One of every 50 American children experiences homelessness, according to a new report that says most states have inadequate plans to address the worsening and often-overlooked problem.
The report, released Tuesday by the National Center on Family Homelessness, analyzes data from 2005-2006. It estimates that 1.5 million children experienced homelessness at least once that year, and says the problem is surely worse now because of the foreclosures and job losses of the deepening recession.
“If we could freeze-frame it now, it would be bad enough,” said Democratic Sen. Robert Casey, who wrote a foreword to the report. “By end of this year, it will be that much worse.”
The report said homeless children are far more likely than other children to experience hunger, suffer chronic health problems, repeat a grade in school and drop out of high school. It stressed the long-term damage that can result from disruptions to friendships, health care and family routines.
“These kids are the innocent victims, yet it seems somehow or other they get left out,” said the center’s president, Dr. Ellen Bassuk, a psychiatry professor at Harvard Medical School. “Why are they America’s outcasts?”
The report offered 19 recommendations for government action, including increased federal spending on low-income housing, assistance to struggling renters and homeowners, and investment in child care for homeless children. It urged states to place homeless families directly into permanent housing rather than into motels.
Ending homelessness for all U.S. children within a decade is possible, despite the recession, said the report, which the center issued to launch a campaign pursuing that goal.
“If we fail to act,” the report said, “the consequences will play out for years to come as a generation of lost children grow to adulthood.”
Reflecting the disarray caused by Hurricane Katrina, the report said Louisiana had the most homeless children per capita in 2006, followed by Texas and California.
Bassuk said many states fell short in regard to policy and planning. Only six were praised for “extensive” planning to curb child homelessness. Twenty-four states received an “inadequate” grade.
In Arkansas, which was among those states ranked lowest, relatively few homeless shelters cater to families or single fathers, so it took a while for Vaughn Summerville to find Our House Shelter in Little Rock. Because it has separate housing for families, Summerville can stay with his two daughters, who attend an after-school program at the shelter while he works at a museum.
“It was horrible at first, but it’s getting better,” said Tiffany Summerville, 13. “I guess I’m still reacting, because we’ve never been in a shelter before.”