It’s common, if infrequently articulated, knowledge that homelessness isn’t good for you. Homelessness is accompanied by a substantially higher mortality rate than has the population at large, difficulty obtaining employment, and enormous social stigma.
These negative impacts are compounded for homeless children, and their schooling suffers as a result. Researchers at Columbia University have found that homeless children are half again as likely as their housed peers to perform below grade level in reading and spelling, and more than twice as likely to perform poorly in math.
The causes are obvious: Without stable housing, homeless children are subject to far higher stress; they frequently do not have adequate space to do homework. They lack access to many of the resources employed by their housed peers.
With the current recession, this problem is expanding dramatically. Looking at the first year of the recession, the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth (NAEHCY) and First Focus published the report The Economic Crisis Hits Home: The Unfolding Increase in Child & Youth Homelessness. NAEHCY looked into homeless student populations at 1,716 school districts across the country. In the first semester of the 2008–2009 school year, nearly 20% of these districts had enrolled more homeless students than they had in the entirety of the 2007–2008 school year. A further 49% had seen at least half the prior year’s number of students within the first few months. Over 95% reported some increase. And 2008–2009 built on increases the prior school year.
We’ve seen the same situation in San Francisco, where the demand for family shelter has become so great that the wait list for a homeless family to receive shelter is now several months long.
We’re in trouble.
Over the years, on multiple occasions, politicians on the Federal government have proposed segregated schools for homeless children as a means of addressing needs unique to these kids. As a society, we renounced this kind of thinking in 1954 when the Warren Supreme Court finally delegitimized state-condoned segregation.
What’s the solution? NAEHCY is supportive of a great number of efforts within schools to better inform educators of homeless children’s unique challenges, and to integrate efforts with the district homeless liaison. But a real long-term solution must be bigger than this: We need there to be funding for programs that support homeless youth, and even more than that, we need the government to restore funding for housing that will prevent families from children from becoming homeless in the first place.
On January 20, homeless people’s organizations from across the West Coast will converge on the Federal Building here in San Francisco to launch our movement to demand that the Federal government address the issue of homelessness honestly, and with the urgency that the crisis merits. This is one of our demands.