One in 30 children in the United States lives in a chronic state of home-lessness.
That shocking and unsettling statistic, gleaned from a recently released study by the National Center on Family Homelessness, ought to serve as a clarion call to action.
Given the immediate negative impact on homeless children’s day-to-day lives and the lasting damaging impact on their development into productive adults, social-service organizations, government-assistance agencies and state and federal legislators should work diligently to lift this insidious stain from our nation’s public profile.
In its report titled “America’s Youngest Outcasts: A Report Card on Child Homelessness,” the NCFH used the newest federal and state data available to develop a snapshot of the crisis for the nation and each of its 50 states. It concluded that while progress has been made in reducing homelessness among veterans and chronically homeless individuals, no special attention has been directed toward homeless children, whose numbers actually are increasing. In fact, the number of homeless Americans under 18 years old reached 2,483,539 in 2013, a historic high that’s nearly 1 million more than a mere seven years earlier.
Ohioans can take some — but not much — solace in its standing in the study. The Buckeye State ranks better than 28 other states in the severity of the problem and in its resources to provide help. Ohio had a proportionately low number of homeless kids to the overall population and was complimented for having a state housing trust fund.
But it was criticized for lacking a 10-year plan to focus on fighting homelessness in children and families. It also drew poor marks — 43rd out of 50 — when measuring homeless children’s well-being, which includes frequency of health problems, hunger and educational deficiencies.
In the Mahoning Valley, the plight appears to be even worse. A full 57 percent of all homeless individuals in Mahoning County are families with children, compared with a significantly lower state average of 38 percent. Given the ongoing spike in poverty in Youngstown, the scope of family homelessness here is understandable albeit difficult to swallow.
After all, poverty remains the No. 1 cause of homelessness, the NCFH reports. Other factors include the lack of affordable housing, continuing impacts of the Great Recession, racial discrimination, the struggles of single parenting and the increase in traumatic experiences, usually domestic violence, that tend to directly precede losing one’s shelter.
WHAT CAN BE DONE?
In the long term, public and private agencies must continue to chip away at each and every one of those contributing factors to homelessness among children and all Americans.
In the short term, legislation sponsored by U.S. Sen. Rob Portman in the Senate offers concrete help as a starting point. Portman’s bill, introduced last month as the Homeless Children and Youth Act of 2015, would revise the federal definition of homelessness to enable nearly 1 million more homeless children and young people nationwide to gain access to federal housing aid. By including children who live temporarily in motels or doubled up in basements with extended families, the measure creates a more realistic image of homelessness and would benefit youngsters who today have little or no access to public or private social-service providers.
Speedy passage of Portman’s bill would represent one small step toward chipping away at the edges of a perverse and growing social malady that threatens the health, safety and future of this nation’s most precious resource — its children.