Back to School – Homelessness 101

To many people, the face of homelessness is the man standing along side of the road asking for money. Unfortunately, that face is changing.

According to the United States Department of Health and Human Services, as many as 1.6 million children are homeless sometime during the year. That means they are living in shelters, motels, abandoned buildings, cars, doubled-up with other families in apartments or houses, or they are on the streets.

How Do Children Become Homeless? There are many reasons for homelessness among children. The lack of affordable housing is one of the central reasons, but domestic violence, the challenge of raising children alone, and a decrease in government support can also be key factors (National Child Traumatic Stress Network).

Children who aren’t in a stable housing situation often times face a plethora of other issues as well, such as physical and mental health problems. Homeless children are in poor health twice as often as children with homes. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, they have higher rates of ailments such as asthma, ear infections, and stomach problems. They also have three times the rate of emotional and behavioral problems. These children also have to deal with the constantly worry about where they will live or sleep, and whether or not something bad will happen to their family.
When families are faced with issues like where they are going to stay or what they are going to eat, their child’s education isn’t always at the top of the list of things to worry about. The U.S. Department of Education reported that in 2009, 87 percent of homeless youth were enrolled in school, but only 77% of them attended on a regular basis. Issues like transportation and access to previous school records were two of the major obstacles preventing these students from attending.

Homeless students also don’t have access to school supplies and clothing. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network states even when kids do make it to school, they are twice as likely to repeat a grade. In addition to enrollment problems, the high mobility associated with homelessness has severe educational consequences. Homeless families move frequently due to limits in the length of shelter stays, to search for safe and affordable housing or employment, or to escape abusive family members. Too often, homeless children have to change schools because shelters or other temporary accommodations are not located within their school district. Homeless children and youth frequently transfer schools multiple times in a single year because of these conditions.

Every time a child has to change schools, his or her education is disrupted. According to the Institute for Children and Poverty, homeless children are nine times more likely to repeat a grade, four times more likely to drop out of school, and three times more likely to be placed in special education programs than their housed peers.

What homeless children need most of all is a home. While they are experiencing homelessness, however, it is essential that children remain in school. School is one of the few stable, secure places in the lives of homeless children and youth and is place where they can acquire the skills needed to help them escape poverty.

Because they have not reached the age of maturity, street children have no representation in the governing process. They have no vote themselves nor by proxy through their parents, from whom they likely are alienated. Nor do street children have any economic leverage. Governments, consequently, may pay little attention to them.

The rights of street children are often ignored by governments, who are often embarrassed by street children and may blame their parents.

When governments implement programs to deal with street children these generally involve placing the children in orphanages, juvenile homes or correctional institutes. However, some children are on the streets because they have fled from such institutions.

Furthermore, a large contributor to youth homelessness are those who are discharged from state institutions. Without a home, family support, or other resources, homeless youth are often locked up because they are without supervision and arrested for “status” offenses, such as running away or breaking curfew. In addition, as youth age out of the foster care system or are released from juvenile detention, they may lack support systems and opportunities for work and housing.
We need to take action and remind our representatives that youth homelessness is unacceptable.

There are a few key measures that communities and governments can take to cut down on the number of un-housed children and teens. Early intervention services for family preservation and housing are options when youth cannot return home. The federal government should increase the budget for the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act in order to increase services like outreach and emergency shelter.

Homeless youth benefit from programs that meet immediate needs first and then help them address other aspects of their lives. Programs that minimize institutional demands and offer a range of services have had success in helping homeless youth regain stability. Educational outreach programs, assistance in locating job training and employment for those old enough to work, and health care especially designed for and directed at homeless youth are also needed.

In the long term, homeless youth would benefit from many of the same measures that are needed to fight poverty and homelessness in the adult population, including the provision of affordable housing and employment that pays a living wage. In addition to these basic supports, the child welfare system must make every effort to prevent children from ending up on the streets.

Each and every one of us can do one more thing–never forget the ways in which poverty, racism and homophobia contribute to and maintain homelessness.

Take a moment to send an email to your representatives encouraging them to act for homeless youth.