Homeless Children in US: A parent-to-parent approach to help kids

A new report tries to capture the number of homeless children in the US. While the numbers could fluctuate for a number of reasons, the opportunity for parents to connect directly with other parents in need remains a constant source of hope.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
First lady Michelle Obama helps fill backpacks with items to give to homeless children at the Inspired Teaching School in northeast Washington. The number of homeless children enrolled in public schools hit a record 1.3 million in 2012-13, reports the US Education Department.

At the end of the school day children go home, except for the approximately 2.5 million of “America’s Youngest Outcasts,” who have only a homeless shelter, car, or street corner to which they return with homework and hunger as their companions.  

A report, titled “America’s Youngest Outcasts,” published by the National Center on Family Homelessness states that nearly 2.5 million American children were homeless at some point in 2013. 

According reports, the center’s calculation was based on the Education Department’s latest count of homeless children in public schools, currently at 1.3 million, plus estimates of homeless preschool children counted by other agencies. While it is an important first step in tackling child homelessness, getting exact numbers can be hard.

“This data is deeply disconcerting,” says Bill Young, chief development officer for ForKids, a charity working to serve homeless families in Virginia.

“Still, the study is undercounting because, while the school data is reliable, it really has only the HUD (Housing and Urban Development) data to speak for the zero to pre-k children who are homeless.” 

Mr. Young adds that outside of schools supplying reliable data, the numbers get more fuzzy.

“One of the challenges with family homelessness as a whole is getting good data that will allow us to appropriately size the problem. We’re also not even close to serving the number they are identifying here either.”

Young explains this may be because schools are often viewed by homeless parents as a source of free, enriched child care for which is an incentive to send kids to school. Therefore school numbers are often more accurate than HUD data which relies on intermittent head counts at shelters.

“I think when they focus on school data, while not perfect, at least it tends to be more reflective and have a broader definition – families doubled and tripled up,” Young says referring to the practice of homeless families being taken in by relatives or family members.

He points out that it is fairly common for people not to identify themselves as “homeless” because they are not living on the street, in a shelter, or motor vehicle. ForKids often has to help families to define homelessness – when a family does not have a place of its own – as a first step in order to seek help. 

I have learned a lot about this topic and the work of For Kids and other organizations are trying to do since I answered a request for holiday gifts and food posted by a homeless mom on an online community message board at this time of year several years ago.

At the time, my husband felt we needed to be doing a better, more impactful, job of making our four sons into volunteers instead of becoming focused on their own Christmas lists. He felt that just giving canned goods or a used coat for the needy was a good start, but we needed to be more hands-on in our family’s volunteerism.

The family of three (mom, dad, and daughter) was living in a minivan in mid-November. The mom had used a computer at a local library to post on the message board that she wanted to give her child “a good holiday” which included some food for Thanksgiving and perhaps a gift for Christmas.

There are numerous message boards nationwide that allow communities to setup contained systems within their city, or even a neighborhood, such as Freecycle and Nextdoor. However, there are also churches and local outreach programs like ForKids that can help directly connect those ready to help with a local family in need.

The day I met the family in a parking lot and saw the squalor of the vehicular home, and the vacant look on the gaunt face of the pre-teen daughter – I made it my business to learn all I could about how prevalent this kind of situation was in my community.

I decided to answer one ad a month, year-round, to provide food, clothing, or other forms of aid to homeless families with young children in our area. My older sons come with me often. My youngest son, age 10, participates in these one-on-one efforts only after I have gotten to know the families, as I feel it is best to meet the families first, especially when it comes to connecting with others directly online without the help of another organization.

I have done this for the past three years and in so doing have met families squatting in abandoned buildings, living in shelters, or packed into apartments or homes with several other families.

One of the first things I learned when I contacted ForKids three years ago, in order to try and get more help for the families I was assisting, is that while we may tend to have the homeless in the forefront of our minds when temperatures drop, the fact is that family homelessness spikes in summer, when kids are out of school and no records are being accurately kept of their whereabouts.

Therefore, I also learned that the kind of study being presented by the National Center on Family Homelessness is critical, but also limited in its ability to truly reveal the whole picture of how many homeless families are in our nation and when they need help most.

As Young explained to me, and as I have witnessed, too many parents fear the systems in place to provide assistance.

“Homeless parents – and I don’t think incorrectly - harbor a distrust of the ‘system’ where families had less than positive engagement with service providers. There’s a feeling that ‘I won’t get help even if I reach out,’” says Young. 

“They don’t want their children taken away by CPS [Child Protective Services]. They fear the stigma of homelessness on their children.”

Add to all that the fact that, according to Young, immigration issues also keep many parents from self-identifying their homeless status for fear of repercussions with Immigration and Naturalization Services.

“You begin to see how much bigger this issue is than the data we can see,” Young said.

While this report continues to help us see what’s going on in our communities, it may be up to us to reach out to fellow parents when we suspect a child may be homeless.

I have found that often it’s not about the food or warm coat, but knowing that they are still considered part of the parenting fold that can make a difference in their ability to hold on and move forward.

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