Kids and Education

Donated food for the homelessAll the news stories say the same thing — there are more homeless kids and less available money to do anything about them. Even with the occasional statistical fluke that brings the numbers down here or there, the overall picture is still far from optimal. By 2012, 1.3 million American children were homeless, and families with young children accounted for 40% of the people experiencing homelessness.

A year ago, Greg Kaufmann reported on a congressional briefing given by Joe Volk, the CEO of Milwaukee’s Community Advocates. The subject was the American Almanac of Family Homelessness. He recounted the story of how in 2000 the Department of Housing and Urban Development decided to focus on chronically homeless adults.

It’s a wonderful thing to remove anybody from streets, and recently the Housing First principle has been getting a lot of attention. Single adults who are chronically homeless tend to have serious problems with mental illness, physical disability, and addiction, and when they hang around downtown, it’s bad for business. Housing them saves cities (meaning taxpayers) money that would have otherwise gone to massive medical costs and jail rent, and there is nothing wrong with that.

But….

Meanwhile, homeless families with kids have been relatively ignored. They tend to keep a low profile, eking out bare and crowded existences in sheds, storage units, cars, motels, shelters, and the garages and basements of relatives. Homeless kids are poorly nourished, don’t have access to quality health care, and suffer more from both acute and chronic illnesses. They also have learning disabilities at twice the rate of their housed counterparts, and have more emotional problems, which they act out in the form of behavioral problems. They score lower in reading and math. Sometimes these children can’t even get to school.

In Baltimore, the Public Justice Center, acting on behalf of three homeless families, filed a federal class action lawsuit to try and get their kids transportation to and from school. There were at least 2,800 homeless children in the city’s school system at the time, and the number had doubled since five years before.

One of the plaintiffs, a single mother with two sons, enrolled the younger one in a school near the shelter where they lived. But the older boy needed to stay in his old school for the special education offered there. Often, the mother didn’t have money for gas to drive him. In addition, to keep the benefits she and the children needed to survive, she was obligated to do a certain amount of job searching, which was seriously impacted by the amount of time used up in taking the kids to school.

Need for change

Last fall the National Center for Homeless Education issued a report stating that during the 2011-12 school year, 1.2 million school-age kids were homeless in America. The numbers had decreased in only eight states, and in 10 states there were increases of 20% or greater. At around the same time, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that nearly one-fourth of American children were living below the poverty line, and the Southern Education Foundation revealed that nearly half of all the kids in the country qualified for reduced-price or free meals at their schools. Kaufmann wrote, “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.”

But it needs to happen. The same great cities that are making advances by housing single adults need to realize that kids are the future. Sure, keeping chronically homeless adults out of jails and hospitals saves money. But fewer than one homeless kid in four graduates from high school. What is the societal price of that grim fact, and how much will it cost society in five years, in 10 years, when the bills really start to come in?

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Source: “America is Ignoring Homeless Families,” BillMoyers.com, 04/21/13
Source: “How Little Things Add Up to Keep Homeless Kids From School,” TheAtlanticCities.com, 09/30/13
Source: “Youth homelessness at all-time high, says report,” AlJazeera.com, 10/25/13
Image by U.S. Department of Agriculture