In a BBC documentary aired last month, the TV journalists visit a free health clinic where a nightmarishly endless hallway is lined on both sides with hopeful patients. It shows us Detroit, where there are plenty of empty houses, but people live in tent cities. Why does America have thousands upon thousands of empty buildings from sea to shining sea, while people live under tarps in the woods? What’s up with that?
In the documentary, an expert is interviewed, who says, if you ask poor families, “Did your children have enough to eat?,” the overwhelming bulk of them will say “Yes.” Hey, Mr. Expert, maybe they’re afraid that if they answer “No,” the child protection authorities will take their kids away and assign them to foster homes. The astonishing statement is made that a million and a half children are homeless in America.
The Campaign to End Child Homelessness says, “approximately 1.6 million American children go to sleep without a home of their own each year,” and a casual Googling finds the one-and-a-half-million number often repeated. But then the National Alliance to End Homelessness says:
On a given night, just over 636,000 people are homeless in the United States.
And only a fraction of the total is made up of children, so that comes out to way less than a million and a half. The problem here is, they’re talking about two different methods of counting. Not every child who becomes homeless stays that way forever. A lot of their families find accommodations, sooner or later.
Another set of information comes from The State of Homelessness in America 2012, a PDF report that can be downloaded from the linked page. Strangely, this report does not offer a count of children, per se, but includes them in the category “families with children.” It says:
The number of people in families with children makes up 37 percent of the overall population, a total of 236,181 people in 77,186 family households.
To count as a family household, there has to be at least one child, so at a very bare minimum, there are at least 77,000 homeless children at any given time. This report also talks about kids who “age out” of foster care, “throwaway children,” and unaccompanied homeless youth. Runaways count as homeless during their escapades, but most go home within a week.
So, at some point during any year, more than a million and a half children experience homelessness, even if only for a very short time. And, on any specific day or night, tens of thousands of children are unquestionably homeless.
Even if the numbers are not as large as we were led to believe, that is unfortunately no consolation. For each one of those unformed humans, every disruption, every move, every loss, every new set of people to get used to, every school switch, and every change of environment takes its toll.
Lack of regular, stable housing, and the resulting transitions, can negatively affect children’s development, including their physical, social-emotional, and cognitive development. Children who are homeless may suffer from hunger, poor physical and emotional health, and missed educational opportunities.
We’re talking about three times the emotional and behavioral problems that housed kids have. We’re talking about hyperactivity, attention deficit, withdrawal, aggression, poor impulse control, anxiety, depression, sleep problems, learning disabilities, below-grade-level academic performance, and lower IQ scores. As a risk factor, being poor and homeless is much worse than being just plain poor. Just think, all these thousands of messed up kids are the future of America, and the future is not looking good.
A very recent Huffington Post story mentions research from Harvard’s Center on the developing child which warns of the bad consequences when the developing brain circuits of young children are interfered with. And what causes that interference? The stress of being homeless, or even housed and poor:
Over the past two decades, researchers have accumulated a mass of information about the effects of stress on young children. What they’ve found is that extreme and persistent stress can mold the architecture of the developing brain in lasting ways… kids who grow up poor are often exposed to circumstances that produce high levels of stress hormones, a condition known as toxic stress.
One of the issues discussed in the BBC documentary is the controversy over a politician suggesting that kids might be employed at assistant janitor jobs. He is accused of advocating child labor, perhaps unfairly — maybe he had teenage “kids” in mind. But what really upset some critics was the particular job he suggested, which involves mopping floors and cleaning bathrooms.
Guess what? There is nothing degrading in custodial work. The attitude that nobody should have to do cleaning work is absurd, because the environments we inhabit obviously need to be cleaned. In a hospital, where so many patients pick up infections, a conscientious janitor might save more lives in a day than a doctor does. The notion that something is wrong if a youth works as a cleaner is an insult to every person who ever held a maintenance job, the present writer included.
So forget that pointless nonsense. What about paying the grownups who hold those jobs sufficiently so their kids don’t have to even think about working, and can stay in school long enough to get a diploma? What about paying the adult janitors enough so their kids can sleep under a roof instead of in a car? Seems like that would be a much more productive topic for discussion. Please consider this your invitation to learn about possibilities offered by the Universal Living Wage.
Source: “Poor America – Panorama BBC,” YouTube.com, 02/13/12
Source: “Obama Budget: Congress Weighs Homeless Children’s ‘Toxic Stress’,” The Huffington Post, 02/16/12
Image by Valerie Everett, used under its Creative Commons license.