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New Report Quantifies Challenges Facing Homeless Moms: Give 'Em A Break...or Help

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As a former shelter director, I confess that big and little infractions by families staying at our shelter sometimes annoyed the snot out of me. If I knew then what I know now….

Homelessness has gained more awareness, but unfortunately the stereotypical guy begging on the street corner image prevails despite the reality that families and youth without homes far exceed HUD’s “chronically” homeless individuals, last reported as 610,043 (Jan. 2013).  And despite documentation that homelessness among children/youth has increased more than 70% since 2006, homeless kids don’t seem to count. Schools have identified 1,168,354 students, a record number that doesn’t include babies, toddlers and youth outside school systems. Congress hasn't learned that helping kids and families is cost effective, not to mention the right thing to do.

The families in our shelters taught me their circumstances were never simple. Sadly, family-unfriendly policies and practices prevail. In my book, Crossing the Line: Taking Steps to End Homelessness, I share stories of families and offer a multi-choice menu of causes of homelessness. Even that doesn’t cover the gamut.

Unenlightened shelter staff and bureaucrats can be quick to condemn the parent, typically a single mom, pointing out flaws in her behavior, choices and lifestyle. Too many shelters turn away hard-to-serve families.

A new report, Service and Housing Interventions for Families (SHIFT), produced by the Wilson Foundation in collaboration with the National Center on Family Homelessness, documents needs of women with children experiencing homeless and explores effective approaches. In the process, it points to the common shortcomings of our family shelter “system.”

The report focuses on women and their children in emergency, transitional shelters and permanent supportive housing in the Rochester and western New York region, not in metro areas. From what I’ve seen in my 9 years of HEAR US Inc. travels, the NY findings appear to reflect homelessness among families similarly sized communities.

The report’s key findings:

  • 93% mothers had a history of trauma.
  • 81% experienced multiple traumatic events.
  • 79% had experienced trauma in childhood.
  • 56% had multiple childhood traumas.
  • 82% experienced trauma in adulthood.
  • 64% experienced multiple traumas in adulthood.

Other significant findings:

  • Obviously “the most powerful predictor of residential stability for homeless and low-income families is vouchers or housing subsidies,” but Congress is poised to drastically cut the already inadequate vouchers.
  • Doubled up was the 2nd most common option when families moved out of shelters.
  • The average childhood traumas experienced, 3.2.
  • Sexual assaults, often in childhood, were common. (Watch our film on the edge: Family Homelessness in America to hear from women with firsthand experiences.)
  • Despite the high rate of women experiencing PTSD-inducing trauma, only 5% reported receiving treatment.
  • A significant number, 20%, reported being homeless as a child, with even more, 24%, spending time in foster care.

The report gets even more valuable, pointing out often-ignored realities:

  • Depression is common, yet tragically untreated.
  • Women in permanent supportive housing reported higher rates of sexual abuse, bipolar and other mental illnesses, and psychiatric hospitalizations. The connection between PTSD, substance abuse, and depression is significant, and under-treated.
  • The mother’s mental health was tied to the frequency of separation or the proximity of her children, commonly either removed by authorities or farmed out to survive unstable housing circumstances.

We need a better way of helping vulnerable women with kids. Kicking out or denying service to hard-to-serve women (likely depressed or experiencing other mental health issues), penalizing and incarcerating, or berating doesn’t work. Worst case example, the death of a mother who had been locked up for failure to pay school fees.