Op Ed: Ending Child and Family Homelessness

Tomsickova Tatyana/
Over one-third of homeless persons in the U.S. are children.

Despite impressive reductions in chronic homelessness (51 percent) and the number of homeless veterans (44 percent) during the past decade, child and family homelessness continues to rise at an alarming pace. Nationally, families comprise over 35 percent of the homeless population, while in Colorado that percentage is even more dismal, at 39 percent. The number of school-aged children experiencing homelessness in the U.S. has increased by 38 percent, from 910,000 in 2009-2010 to nearly 1.3 million in 2014-2015. In Colorado alone, there are over 24,000 homeless students enrolled in public schools, a figure that has more than tripled since 2003-2004. In 2015-2016, more than 14,000 students experiencing homelessness attended schools in the seven-county Denver metropolitan region (Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder, Broomfield, Denver, Douglas, and Jefferson) with the suburban school districts in Adams, Arapahoe and Jefferson reporting higher numbers than urban Denver Public Schools.

A vast majority of homeless children are young. Nearly 36 percent of homeless students are enrolled in kindergarten through third grades. Research shows that 51 percent of homeless children are under the age of six and are not enrolled in public schools, which puts the number of homeless children in Colorado closer to 50,000. The National Center on Family Homelessness estimated that nearly 2.5 million (2,483,539) children were homeless in 2013.

But, where are they?

Roughly 76 percent of children and families experiencing homelessness are either doubled up with another family or living in motels, trailer parks, campgrounds, cars or abandoned buildings.

Only some 20 percent stay in emergency shelters that are poorly suited to accommodate them. Dormitory-style units with bunk beds and crowded conditions afford little privacy, forcing some families to either split up or find another place to sleep for the night. Research shows that family separations increase dramatically after shelter entry at a rate of 23.7 percent.

So, who are they?

A typical homeless family comprises a single mother with two or three children. Most live significantly below the federal poverty threshold, which is $20,420 for a family of three. To live in Denver County, a single parent with two children needs to earn at least $32.20 per hour, or $66,985 per year, to afford housing, food, health care, child care and transportation. It would take several minimum wage jobs to earn that much, even at $10.20 per

Children and families experiencing homelessness often endure multiple trauma exposures: domestic violence, child abuse, food insecurity, substance abuse and school absenteeism. Homeless mothers are four times more likely to suffer from a major depressive disorder and are twice as likely to have a substance abuse problem. These adverse conditions negatively impact children in many ways, resulting in development delays, mental-health issues and chronic health conditions. Grade-school children who experience homelessness are nine times more likely to repeat a grade than their non-homeless peers, while only 50 percent of high school homeless students graduate.

Given this picture, what can be done to end child and family homelessness?

Two things are essential: housing and services.

HUD’s Family Options Study shows that permanent housing subsidies are the most effective intervention for reducing family homelessness and improving family well being. However, Housing Choice Vouchers (HCV) are hard to come by. In 2016 Denver Housing Authority distributed only 691 new vouchers, putting the annual turnover rate at 8 percent. Over 29,700 households in Colorado use HCVs to live in modest, privately owned housing, with 69 percent of tenants being families with children. HCVs also benefitted Colorado property owners in 2016 with $245.7 million in payments.

But more than bricks and mortar are needed to end family homelessness. Community connections and comprehensive support services are vital assets for creating stable homes. Local schools and non-profit agencies often fill this gap. Thanks to the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act (1987) homeless children remain enrolled in their school of origin regardless of nighttime residence, providing continuity in the midst of disruption. Moreover, successful service interventions in Cleveland, Ohio, and Westchester County, New York, have utilized time limited, case management to link newly housed families with community-based services.

Ending homelessness is possible. We have made progress for vets and the chronically homeless.

Now it’s the children’s turn. Let’s reverse the rising trend.

No child in Colorado should be homeless. Not one. Not ever.

Mary Budde Ragan resides in Greenwood Village and is a master of social work candidate at the University of Southern California. Westword occasionally publishes opinion pieces on issues of importance in Colorado. If you'd like to submit one, email [email protected]; you can respond to this piece at the same address or with a comment.
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