A record 2.5 million children in the U.S. were homeless at some point in 2013, according to a new report from the National Center for Family and Homelessness.
This amounts to one in 30 children and an 8 percent increase in child homelessness between 2012 and 2013. Nearly half the children are under the age of six. While the problem is most prevalent in Alabama, Mississippi, and California, it exists in every city, county, and state in the country.
The nation’s high poverty rate, a lack of affordable housing, and traumatic experiences — especially domestic violence — are the main causes of rising child homelessness. Most of the children come from single parent households, and 20–50 percent of the mothers of homeless children have experienced intimate partner violence, according to the report.
The effect of even temporary homelessness may lead to serious mental health issues and affect a child for the rest of his or her life. Trauma stemming from residential instability has been shown to interfere with learning and lead to poor cognitive skills and emotional self-regulation.
The report doesn’t limit its definition of homelessness to families who are chronically homeless and living on the streets, but also includes children who are doubling up with friends or relatives or staying in cheap motels. This definition is more in line with the one used by the Department of Education, as opposed to the one used by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which only counts people living in shelters and the streets as homeless. By HUD’s last count, there are 610,042 homeless people in the U.S., including 130,515 children.
The government wants to effectively end homelessness by 2020 and end veteran homelessness by 2015. Broadening HUD’s definition of what constitutes homelessness would make this goal much more difficult to achieve. But critics say HUD’s method ignores millions of children and adults that also lack a stable home and grossly underestimates the national homeless population. This limited recognition results in insufficient resources being allocated to combat the issue.
Solving the problem of homelessness as it is understood by the National Center for Family and Homelessness requires deep structural reforms that attack poverty at its roots. The report’s suggestions to solving child homelessness include providing financial and mental health support for single mothers, investment in safe affordable housing, and the expansion of education and employment opportunities across the socioeconomic spectrum.