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The Big Fix

America's Homeless Kids Crisis

America's Homeless Kids Crisis
Reuters

The number of homeless students in the United States has hit a record high, according to new data from the Department of Education.

The raw numbers are shocking: in the 2011 school year, 1,168,354 homeless children were enrolled in preschools and K-12 programs. Even more disturbing is the trend those numbers show: nationally, they represent a 10 percent jump over the previous school year, and a stunning 72 percent increase since the beginning of the recession in 2008.

The crisis is not confined to any one region. Forty-three states reported a rise in the number of homeless kids, and 10 showed jumps of more than 20 percent, according to a compilation of the DOE data assembled by the National Center for Homeless Education [PDF]. The biggest jumps were found in Maine (58 percent), Michigan (42 percent), North Carolina (53 percent), North Dakota (212 percent), South Dakota (35 percent), Vermont (31 percent), and Wyoming (40 percent).

In terms of raw numbers, California, New York, Texas, and Florida were hardest hit.

The spike in homelessness among American schoolchildren is an unsurprising result of the prolonged effects of the economic downturn. In communities around the country, huge numbers of families are being pushed into homelessness by foreclosure, which has affected some 8 million children [PDF], along with the combination of spiraling rents and stagnating wages.

The majority of these kids, some 71 percent, are living in "doubled-up" housing situations, a status defined under DOE rules as "sharing the housing of other persons due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or a similar reason."

"One of the toughest things about this issue is that many of these families are invisible," says Cara Baldari, the senior policy director and legal counsel for First Focus, a bipartisan advocacy organization for families and children. And different agencies define homelessness differently. HUD, for example, has regulations that make it difficult for families who are living doubled up to access HUD funded-services. Yet, Baldari says, the stresses on doubled-up kids and families are severe. Efforts to bring DOE and HUD policy into line have been stalled in Congress for the past year.

Another 15 percent of homeless schoolkids are in shelters. Six percent are in hotels and motels, and 4 percent are "unsheltered."

If you want to know what kind of a life an "unsheltered" child lives, look no further than the grim story published yesterday in the San Jose Mercury News about a Santa Clara County bus known as "Hotel 22." Traveling from Palo Alto to San Jose through the heart of hyper-affluent Silicon Valley, the 22 is the only county bus that runs 24 hours. That makes it a place of refuge for people who have no other option than to pay the fare -- $2 a ride or $70 for a monthly pass – and sleep under the fluorescent lights as the bus bumps along.

There are plenty of passengers. According to the article, more than 19,000 residents of the county are projected to be homeless at some point this year, and 27 percent of homeless people surveyed in Santa Clara County, where housing prices are soaring, had been turned away from emergency shelter in the previous 30 days. 

While most of the people living "life on the 22" are adults, the Mercury News also encountered a father and his 10-year-old daughter, who had been making this their home for five months. "We don't have a place to stay," the man told the reporter, adding that they are on a waiting list for family shelter. "From early evening to morning, we're on the bus." While the transit authority makes no attempt to discourage homeless passengers, everyone has to get off after the 22 completes a one-way two-hour run, then re-board a bus making the return trip.

The homeless 10-year-old, her father said, is doing remarkably well under the circumstances: "She's managing, much better than I ever expected. I have no idea how she's doing it. This is one of her best years so far in school."

This girl may be holding her own, but research shows that children who are homeless, including those who are doubled up, are at higher risk for a variety of problems. They are sick four times as often as kids who are not homeless, twice as likely to be hungry, and suffer from emotional and behavioral problems at three times the rate of other children.

Ed Walz, vice president of First Focus, says that the stresses on families produced by the housing crisis have other potentially disturbing outcomes as well. He cites a study released last year by the Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania Policy Lab that showed an association between the increase in delinquent mortgages and hospital admissions for suspected child abuse.

The story of the girl on the Santa Clara bus, says Baldari, says a lot about the importance of federal regulations requiring school districts to make accommodations for homeless kids – allowing them to stay in their schools, providing special transportation arrangements if necessary. "Stable education is obviously so important, and school might be one stable place for these kids," she says.

In some communities, getting school districts to deliver on their federal obligation to accommodate homeless students has been a problem, leading to class-action lawsuits in cities like Baltimore.

Baldari says the new numbers on homeless kids prove how many families in the U.S. continue to struggle for basic necessities. There's a real need, she says, for coordinated action on affordable housing, as well as continuing to fund programs like Medicaid, the Children's Health Insurance Program, and SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, aka food stamps).

"While the headlines say the recession is over, it's still having a really strong and significant effect for these families," says Baldari. "We’re really alarmed by this."

Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn. All posts »

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