As November comes to a close and we wrap-up National Homelessness Awareness Month, a recent 60 Minutes segment reminds us of the severity of family and child homelessness, and how action is needed beyond this month. The segment highlights the number of families in the U.S. who are forced to live in their cars after finding themselves homeless, and the struggles they endure.

In a recent blog post, I discussed how the economic downturn has caused a tremendous increase in the number of homeless children, whether they are living unaccompanied on their own or in families. We recognize that this is a growing problem in need of urgent action, yet in order to take appropriate action, we first need to understand the causes behind this recent upward trend.

Many families find themselves homeless after losing their home to foreclosure –whether they were homeowners who fell behind in their mortgage payments, or renters who found themselves evicted from a property that was foreclosed upon. The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s 2011 KIDS COUNT Data Book tells us that 5.3 million children have been affected by foreclosure since 2007. Studies show that children who live in areas with high rates of foreclosure experience decreased health and well-being.

This leads into the second cause of family homelessness- the lack of affordable housing. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) estimates that approximately 43 percent of families with children now report that they struggle to afford shelter, while U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) claims that 2/3 of families with children paid more than half of their income for housing in 2009. This is staggering when you consider that HUD defines housing as “affordable” when any rent or mortgage payments comprise 30% or less of monthly household income.

Homeless youth living on their own may find themselves homeless for several reasons. They may have left home to escape abuse or were forced out of their home after coming out to their family about their LGBT status. According to the National Center on Family Homelessness, 20 to 40% of unaccompanied homeless youth identify as LGBT. Youth who age out of the foster care system also often find themselves homeless. The National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH) estimates that 25% of former foster youth will experience homelessness within four years of exiting foster care.

There are many things that we could do to address child and youth homelessness. We need to create new affordable housing units under the National Housing Trust Fund (NHTF), which was established by Congress in 2008, but has yet to be funded. We need to restore funding for the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education for Homeless Children Youth Program (EHCY) for FY2012 back to the FY2011 funding level of $75 million, so that public school districts have the resources to identify homeless children living in their district, and ensure that homeless children have the proper resources to succeed in school. And we need to encourage more states to take advantage of a state option to extend care for youth up to age 21 under the Foster Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008 so that youth who are near aging out of the foster care system have the opportunity to prepare for the transition to independence.

By establishing and maintaining these programs, we will provide a safety net to keep those at-risk of homelessness in their home, as well as ensuring that homeless families and children have access to stable and affordable housing, an education, and additional supportive services as needed. Let’s take advantage of what we learned during National Homelessness Awareness Month and advocate on behalf of all of the homeless families and children who are currently forced to live in shelters, motels, or in their cars.

For additional information, please see the First Focus Campaign for Children fact sheet, Child Homelessness: A Problem of Epic Proportions.