There is a new--and ominous--face on America’s expanding homeless population: Families with young children have become the fastest-growing segment of the population now living on the nation’s streets.
A 1990 survey of 30 American cities by the U.S. Conference of Mayors shows that families with youngsters now represent at least one-third of the homeless population--up from a relative handful a decade before.
In Los Angeles; New York; Louisville, Ky.; Alexandria, Va.; Kansas City; Philadelphia; San Antonio; Trenton, N.J.; and Portland, Ore., families account for more than 40% of the homeless population, according to the report.
The Rev. Stephen E. Burger, who heads a group of 240 shelters run by the International Union Gospel Mission in Seattle, says the statistics only validate the obvious.
“In 1974, we had 14 beds for women and children in the mission I worked for in Seattle, and only half were filled,” Burger says. “In 1989, that same mission had 120 beds set aside for women and kids and they were full every night. We’re seeing that all over the country.”
BACKGROUND: Experts say the increase in homeless families stems from a variety of factors--sudden personal misfortunes exacerbated by difficult economic conditions, the increase in single-parent households in general and a rise in the number of divorces and in the number of women who are choosing to live alone.
“A growing number of the homeless are persons who subscribe to mainstream values, norms and aspirations, but have experienced some situational misfortune that severely impacted their lifestyle,” says a 1991 report by the National Urban League.
Census reports show that the poorest families in the country are single-parent households headed by women.
The incidence also varies widely by region. Dr. Ellen L. Bassuk, president of the Better Home Foundation and a psychologist at Harvard University Medical School, says some 90% of the homeless families in the Northeast are headed by women, compared to 70% in the Southwest.
Studies also show that the overall face of the homeless is changing. The homeless population is younger now: More than half of the people in shelters and on the streets today are under the age of 35.
By contrast, five years ago there were so few homeless children that Burger’s Gospel Mission did not even include them in surveys. Now, children make up almost a quarter of the people sleeping in their shelters, he says.
A survey of homeless shelters across the country by the Child Welfare League of America estimates that there are between 100,000 and 200,000 children in homeless families, with an average age of 6.
More than half of the children live with only one parent, the study shows. And many of the parents in the local shelters have children who have been placed in foster care as well as those who are living with them in shelters or on the street.
Schooling is a big problem. The survey by the United Gospel Mission found that of the children in shelters who are old enough to go to school, some 43% are not currently attending classes anywhere.
Moreover, the study shows, homeless children are three times more likely than children in the general population to be abused or neglected. And more than 10% of the homeless youngsters surveyed needed medical care.
OUTLOOK: To help deal with the problem, state and local social service agencies are turning to a new approach--pushing for transitional and long-range programs for the homeless rather than just offering one-night shelters.
“It’s either that or recycle them through the shelter system in big cities,” Burger says.
But Helen R. Keys, a program director for the Child Welfare League of America, says resources to carry out the new approach are scarce. “There’s not a lot out there for prevention,” Keys says. “Many cities are still dealing with crisis-oriented planning.”