‘Invisibilizing’ Homeless ChildrenHousing & Homelessness
Childhood should be a time to grow, learn, play and feel safe. As Matthew Desmond, author of Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City writes:
Home is where children find safety and security, where we find our identities, where citizenship starts. It usually starts with believing you’re part of a community, and that is essential to having a stable home.
Whether by government, the larger society, and even some parents, children and their needs are often treated as an afterthought, or even worse, purposely excluded or made invisible. Whether intentionally or not, the concerns and needs of children are often ignored, dismissed, or marginalized, as some political leaders look the other way.
In the case of children who are homeless, some Members of Congress and bureaucrats at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) remain quite purposeful in their exclusion of children from being identified as homeless and from receiving any assistance.
For example, HUD has such a narrow and restrictive definition of homelessness that it does not count children and youth that are identified as homeless by schools, domestic violence shelters, or runaway and homeless youth programs. The result is that the vast majority of homeless children are not counted in HUD’s “point-in-time” (PIT) count. Since they are not identified as being homeless, the vast majority of children and families are diverted from or excluded from receiving critically important services or protections.
Underscoring this problem, in its 2019 Annual Homeless Assessment Report Part I (AHAR), HUD estimates that just 53,692 parents and children experienced homelessness during the agency’s January 2019 count.
HUD’s data perpetuates a fundamentally dishonest conversation about homelessness. It keeps homeless children, youth, and families invisible, and ignores their growing ranks in public schools and early childhood programs. We won’t make a dent in reducing homelessness until we acknowledge how children and youth experience it, and reform federal, state, and local policies to meet their needs.
In sharp contrast to HUD, the U.S. Department of Education rightfully recognizes that homeless children are those who “lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence,” including those:
- doubled up due to loss of housing or economic hardship;
- living in motels, trailer parks or campgrounds;
- living in emergency or transitional shelters;
- abandoned in hospitals;
- awaiting foster care placement; and,
- living in cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, substandard housing, bus or train stations.
Therefore, while HUD has chosen to look away or “invisibilize” the true problem, public schools identified more than 1.5 million homeless students in the 2017–2018 school year, according to recently released (on 1/29/20) data from the Department of Education, a 10 percent increase over the previous school year.
Philadelphia’s PIT numbers under-report thousands of youth and families who experience homelessness. The School District identified 7,112 children and youth who experienced homelessness in the 2017–2018 School Year, compared to the 1,271 children under 18 years of age identified by the PIT count in FY 2018. As a result, Philadelphia devotes very few resources to addressing youth homelessness. In addition, the City “diverts” or “prevents” families away from accessing emergency housing, but does not consider that number in its PIT calculations. These experiences undermine Philadelphia’s ability to adequately address family and youth homelessness.
Therefore, without HUD’s recognition and assistance, homeless families with children are often forced into the shadows and must seek other means of shelter that can sometimes put their children at risk. While HUD creates a caste system whereby families with children are ignored or brushed aside, kids move from one temporary place to another, are more likely to stop attending school, and more often become the victims of violence, abuse, neglect, trauma, and sexual exploitation.
As the Denver Post’s Jennifer Brown explains, “Children who are homeless are eight times more likely to suffer abuse and neglect than other children.”
Cheryl Camany, homeless liaison for the Salinas City Elementary School District in California, told reporter Brian Goldstone that she identified 3,566, or 40 percent of elementary school-age students, as homeless in the prior year. Under HUD’s policy, which excludes children from assistance and its annual PIT count, just 150 homeless families were identified in the entire county.
Despite a rapidly growing crisis on homelessness for children in Salinas, California, where the number of homeless children has grown from 2,042 in 2012–2013 to 3,566 in 2018–2019 — a 75 percent increase in just six years — HUD was reporting a 15 percent decline in homelessness.
Intentionally looking away, “invisibilizing”, undercounting, and ignoring the trauma that so many homeless children and youth are facing in our country does not solve the problem.
As 12-year-old Brooklyn Pastor from Shirley, NY testified before the House Committee on Financial Services on December 15, 2011:
I’ve lived in over sixteen places in my life: six shelters, four times doubled-up with many different people, and we had our own house six times. We also had to go to emergency motel rooms many other times, in between shelters and houses… I really hate moving from place to place. It is so hard because you get to know people and then have to move. It has made my life hard… I would like people to know that it is different going through this then just hearing about it. You may not have ever experienced being homeless. It is worse than hearing about it or watching a movie about it. You are in it. There are a lot of kids going through it.
In this video of that testimony from Brooklyn along with witnesses Brandon Dunlop (Chicago, IL), Rumi Khan (Carlisle, PA), Brittany Amber Koon (Ft. Hood, TX), Destiny Raynor (Sanford, FL), and Starnica Rodgers (Chicago, IL). It is tragic that Congress and HUD still have not addressed the issue nearly eight years later.
These young people were all homeless, but throughout much of their families’ struggles, HUD and some Members of Congress pretended they were not. To HUD, these children simply do not count — both literally and figuratively — and the consequences are tragic.
It’s a crazy logic. It basically says: We don’t see homeless families, so we don’t have any here, therefore we don’t have to help them.
In a 2014 report entitled America’s Youngest Outcasts, the National Center on Family Homelessness explains:
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.
These youth are survivors, but not without a great deal of damage to them along the way. The statistic regarding homeless youth to increased risks of sexual assault, drug use, HIV/AIDS, prostitution, pregnancy, and incarceration, as well as lower graduation and employment rates, clearly indicate that these young people are not being given the opportunity for a bright, productive future that we hold out to young people in America.
Children making their way through life homeless, impoverished, abandoned, hungry, vulnerable, neglected, and abused deserve better from us. They deserve a childhood where they can grow, learn, play, and feel safe rather than endure a daily struggle at the margins of society.
One solution would be for Congress to pass H.R. 2001, the bipartisan Homeless Children and Youth Act (HCYA) by Reps. Steve Stivers (R-OH) and Dave Loebsack (D-IA).
The bill would align HUD’s definition of homelessness with those of other federal programs, such as the Department of Education. This would eliminate paperwork barriers to assistance for children, improve interagency coordination, and improve the ability of local communities to assess and serve the most vulnerable children, youth, and adults.
The legislation also recognizes that children are not little adults and that the needs of families with children are often quite different from the one-size-fits-all “housing first” model used by HUD for veterans and chronically homeless adults. H.R. 2001 achieves this by allowing services and assistance to be tailored to address the unique needs of each homeless population in their community.
Claas Ehlers and Kat Lilley, CEO and Board member of Family Promise, respectively, are absolutely correct. As Lilley further explains in testimony before the House Committee on Financial Services on June 6, 2018:
Children, youth, and families are unable to access appropriate and necessary housing assistance and services because current HUD definition of homelessness disqualifies them appropriate interventions and standard prioritization, not based on their vulnerability or need, but based on which couch or floor they were able to sleep on last night. We, as communities and a nation, are working to serve the most vulnerable when addressing homelessness. To truly accomplish this, we must stop excluding children and youth from the conversations and allow them to have equal access to the current housing assistance and services. The Homeless Children and Youth Act does just this.