The very large number of children living in poverty in the U.S. set the stage for child homelessness. More than 45 million people were estimated to be living at or below the federal poverty rate in 2013—a number that remained unchanged from the previous year’s estimate.
Family and child homelessness surfaced as a significant social problem in the United States in the mid-1980s. Since then, the number of homeless families with children has steadily increased. Without decisive action and the allocation of sufficient resources, the nation will fail to reach the stated federal goal of ending family homelessness by 2020. Children are homeless in every city, county, and state of our America.
A study found that the vast majority of families were composed of single mothers with two young children, often under the age of six—a period marked by significant brain development. Given recent findings of the effects of “toxic stress” on brain architecture in children, it is imperative that these children’s needs are identified and addressed. Most children living in a shelter or other transitional environments have a history of exposure to trauma and many have experienced other family disruptions.
These families tended to be residentially unstable, moving frequently and often living in substandard housing and dangerous neighborhoods. With low levels of education, many of the mothers were unable to find jobs that paid livable wages. Without transportation or adequate child care, they struggled to protect and support their children. A shockingly high number of homeless mothers experienced interpersonal and family violence—often witnessed or directly experienced by their children. Not surprisingly, many of the mothers had high rates of major depressive disorders, post-trauma responses, and anxiety disorders, interfering with their capacity to support their children.
Children experiencing homelessness are among the most invisible and neglected individuals in our nation. Despite their ever-growing number, homeless children have no voice and no constituency. Without a bed to call their own, they have lost safety, privacy, and the comforts of home, as well as friends, pets, possessions, reassuring routines, and community. These losses combine to create a life-altering experience that inflicts profound and lasting scars.
While there are a number of support services needed to help homeless families become self-sufficient and prevent future homelessness we are focusing on housing related issues. Having a place to live sets the foundation for stability.