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Profile: Under 18 and Homeless
Lydia M. Child described a home as That blessed word, which opens to the human heart the most perfect glimpse of Heaven, and helps to carry it thither, as on an angel s wings.
Most people take the luxury of having a home for granted, but the reality is, not every one is lucky enough to have a roof over their head every night. The question that comes to mind is simple in its essence, but not as easy to answer: How do families and kids end up on the streets and what is being done about it?
Counting the exact number of homeless people is difficult; the reported number differs depending on whom you ask. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), up to 600,000 men, women and children go homeless every night in the United States. The Better Homes Fund claims the number of homeless children alone is 1.2 million. The Fund bases their findings on the estimates from the U.S. Department of Education that reports 400,000 homeless children were served by the nation s public schools last year. Because more that half of all homeless children are under the age of six and not yet in school and some homeless kids do not attend school at all, the Fund concluded the total number of homeless children in America is 1.2 million. But whatever the number is, the fact remains the same; homeless children become a part of our cities, towns and villages. They roam the streets night after night, moving from place to place in a search of food and shelter, lacking medical attention and education.
Except during the Great Depression, women and children have never been on our nation s streets in significant numbers. During the 1980 s, cutback in benefits coupled with rapidly increasing rents and shortage of low-income housing jeopardized the stability of all people with reduced or fixed incomes. At the same time, the number of female-headed households dramatically increased. As a result, the nation s population of homeless families swelled from almost negligible numbers to nearly 40% of the overall homeless population today. A survey of 30 U.S. cities found that in 1998, children accounted for 25% of the urban homeless population and unaccompanied minors accounted for 3% of the urban homeless population. Single mothers head more that 85% of homeless families, with the average homeless family comprise of a young mother and her two young children, most of who are under the age of six. The Better Homes Fund predicts an increase in family homelessness do to tight housing markets accompanied by decreasing availability of cash benefits as a result of welfare reform.
The life of a homeless child is a wrenching, uphill struggle. The Better Homes Fund researchers found that homeless children are in fair to poor health twice as often as other children and four times as often as children whose families earn more than $35,000 a year. Medical problems for homeless children start at birth; they have higher rates of low birth weight and need special care right after birth four times as often as other children. Throughout their young lives, homeless children suffer from very high rate of acute illness, with half suffering from two or more symptoms during a single month. Homeless children are confronted with stressful, often traumatic events every day. They worry they will have no place to live, no place to sleep, and that something bad will happen to their family. That s not surprising considering that; 97% of homeless children move up to three times a year; over 30% are evicted from their housing; 22% are separated from their families, often put in foster care or sent to live with relatives; 25% have witnessed acts of violence within their family. Often they are the subjects of the abuse: 8% have been physically abused; 8% have been sexually abused. Fifteen-year-old Andrew was sent to live with his uncle after his mother was arrested for parole violation. Since Andrew did not want to put up with his uncle s abuse, he took to the street, turning to prostitution to survive, turning to drugs to cope. Andrew is just one of the hundreds of kids wasting their young lives in the back alleyways of our own cities and towns. The constant barrage of stressful and traumatic experiences has profound effects on the cognitive and emotional development of children. Homeless babies show significantly slower development than other children. One-fifth of homeless children between 3 and 6 years of age have serious emotional problems. When they reach the age between 6 and 17 they struggle with very high rates of mental health problems.
Homelessness takes children far away from their own schools and classmates. Despite state and federal efforts to provide homeless children with improved access to public schools, at least one-fifth of homeless children do not attend school. Array of reasons prevent homeless children from enrolling in school: guardianship requirements, delays in transfer of school record, lack of permanent address and immunization records. Often, homeless children enroll in schools, but can t attend because of lack of transportation. Without an opportunity to receive an education, homeless children are much less likely to acquire the skills they need to escape poverty as adults.
Federal and state government as well as numerous private and non-profit organizations are working together to bring this epidemic of homelessness to an end. Plans for immediate action and long term solutions are being developed. Stand Up For Kids, a not-for-profit organization founded in 1990 to help rescue homeless and at-risk youth, provides straightforward counseling and educational programs, thereby helping homeless children acquire the life skills necessary to become effective members of their community. Stand Up For Kids offers immediate necessities such as food, clothing, shelter and personal hygiene as well as housing assistance, education assistance, vocational development, counseling, health services, transportation to self-help meetings, and legal assistance. The Better Homes Fund presented a seven-point platform of immediate action to improve well being of homeless children. The plan entails paying more attention to the health of homeless children, emphasizes access to schooling, and aims at preventing violence. The Education of Homeless Children and Youth (EHCY) program, established by Congress in 1987 as part of the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act, provides formula grants to state educational agencies to ensure that all homeless children and youth have equal access to the same free, appropriate education, including preschool education, provided to other children and youth. State and local educational agencies receive McKinney funds to review and revise laws, regulations, practices, or policies that may act as a barrier to the enrollment, attendance, and success in school of homeless children. The Better Homes Fund s long term solution to resolve the homeless problem in America focuses on developing an adequate supply of decent affordable housing; a challenge that is even more difficult now, with the rapidly escalating cost of housing. The Fund also recommends increase of resources for poor families by raising the state and federal minimum wage sufficiently to bring a family s income above the poverty level.
What homeless children need most of all is a home; a stable, loving and caring environment in which they can grow up to be loving and caring adults. While they are experiencing homelessness, however, children desperately need to remain in school. School is one of the few stable, secure places in the lives of homeless children. A school is a place where they can acquire the skills needed to help them escape poverty. All children need adequate medical attention, especially homeless children. Steps need to be taking to ensure that the health of America s homeless children is protected.
Andrew Homeless 15-year-old
Child, Lydia M.
http://nch.ari.net – National Coalition for the Homeless 03/12/2001
www.os.dhhs.gov – Department of Health and Human Services 03/29/2001
www.standupforkinds.org – Stand Up For Kids 04/03/2001
www.thebetterhomesfund.org – The Better Homes Fund 03/12/2001
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