The more I work with the homeless, the more I can’t help but see the multitude of barriers to housing that can arise, including lack of affordable housing, family violence, employment and education barriers and mental health issues. However, one issue that I think is often overlooked in our attempts to alleviate homelessness in Boston is the lack of affordable child care.
In virtually every shelter in which I’ve worked, I’ve noticed more than a handful of people mentioning a promising job or school prospect but one that is contingent on finding someone to look after the children. Often, they reach out to family members, but that can only go so far, because it also limits people from pursuing similar opportunities. Put simply, there is not a lot out there to fulfil this kind of need.
This is not to say that I’m ungrateful for child-care programs that do exist—there’s just some work to be done. Some states’ programs create odd cliffs in income, where it’s possible to make enough to lose benefits but not enough to sustain the family without them. Others require the family to be working, which creates a cycle of someone needing childcare to obtain secure employment but needing employment to maintain childcare. Some programs are well structured but need better funding to prevent massive waitlists and to accommodate high demand. That being said, Massachusetts is still ahead of other states, as it’s one of the only states that prioritizes homeless applicants for child-care assistance.
Absence of child care complicates the situation for the family. Employment and school become significantly harder to obtain, let alone hold onto, and the pursuit of housing becomes instantly more expensive when you account for the travel costs of children. Some of the most heartbreaking moments I experience regularly while working in shelters have to do with lost opportunities due to child-care falling through. The mainstream media will often then blame the family for not making enough of an effort to be self-sufficient.
Homeless families with children make up a respectable chunk of the homeless population, making this a significant need. The 2015 Annual Homeless Assessment Report estimated that families with children accounted for 206,286 homeless people, which represented 37 percent of all documented people experiencing homelessness. Massachusetts, in particular, despite not being the largest state in the country, accounted for 7% of the documented homeless family population that year, at 14,757 people. This put Massachusetts third in terms of its documented homeless family population, just behind New York and California. On average, each family statistically tended to have about three children.
How much does this cost when we say it isn’t affordable? The Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness estimated in 2014 that the average cost, nationwide, for annual center-based child care for a four year old was $7,817, which is almost half of what the poverty line was at that time. By state, Massachusetts was ranked third, with an even higher average of $12,176.
Ignoring this issue affects the general population as well. By now, multiple states such as Florida, Utah, New York and California have found annual savings in tax dollars by investing in programs for the homeless to offset other costs such as emergency room care (these three states mostly invested in either housing or shelter). Furthermore, in a state such as Massachusetts, which gives the homeless population the distinct right to services, cutting costs through wise investments helps us all. With child care, in particular, better child-care programs could potentially reduce the time each family stays in a shelter and could increase the number of people who are moved out of shelters into better living situations, which, over time, will allow us to reduce state costs.
I’d be exaggerating if I said I really knew what the solution was. As with many aspects of homelessness, one could study it for decades and never know all the answers. However, I have a few recommendations, including increased donations and funding for child-care programs that already exist. In the long term, we’ll benefit from policies that increase funding for this specific purpose. A few shelter agencies could also consider internal child care in order to help break the cycle mentioned above, although this would obviously create licensing issues alongside problems of funding and space. Regarding housing-first agencies, some might want to consider providing child care services to people who have been recently housed, although this wouldn’t reach those who experience basic barriers before pursuing HomeBASE.
It should be a given that homeless children—arguably one of the more vulnerable populations in the country—should have a safe place to grow up and learn while their parents pursue employment, housing or other tools for self-sufficiency. It’s tough to cement specifics for such a complex issue, but the only thing we know for sure is that this part of the homeless community needs a little more.
Chalkey Horenstein is a former editorial assistant for Spare Change News. Having worked for shelters in Massachusetts, Washington and Texas, he is currently pursuing his master’s in social work.