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Children Shine Light on Complexity of Homelessness

It may be easy to blame individuals for their plight -- until children are involved.

homeless child
Estimates by the U. S. Department of Education place the nationwide number of homeless children at approximately 1.25 million for the 2012-13 school year – an increase of about 85 percent from 2006-2007.
Nothing brings focus to the broader issue of poverty like homelessness. As troubling as things such as income inequality, food insecurity and unemployment are, all can seem somewhat less compelling than the greater and more easily understood basic need: shelter. 

All City Accelerator communities – and all cities, for that matter – have an issue with homelessness. In many instances, the stereotype of homelessness makes the problem easy to overlook. People tell themselves that homeless individuals are drug users or even lazy and it’s a problem that should be dealt with by the homeless people themselves (or their families) rather than a government entity or community. However, homelessness is often much more complex and the need for a response by the community may be irrefutable.
As noted in my last column, the issue of homeless veterans touches a particular chord in the heart of most warm-blooded individuals and makes it much harder for people to overlook the victims. But another such facet in this dark and depressing subject is the issue of homeless children. In spite of frequent public debate on the issue of homelessness in recent years, I still find people who are blissfully unaware of the existence and dimensions of homeless children.
I came face to face with this issue around 2006 in my first term as Chattanooga mayor, when a woman and her young daughter were found sleeping in a car in one of our riverfront parks. It was their home and they stayed there every night. The woman was employed as a hospital aide and while her income would barely cover most basic necessities, it was not sufficient to allow for rent. Another personal experience came a few years later when I was touring a bright and cheerful new downtown elementary school. An intercom announcement instructed the “backpack kids” to report to the cafeteria before leaving for the weekend. I asked the principal about the announcement and she said the school had more than 50 homeless children who would have nothing to eat over the weekend except for the sandwiches and other food provided in the backpacks. She said, “We prefer to call them ‘backpack kids,’ rather than homeless to try and protect them as much as possible.” She went on to tell me that many other schools in the system had similar populations of homeless children. I later learned Chattanooga was not unique among cities in this respect.
According to an October article published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press, the number of homeless students in public schools in the United States has increased significantly since the onset of the Great Recession in 2008. Estimates by the U. S. Department of Education place the nationwide number at approximately 1.25 million for the 2012-13 school year – an increase of about 85 percent from the 2006-2007 school year. Officials in Chattanooga and Hamilton County, Tenn., peg the local increase at over 100 percent since 2008 with the number of homeless students expected to top 1,700 this year.  
The 2013 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, published by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, includes statistics from its point-in-time count taken on a single night in January 2013. As of that date and time, there were 610,042 people experiencing homelessness in the United States. Fifty-eight percent of all homeless people in families were children (or 130,515) and there were 46,924 unaccompanied homeless children and youth on that January date. Most were youth between the ages of 18 and 24, but 13 percent were children under the age of 18. Further, half of unaccompanied children and youth were unsheltered. On a somewhat positive note, the report said major cities are able to provide emergency shelter for a very high percentage of homeless people in families – 96 percent were sheltered and 4 percent were unsheltered.  
The article in the Chattanooga Times Free Press quotes Diane Nilan, a national advocate for homeless children, asking Congress to support the Homeless Children and Youth Act. The act would expand the definition of homelessness to include people living with other families or in hotels. Such people are vulnerable and unquestionably living in a stressful and tenuous situation. Nilan maintains these individuals need to be counted to give a true measure of the dimensions of the homeless population and to accurately gauge what constitutes adequate services. The most distressing factor to be considered regarding homeless children is the situation tends to reverberate and negatively affect these children’s future. Nilan says it's hard for a child to focus on homework while facing threats to his or her survival. Many homeless students don't graduate from high school.
Accordingly, this is not a problem that can be swept under a rug. It's not likely to go away anytime soon and, since 2008, the problem appears to be getting worse. Larger cities are shouldering a disproportionate share of the burden. While these cities are doing a good job of providing shelter to homeless families with children, more than shelter is needed. The greater challenge is whether the emotional effects and the educational challenges homeless children face can be addressed sufficiently to provide hope for a better life. It's quite possible that some of our future leaders are today's "backpack kids." As valuable and needed as present efforts might be, it’s to everyone's advantage to give them more than sandwiches to get them through the weekend.  
Ron Littlefield, a former mayor of Chattanooga, Tenn., is a senior fellow with the Governing Institute and its lead analyst on the City Accelerator initiative. A city planner by career, he also consults to government through Littlefield Associates.
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