The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Homelessness Mounting Among Kids, Families

by Catherine Komp

Unaccompanied children and whole families are living “on the streets” in what service providers say is an obscured but growing problem.

Jan. 29, 2007 – Described as America’s "dirty little secret" by social-service providers, an estimated one million young people experience homelessness each year. Many are unaccompanied teenagers, sleeping in parks, abandoned buildings or "couch surfing" at friends’ houses. Others are younger children, often in the care of a single parent, who double-up in relatives’ homes or in crowded shelters. The even-less fortunate live in cars, tents and under freeway overpasses.

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Children and families are the fastest growing segments of the homeless population, according to advocates, who say this serious social problem driven by poverty and a scarcity of affordable housing is not widely recognized by the public.

"The reason why this isn’t a priority for people is because people don’t see children on the streets. It’s not visible, it’s not shown," said Dr. Ralph Nunez, president of the New York-based Homes for the Homeless, a group providing housing, training and employment to homeless people.

Homelessness not only affects the present family unit, Nunez said, but will "have an impact on the next generation of these young children as they begin to age into this nomadic lifestyle."

Nunez joins hundreds of national and local advocates across the country trying to amplify public dialogue about child and family homelessness, while also providing much-needed services to this growing population. The problem has become so pervasive, Nunez predicts it will take decades to address.

‘Throw-Away Kids’ and ‘Runaways’

"Would you rather try to sneak back into your house and get your ass beat basically, or would you rather take your chances and hide out on the street and try to stay warm?"

In and out of foster care, shelters and group homes since she was a toddler, Krystal Compagna was without stable housing for most of her life. Fleeing abusive parents with drug and alcohol addictions, she spent four years as a homeless teenager on the streets of Las Vegas.

During the day, Compagna went to school and to her job at the mall. At night, she stayed at friends’ houses until their parents got suspicious, and then resorted to sleeping on porches, her school’s bleachers, and even walking all night if there was nowhere else to go.

"At first I was scared, but you get used to it," Compagna, now 20, told The NewStandard. "Would you rather try to sneak back into your house and get your ass beat basically, or would you rather take your chances and hide out on the street and try to stay warm?"

According to a July 2006 report published by the Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth (NPHY) and local service providers, there are about 383 unaccompanied homeless people between ages 12 and 20 on any given day in the Las Vegas area.

Precise nationwide figures are harder to come by. The US Conference of Mayors, which releases an annual survey on hunger and homelessness, estimated that 2 percent of the homeless population in the 23 cities participating in 2006 were unaccompanied youth. The US Conference of Mayors represents leaders of cities with 30,000 people or more.

According to data gathered by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute, a sizable portion of homeless young people identify as LGBT.

Researchers who study homelessness emphasize the difficulty of documenting any homeless population with precision. Limitations include the difficulty of locating people with no permanent address and different definitions of homelessness. Some federal agencies, for example, do not count people who are living temporarily in hotels or with family or friends. Many researchers say their studies, while generating valuable information for service providers and government, are likely an under-representation of the problem.

Compagna, who now works at the NPHY and rents her own apartment, was a so-called "throw-away kid" – a term used by service providers and the federal government to describe young people abandoned or pushed out of the home by their parents. The federal government does not produce an independent count of such people, but rather combines that population with runaways. According to the most recent federal statistics, in 1999 there were an estimated 1.68 million in the overall category.

Groups that work with this population say some end up on the streets to escape physical, emotional or sexual abuse. Others might be asked to leave home by an impoverished family to reduce the strain on younger children.

Another contributing factor to child homelessness is homophobia in the family. According to data gathered by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute, a sizable portion of homeless young people identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT). Homeless LGBT youth often face additional hardship – discrimination in the shelter system, in group homes and in foster care, according to the report.

Once on the street, young people of all sexual orientations face challenges beyond finding enough to eat and a place to sleep. NPHY’s director of community relations, Larry Lovelett, said they contend with police, thieves and sexual predators.

Homeless children are also prone to developmental delays, interruptions in their schooling and low test scores, and often have to repeat grades, the researchers found.

Lovelett, who has done extensive street outreach and mentoring of homeless young people, said some turn to "survival sex" to pay for food or a room for the night. Lovelett said his organization is hearing more stories from homeless youth who say they have been targeted by people working in illegal pornography.

"Cut and dry, they’re just being exploited," said Lovelett. "It’s something that we need to address and really go after it aggressively."

Homeless Families

Last year, Richmond, Virginia resident Crystal Bowman decided to move with two of her children into a shelter rather than continue staying in a house without heat. She said her landlord only provided a wood stove and a kerosene heater, which was insufficient to heat the entire house. When the "ice cold" house became unbearable, and she and her son got sick, Bowman went to a Salvation Army facility where they slept in a large room with about 45 others.

"It was a big adjustment, and it was hard, too," said Bowman, a single mother of eight who had struggled with drug addiction for two decades before committing to sobriety in 2004.

"[I had] low esteem; I was sad," Bowman said of her time in the shelter, adding that it was difficult for both her and her children to adjust to the new environment, rules and isolation from family and friends.

The family spent seven months in two different shelters before Bowman won a coveted spot in a transitional-housing program. She currently works at H&R Block and will find out in March if she will regain custody of two of her other children, and she thanks the shelter workers for helping her get this far.

Researchers studying homeless families across the country find that Bowman’s experiences are common. In 1999, the Institute for Children and Poverty, which is affiliated with Homes for the Homeless, surveyed 2,000 homeless families in cities across the country, from Los Angeles to Baltimore. The report found that single mothers headed the overwhelming majority of the homeless families, most raising two or more children. More than three-quarters were children of color, and more than half were in grades one through six.

The detailed survey looked at numerous layers of homelessness including conditions in shelters, the physical and emotional health of homeless children, and the impact of homelessness on education. Life on the streets and in shelters played a large role in contributing to children’s illnesses, according to the report, which found that homeless children suffered more asthma and gastrointestinal disorders and were more likely to be hospitalized.

Homeless children are also prone to developmental delays, interruptions in their schooling and low test scores, and often have to repeat grades, the researchers found.

Barbara Duffield, policy director for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, said the ongoing psychological trauma associated with being homeless often has a heavy impact on children.

"Most of them are living in extreme poverty," said Duffield, "But that poverty is exacerbated by a lot of loss – loss of housing, loss of neighborhood, loss of friends, family, possessions."

The US Department of Education definition of homeless families includes those that are doubling up temporarily or living in motels.

Mary Herrington, who works with hundreds of homeless families in the Richmond-area public school system, said many parents do not realize that their children are entitled to certain benefits under the 1986 federal McKinney Vento Homeless Assistance Act. That law requires schools to provide homeless children with free transportation to school and with free lunch. It also gives them the right to stay in the same school regardless of where the family is staying, requires states to eliminate barriers to school enrollment, and prohibits the segregation of homeless children in most districts.

Despite the Education Department’s broad definition of homelessness, Herrington told TNS that there are "hundreds of kids out there that we just aren’t able to track."

"Most of the time, the parents themselves – unless they are aware of what we’re defining as homelessness – don’t even define themselves as homeless," said Herrington. "They’ll go, ‘We’re not homeless, we’re living with my cousin. We’re living with my nephew or my son.’"

Families often hide "doubling up" in public housing because government restrictions prohibit more than one family per unit in most cases. If housing authorities find out, said Herrington, both families could end up homeless.

Herrington said the more than 1,000 homeless families she and her co-workers have documented in the Richmond-area is only "the tip of the iceberg."

According to a 23-city survey released in December by the US Conference of Mayors, requests for shelter by homeless families increased 5 percent in 2006. But even the temporary refuge of shelters is unavailable to many; the survey found more than one-quarter of families’ requests for emergency shelter were unmet in 2006.

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

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Catherine Komp is a contributing journalist.

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