Counting homelessness

Back on March 10, the National Center on Family Homelessness released a report with the widely reported headline 1 in 50 children in America are homeless each year. Its summary continues, “Without a voice, more than 1.5 million of our nation’s children go to sleep without a home each year. ” This is certainly a provocative number, and one that was presented in most places with either a hint of skepticism or, over at the Murdoch and Moonie press, with outright ridicule.

Looking at the report, I tend to think the mainstream press, for once, got their tone more or less right.  The NCFH seems to have overreached, which is probably a shame given the reality of our growing poverty and foreclosure crisis…The executive summary to this report exclaims, “It is unacceptable for one child in the United States to be homeless for even one day.”  It is hard to disagree with the pious sentiment, though almost equally hard not to note that it suffers argumentum ad misericordiam.

The numbers struck me, in part, because during my relatively comfortable, lower-middle class childhood, I was (apparently) homeless during at least two year-long intervals. The definition of homelessness used by NCFH for this report includes:

  • Sharing the housing of other persons due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or a similar reason (sometimes referred to as doubled-up);
  • Living in motels, hotels, trailer parks, or camping grounds due to lack of alternative accommodations;
  • Living in emergency or transitional shelters;
  • Abandoned in hospitals;
  • Awaiting foster care placement;
  • Using a primary nighttime residence that is a public or private place not designed for, or ordinarily used as, a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings;
  • Living in cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, substandard housing, bus or train stations, or similar settings;
  • Migratory children who qualify as homeless because they are living in circumstances described above.

It is clearly the case that all of these life situations reflect social and economic issues for which government action is desperately needed. But most also fall outside of what the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development calls literal homelessness. By narrower criteria, 330,000 children were homeless in 2007, a number which surely must be considerably higher in 2009 (though certainly still short of NCFH’s 1.5 million).

I suppose it is not much more than my own somewhat vacuous piety to reiterate that political ends are best served by accuracy and honesty in social analysis, rather than by hyperbole.  In this vein, I think reporting divided numbers on a variety of problem situations facing children would ultimately serve goals of improving social welfare better than lumping them together into a single over-broad category of homelessness.  Leo Strauss, to my mind, has no place in our discourse on the left.

I am actually most curious for this post to try to solicit the childhood experiences of readers here. Many of you, like myself, must have lived parts of your childhoods in situations itemized by the NCFH’s homelessness definition; some, unlike myself, were also “literally homeless” in the HUD sense. What were the concrete realities of these situations, and more specifically, how did you and the adults around you perceive these situations? What actions and programs by government would have alleviated the ills of these situations most directly?

One thought on “Counting homelessness”

  1. I spent this past winter working at a homeless shelter. Last year, the shelter had maybe two familes, this winter we had 25!! We were the luckily ones, the other winter shelters had up to fifty families in the 3 1/2 months the shelter was open.
    Babies are the easiest, they don’t know what is going on and will have no memories of being homeless. The younger children, age 2 to 6 years, are excited- this is a fun game. Visiting new places, stay at hotels, jumping on beds. The parents can convince them they are on vacation. Kids age 7 to about 10 years know what is going on. They are quite when the come into the shelter and when the case manager visits them at the hotel. If they are lucky, the family was “voucher’ed” at a hotel near enough to their school and the school is being cool about letting the child stay at that school (all school district have rules set up to allow homeless student to attend their home school or transfer to new schools with no problems. The districts have money, bus tokens and supplies at the ready for these families). But with all the parents are dealing with, getting the kids to school comes in last. (That does not make them bad parents, just way overwhelmed) These kids will remember being homeless and they may not get over it. Kids age 11 to 13 are pissed. They have been up rooted from friends and everything they own and love. They understands there will be no Christmas, Santa will not be coming down the chimney with i-pods and x-boxes. They feel cheated. The older kids, 14 and up, take on adult roles and responsibilities. They may still be pissed, but they can understand the gravity of the situation. They talk about taking care of their parents, of protecting younger siblings, of leaving school to find work- legal work or other wise.

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