How America Became a Country That Lets Little Kids Go Homeless
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"As a society, we bear responsibility for creating this second disaster and for responding to its aftermath," concludes the report, before detailing how many states fall short in working to prevent family homelessness and in taking care of families who've lost their homes.
"Many places in the country don't have shelters," says DianeNilan , an advocate for the homeless who ran several family shelters in Illinois and since 2005 has traveled around the country raising awareness about homeless families ( Hear Us). "In some cases, you have to travel five or six counties over to get to a shelter. Often they're filled or gender-segregated. Then the family has to decide whether to sleep in a car, or to farm the kids out to friends, or split up," Nilan says.
The Southern states, which are also some of the nation's poorest, have the worst access to homeless shelters: of Mississippi's (poverty rate 25.87 percent) 82 counties, only 17 offer a family homeless shelter, according to the Red, White and Blue Book , which compiles information about services for homeless families. There are 23 in Alabama. Louisiana's homelessness rate doubled between 2007 and 2009, and that year researchers estimated that 30 percent of the state's homeless families ended up sleeping in their cars or in abandoned buildings.
A motel is another less-than-ideal option . "These are families who have jobs paying minimum wage salaries, so they turn to motels, get stuck in this cycle of having to pay all their income for housing to avoid the streets," Nilan says.
Given how little low-income Americans get paid and how much they get charged for rent in many parts of the country, it's actually a miracle that even more families haven't been pushed out of their homes. In California, the average two-bedroom rental requires a $26-an-hour salary while minimum wage in the state is $8, according to a National Low Income Housing Coalition study.
Here's what happened to a family Nilan met in Florida. The parents both worked at restaurants in New Orleans, but Hurricane Katrina wiped out their jobs and their home and sent them to Nashville. When "the floods came back and upended them again ," they asked their 8-year-old daughter where she wanted to go. "Disney World!" she said. Not a bad idea, they figured, since tourist traps are filled with restaurants where they could find jobs. But when they got there they couldn't find steady work (Orlando has an 8.7 percent unemployment rate). Sometimes the mom had a job, sometimes the dad did. Mostly the jobs were part-time and temporary. To make ends meet, Nilan says, they rented one of the beds in their motel room to a 53-year-old homeless vet. DIY homeless shelter.
An interesting fact about family homelessness: before the early-1980s, it did not exist in America, at least not as an endemic, multi-generational problem afflicting millions of poverty-stricken adults and kids. Back then, the typical homeless family was a middle-aged woman with teenagers who wound up in a shelter following some sort of catastrophic bad luck like a house fire. They stayed a short time before they got back on their feet.
In the 1980s, family homelessness did not so much begin to grow as it exploded, leaving poverty advocates and city officials stunned as young parents with small children overwhelmed the shelter system and spilled into the streets. In New York City, the rate of homeless people with underage kids went up by 500 percent between 1981 and 1995. Nationally, kids and families made up less than 1 percent of the homeless population in the early 1980s, according to advocate and researcher Dr. EllenBassuk . HUD estimates put the number at 35 percent of people sleeping in shelters in 2010.