By Fish Stark, First Focus Intern Associate

First Focus was proud to support yesterday’s briefing on homelessness in America, sponsored by the Congressional Caucus on Homelessness, Senator Patty Murray, and The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, and supported by fifteen other organizations, including First Focus, Zero to Three, Horizons for Homeless Children, and The National Center on Family Homelessness. The briefing included remarks from Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson, Co-Chair of the Congressional Caucus on Homelessness, and panelists Carmela DeCandia, Director of the National Center on Family Homelessness, Brian Carome, Executive Director of , Maria Foscarinis, Founder & Executive Director of The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, and Devin Johnson, a homeless student about to graduate high school in Prince George’s County, Maryland.

Congresswoman Johnson began the briefing by calling for greater awareness of the challenges facing the homeless, the collection of consistent and reliable data on homelessness, and a robust effort to curb the extent of homelessness in America. “Homelessness is a multifaceted issue that can affect individuals and families of all backgrounds,” remarked Rep. Johnson. “I don’t think there’s anyone in Congress who supports homelessness remaining as it is. The challenge is what we do about it. The challenge is having to stand up and insist that it be addressed appropriately.”

Families comprise thirty-eight percent of the homeless population, and that statistic is rising. The Department of Education recently announced that there were over one million homeless students enrolled in public schools in America—a fifty-seven percent increase in homeless students since 2007. And in 2010 alone, one in every 45 children experienced homelessness at some point during the year. Not only is child homelessness tragic—no child in America should be forced to live on the street—but it carries with it devastating, long-term mental health consequences. The ages of birth through six years are critical development periods for children and, according to Dr. Carmela DeCandida, Director
of the National Center on Family Homelessness, “during this time, the brain is very susceptible to environmental influences, good or bad.”
Homelessness often impedes healthy brain development in young children, especially due to the large number of homeless children who are abused or separated, and the incredibly high proportion of homeless mothers (50%) who experience depression, which leads to “toxic stress” that can negatively affect brain development and harm children for life. As a result, homeless children are far more likely than their peers to exhibit school-age depression or anxiety, with 50% of homeless students experiencing those mental health issues. The circumstances of homeless children—having to frequently move, living with relatives, in shelters or tents, and on the street, and general instability—create undue stress and anxiety that put an unhealthy strain on their developing brains, causing trauma and undermining their future.

Devin Johnson, a homeless student from Prince George’s County Maryland, who graduates high school next week and plans to join the US Navy in October, reflected on feeling anxious and stressed, and having to change schools and move away friends and a strong support system, as he moved around from hotels to shelters to tents to relatives’ houses over the course of high school. An honor roll student, Devin noted that “people don’t really know how it is as a teenager when you’re homeless.” Staying in school and working his way to graduation took hard work and resilience, but Devin says “it feels so good saying you finally made it…it’s a real long road.” Those attending the briefing responded to Devin’s story with a standing ovation.

The briefing focused on how the one million other students with stories like Devin’s could be saved from the tragedy of homelessness. Maria Foscarinis, Founder & Executive Director of the National law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, decried the homelessness epidemic as “a violation of fundamental human rights,” and made several policy recommendations to help individuals and families currently experiencing homelessness:

-Fund the initial capitalization of the National Housing Trust Fund improve and increase the quantity of affordable housing.

-Increase funding for the Department of Housing & Urban Development’s core housing programs, in order to increase the availability of their services—currently, only 1 in 10 of those who qualify for HUD assistance receive it.

-Make the Protecting Tenants at Foreclosure Act permanent, requiring that renters be provided 90 days advanced notice prior to eviction after a foreclosure, and giving them the legal right to stay in the building through the terms of a valid long-term lease.

-Increase funding for HUD’s Homeless Assistance Grants, which fund emergency shelters, supportive housing, and improvements to Section 8 housing so that families met with unfortunate circumstances have a place to go.

-Adequately enforce the laws that allow homeless students to remain in their schools even when their place of residence moves around, promoting stable schooling.

-Expand access to healthcare through the homeless, and adequately fund the Affordable Care Act to ensure that more homeless families are effectively covered through Medicaid.

-Ensure that personal income is adequate. Right now, a full-time worker earning minimum wage can’t get a two-bedroom apartment at fair market rent value anywhere in the US.

-Provide job training for the homeless, allowing them to seek and retain employment.

The event ended with a call to action for policymakers. “We have failed miserably as a nation to care for our most vulnerable members, especially our children,” declared Brian Carome, Executive Director of Street Sense, a bi-weekly newspaper designed to raise awareness of homelessness and poverty in Washington, DC and to create economic opportunities for individuals who are currently homeless. “Chronic homelessness is an entirely solvable problem, and the solution is within our reach.” It is crucial that the 113th Congress work to address the challenges of the homelessness epidemic in America, not just by providing affordable housing, but by providing supports and services for children and families affected by homelessness, by ensuring that homeless students have opportunities for education and stable schooling, and by making sure that working parents have enough income to keep their families fed and off the street. In the words of Dr. DeCandia, “We need to end family homelessness in America and give every child a chance.” First Focus is dedicated to working with other child welfare organizations and policymakers in the 113th Congress to achieve this goal. We can, and must, do better for the one million children who are homeless in this country.