How America Became a Country That Lets Little Kids Go Homeless
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"All of a sudden, around the early 1980s we started to see tons of families who were there because of poverty," Ralph da Costa-Núñez , who worked in Mayor Ed Koch's administration and is now CEO of the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness, tells AlterNet.
The reasons behind the jump in family homelessness are not complex, Núñez says. "It was the gutting of the safety net. Reagan cut every social program that helped the poor. Then there's inflation so their aid checks are shrinking. Where are they going? Into the streets, into the shelters."
The administration was especially keen to cut low-income housing programs. Peter Dreier writes that Reagan created a housing task force, " dominated by politically connected developers, landlords and bankers." They and the president were in agreement that the market was the best way to address housing for the poor, and instituted cuts in government spending that yielded almost instant results. In 1970, Dreier writes, there were more low-income housing units than families who needed them, but "by 1985 the number of low-cost units had fallen to 5.6 million, and the number of low-income renter households had grown to 8.9 million, a disparity of 3.3 million units."
At a 1985 hearing before the Senate subcommittee on housing and urban affairs, Barry Zigas, the president of the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, called the administration's approach toward the poor a "scorched-earth policy." President Reagan offered a sunnier view on the TV show Good Morning America , saying, "What we have found in this country, and maybe we're more aware of it now, is one problem that we've had, even in the best of times, and is the people who are sleeping on the grates, the homeless who are homeless, you might say, by choice."
"I thought we were going to make it to go away," Nunez tells AlterNet. "And one day I had to tell Mayor Koch, this is here to stay."
Continuing in the tradition of his Republican predecessors, President Bill Clinton's tough-love welfare reforms were especially tough on poor women and children. The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Act, which replaced a New Deal welfare program for the poorest families, put work requirements and time limits on assistance. As Nunez puts it, their benefits would run out and, "Boom! Where do they go? The shelters and the streets."
TANF decreased welfare caseloads from "12.3 million recipients per month in 1996 to 4.4 million in June 2011" according to a National Poverty Center policy brief, a drop that has been touted as a success even though in many cases families just couldn't get access to benefits they needed -- many had not rocketed out of poverty on their bootstraps. Either way, TANF plays out a whole lot differently today than during the Clinton years when the economy was relatively strong.
A New York Times piece titled " Welfare Limits Left Poor Adrift as Recession Hit" details TANF's downsides in our current predicament -- the caseloads stayed the same during record joblessness, and women and kids have had to resort to desperate measures to make it, like skipping meals, scavenging through trash, and going back to abusive relationships.
If they end up without a home -- whether that means they're staying with relatives, or sleeping on the ground, or in their car, or in abandoned buildings, or in shelters -- here is what their lives look like: T o start with, the moms are likely to suffer depression, anxiety disorders, or PTSD, because a large percentage of sheltered mothers "have experienced physical and sexual assault over their lifespan," according to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network. Homelessness itself compounds their trauma, especially if they don't get treatment, both because it's stressful to be homeless and because not having shelter makes the families vulnerable to more violence. Being homeless, or the economic or personal horrors that led to homelessness, or being raised by parents fighting mental problems, means that many kids suffer from psychological disorders. " Half of school-age homeless children experience anxiety, depression, or withdrawal compared to 18 percent of non-homeless children," according to the Traumatic Stress network.