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How America Became a Country That Lets Little Kids Go Homeless

Family homelessness essentially did not exist until the 1980s. And the financial crisis has made the problem massively worse.
 
 
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It's a searing hot Sunday in the Bronx, and young women and couples with small children sweatily make their way up the ramp to the PATH building, New York City's shiny new intake center, where homeless families with children must go to get placed in shelters. That's the hope at least. A couple that went in right around the time I showed up exits the building about half an hour later, and the man is pissed; it doesn't look like they had any luck today. Everyone looks anxious as they walk up the ramp; clearly this is a situation where there had better be a Plan B if getting themselves and their kids into a shelter is not in the cards.

A young couple with the cutest twin toddlers I've ever seen walks up and sits on the curb. I point this out to their parents and for a second they beam, but then they go back to looking very worried. This is their 3rd trip to PATH this week. The first two times they were turned away, when their caseworkers decided they should stay with Amanda's mom instead. Her mom disagreed. Now, the couple has come prepared, bearing a letter in which her mom assures the Department of Homeless Services just how unwelcome her daughter and grandchildren are. "Hopefully this time it'll work, and we'll have a place to stay," says Amanda, 18, who took her first trip to PATH at 17, when her mother kicked her out of the house for the first time. "We're hoping to get placed in Brooklyn, where I'm from, but even the Bronx would be fine, as long as we have a place."

The twins are crying the whole time. The man picks up one kid and their heavy luggage flips the stroller on its back, upending the other twin, who starts screaming as the dad frantically tries to right the fallen stroller; no one who comes here is having a very good day.  It's tough with the twins inside the building too, because they can't bring in food or water, according to Amanda. "We have to pour out our water bottles before we go inside." 

To keep out more dangerous things, the building has a full-on security apparatus with metal detectors in the entry way and harried security guards rushing families through. Hanging from each of their belts is an extendable baton, in case any trouble gets past the metal detectors. Outside, a new family walks up the ramp every five to 10 minutes. One woman's baby is only a week and a half old; she's draped a piece of cloth over his stroller to protect him from the heat.

Candace, 26, is heavily pregnant -- she's going to have a baby girl at the end of July. She's anxious to make her appointment because she really needs a place to stay, but before she goes she politely offers that the new PATH building is nicer than when she first came here at 17.

"Everything's clean, everyone is polite," she says softly, then scrunches up her face. "In the old one there was feces, regurgitations, and flies everywhere."

***

After hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit in 2005, advocates for the homeless were horrified to find that the storms had left one in 50 American kids without a home, a record high, according to a report by the National Center for Family Homelessness. But only a few years later the financial crisis outperformed nature in casting catastrophe on poor Americans. After record foreclosures, layoffs and budget cuts that hit poor families the hardest, America is a country where one out of 45 kids doesn't have a home. That totals 1.6 million children in 2010 without a permanent place to live, an increase of 448,000 in just three years. Forty percent of the kids are under 6.

"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.

"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: To 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. 

"Homeless children worry about where they will sleep on a given night, and if they have a place to sleep, they are afraid of losing it," the Traumatic Stress Network continues. "Older children worry about being separated from friends and pets, and they fear that they will be seen as different among new peers at school. They also worry about their families: their parents, whose stress and tension is often shared with the children, and their siblings, for whom they see themselves as primary caregivers. More than half of homeless children surveyed also said that they worried about their physical safety, especially with regard to violence, guns, and being injured in a fire. One-quarter of homeless children have witnessed violence in the family."

Being adrift is likely to make little boys aggressive and little girls depressed and withdrawn, according to a report by the Family Housing Fund. Homeless children get sick more often than poor children who have a home. They're more likely to have respiratory and digestive infections, stunted growth, anemia, TB, and asthma. They are prone to dangerous chronic conditions like cardiovascular disease, peripheral vascular disease, endocrine dysfunction, or neurological disorders, according to the Family Housing Fund.

School is a disaster. Since many homeless families have to move constantly, the kids get pulled in and out of school and can end up being held back. Often they are too hungry or stressed to learn. It's tough to do homework, even if they've landed in a shelter, because even the mundane becomes stressful.  "Let's say you have six to eight families in a shelter, each in a room, and there are two to three kids in a family" says Bassuk. "That's a lot of kids running around. It's chaos. The whole family sleeps in the same room; if one kid gets an earache, nobody sleeps."

"It's so mind-blowing for me," says Diane Nilan. "No matter what we've done -- and I've been involved in significant advocacy efforts to enlighten Congress -- there's this mindset, I don't know if it's denial or what, to totally ignore the people who are the most vulnerable. You see abysmal conditions that little babies are growing up in. They're in the prime period of human development," she says. "It's a horrible, horrible oversight, the way we are neglecting little kids when they need us the most."

***

The tough-love approach still has its fans. In 2004, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg unveiled a plan to slash the rate of homelessness in the city by two-thirds in five years. One curious feature of his Five-Year Plan was to limit priority access to federal programs that put homeless families into homes. Struggling New Yorkers, the administration was sure, were hustling the system by showing up at shelters pretending to be homeless in order to grab up federal aid. So priority Section 8 rent assistance was thrown out in favor of bootstrappy initiatives like the Advantage program, which was designed to teach important life lessons about self-sufficiency and financial responsibility by cutting off aid after two years.

A few years later, one in three homeless families that participated in Advantage ended up back in the shelters. As with everything else, the financial crisis made everything worse. "It's not like rents went down in NYC with the recession," Patrick Markee of The National Center on Family Homelessness tells AlterNet. "The gaps between incomes and rents has gone higher and higher." 

The Advantage program train-wrecked when New York state discontinued its part of the funding in 2010. The Bloomberg administration then gave poor families a great lesson in financial responsibility by killing the program and cutting off payments to participating families last February. Right now, 43,000 people are sleeping in municipal shelters in NYC, 17,000 of them children. It's a 10 percent increase from last year and the highest number since the Great Depression.

"You've got more families than ever," Markee says. "The shelter system is bursting at the seams."

Tana Ganeva is AlterNet's managing editor. Follow her on Twitter or email her at tana@alternet.org.

 
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