According to the National Center on Family Homelessness, among industrialized nations, there are more homeless women and children in the United States than any other country in the world. In fact, not since the Great Depression have so many families been without homes.
Today, homeless families comprise one third of the total homeless population in the United States, and over the course of a year, 1.6 children – the most vulnerable among us – will find themselves homeless, with more than 200,000 children without a home on any single given day. That’s an outrageous statistic that is too quickly ignored.
Mention homelessness and for many, their eyes glaze over. Assumptions such as, “lazy,” “addicts,” “vagrants,” “they choose to be homeless,” and “aren’t there shelters for the homeless?” are tossed out, with the last reminiscent of Ebenezer Scrooge’s heartless, “Are there no prisons?” in Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”
The assumptions are wrong, and it’s time to erase the myths and misperceptions. There is no single cause of homelessness, no single situation or event. Myriad causes catapult people – families – onto the streets: the lack of affordable housing, decreasing government supports, the challenge of raising a child alone, domestic violence, a medical crisis that drains finances, loss of a job, fractured social supports. All contribute to and create homelessness.
And sadly, situations in some of these issues, especially the gap between housing costs and income, are worsening, putting even more families at risk of life on the streets.
Today, the typical sheltered homeless family is a mother in her late 20s, with two children. Nearly 80 percent of homeless adult women are in a family, compared to just 20.4 percent of homeless adult men, and in cases where both men and women are present, many shelters won’t accept men, splitting families when they need to be together most.
Families of color are overrepresented in the homeless population. Nationally, 43 percent are African American, 38 percent are white, non-Hispanic, 15 percent Hispanic and three percent American Indian.
The impact of homelessness on a mother is profound. Many feel anger, sadness, fear, blame themselves and feel hopeless. The vast majority – more than 92 percent – have experienced severe physical and/or sexual abuse in their lifetime, most often by a trusted intimate partner. Many of them had violent experiences as children — just a part of the lifelong impact of child violence, abuse and neglect. There are other significant impacts as well – post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, chronic health issues and mental health issues – all crippling disorders.
Children reflect impacts as well, on their development and ability to learn. By the age of 12, 83 percent of homeless children had been exposed to at least one serious violent event – within their family, witnessed their mother hit by their father or abused by a male partner. These children are more likely to display frequent aggressive and antisocial behavior, to be more fearful, have higher levels of depression and anxiety and suffer serious health issues such as asthma, obesity, substance abuse, etc.
The impact on education and achievement also is significant.
Homeless children are four times more likely to show delayed development, twice the rate of learning disabilities as non-homeless children and twice as likely to repeat a grade, be expelled or suspended or drop out of school.
These are all too high prices to pay for a problem with proven solutions.
So, how can you help?
- Volunteer with local community organizations working to end family homelessness.
- Support local, state, and national programs that help families out of poverty.
- Considering issues of poverty, affordable housing, violence prevention, and health care when determining whom you vote for in local, state, and federal elections.
- Donating to organizations such as Family & Children’s Place and others working to end homelessness in our country.
- Educate others about the realities of family homelessness and what they can do about it.
The homeless don’t choose to be homeless; that’s a choice none would ever make. It’s a status imposed by a host of causes, most that we, by taking compassionate and caring action, can reverse. But we must reject the myths and misperceptions, forgo the labels and stigma and extend our hands and our handbooks. Both are required for real solution.