Child homelessness surges to nearly 2.5 million

One out of every 30 kids is homeless annually, about half of them younger than six, according to a new report. Homeless children show higher rates of developmental problems and mental health needs. 

One out of every 30 children in the United States experiences homelessness at some point during the year.

That’s nearly 2.5 million children, up from 1.6 million in 2010, reports The National Center on Family Homelessness in Waltham, Mass., part of the American Institutes for Research.

“When you look at the resources and where they’ve been driven … there’s been a national priority to address the issues for the chronic homeless and for veterans … and we’ve seen those numbers decline,” says the center’s director, Carmela DeCandia. “That’s a good thing. The problem is the same level of attention has not been paid to kids and families.”

The report relies on the definition of homelessness that schools are required to use under the federal McKinney-Vento Act, which is broader than the definition used by federal housing authorities and includes children “doubled up” with friends or relatives because of economic hardship. Based on recently released 2012-2013 data, it also includes an estimate of the number of children under 6 whose families experience homelessness.

Many of these families include single mothers struggling to raise small children. Researchers estimate that about half of homeless children are under age 6. For 20 to 50 percent of the mothers, their homelessness is caused primarily by intimate-partner violence, the report notes.

Homeless children show higher rates of developmental problems and mental health needs. Because of “the human and economic toll … we have to have decisive action now,” Ms. DeCandia says.

The report also ranks the states on a variety of factors related to child homelessness.

Kentucky is identified as the state with the highest portion of its children experiencing homelessness in a year: 66,818 in 2012-13, down from 70,090 the year before. But on another measure, the quality of state policy and planning around this issue, it ranks 20th (with 1st being the best).

The state with the smallest portion of homeless children is Connecticut: 5,508, a number similar to the year before.

One ranking uses a composite score that includes state policies, the portion of homeless children, risk factors for homelessness related to benefits and housing costs, and child well-being factors such as food security and health.

With this measure, Minnesota ranks the best and Alabama the worst.

In Alabama, more than 59,349 children experienced homelessness; there’s a high teen birth rate (39.2 per 1,000 teens); 27 percent of children live in poverty; and there is no active state interagency council on homelessness.

In Minnesota, by contrast, 23,608 children were homeless; the teen birth rate is 18.5 per 1,000; 14 percent of children live in poverty; and there is a state interagency council.

Minnesota has roughly triple the amount of shelter and housing units for families that Alabama has.

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