The Picture of Homelessness is a Family Portrait

January is National Poverty in America Awareness Month, a time of year dedicated to raising awareness and calling attention to the growth of poverty in America. In order for us to do that, we should first understand the issues at hand. For many Americans, the word “homeless” evokes a snapshot of a transient individual, but in reality, the picture of homelessness in America today is a family portrait. The nation’s children and families make up the fastest growing segment of the homeless population. In New York City, there are more than 60,000 homeless people, including more than 15,000 families, and more than 23,000 children sleeping each night in shelter. Families make up three quarters of the shelter population in New York City. (Coalition for the Homeless Basic Facts About Homelessness).

Homelessness is a traumatic experience for families. It disrupts every aspect of family life, damaging the physical and emotional health of family members, interfering with children’s education and development, and frequently resulting in the separation of family members.

In New York City, a typical homeless family is a 34-year-old single mother with two children under the age of six. What’s most unfortunate is that only nine states include homeless children as a priority population. About 25% of homeless families have an open case for child abuse or neglect. By age 12, 83% of homeless children have been exposed to at least one serious violent event while nearly 25% have witnessed acts of violence within their families. Sadly, this takes a toll on the child’s future behavior. “Children who witness violence are more likely than those who have not to exhibit frequent aggressive and antisocial behavior, increased fearfulness, higher levels of depression and anxiety, and have a greater acceptance of violence as a means of resolving conflict,” (Green Doors Family Homelessness Facts).

Another devastating consequence of homelessness for children is the disruption of education. In New York City, one in seven public school students will be homeless during elementary school. The typical student who is homeless has half the proficiency on their fifth grade math and English Language Art assessments and has twice the risk of being held back a grade. Homeless students are also eight to nine times more likely to repeat a grade and more likely to be placed in special education classes as a result of chaotic living situations, multiple relocations, and school transfers (Institute of Children and Poverty Report).

At VOA, we work with homeless children and their families and try to mitigate the impact of their circumstances. Each of our family shelters has an on-site Board of Education representative who makes sure the children are enrolled in school. Our Childcare and Recreation staff are available for tutoring, to supervise homework, and offer any additional help the children need after school. Educational field trips are regularly scheduled to local destinations like the American Museum of Natural History.

Thanks to our corporate volunteers, the children in our programs are given parties around the holidays and school supplies at the start of the school year. If a child needs special supplies – poster boards for a class project, for instance – our staff make sure they have them to avoid having the child feel different than his or her peers in school. Sincere acts like these have a large impact on the health and education of the child and aid in the development of a healthier family portrait.

Revised by Noelle Withers, AVP, NYC Housing Services