The Picture of Homelessness is a Family Portrait
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 50,000 homeless people, including approximately 10,000 families, and over 17,000 children sleeping each night in shelter. Families make up over 50% of the shelter population in New York City. (The Department of Homeless Services, 2020).
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 the United States, a typical homeless family is comprised of a young, single mother with a limited education who has young children. “Homelessness can have a tremendous impact on children – their education, health, sense of safety, and overall development.” For instance, these children have shown to experience more emotional and behavioral problems, higher levels of serious health issues, and have lower academic performance. (National Alliance to End Homelessness, 2020).
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, 2017).
At VOA-GNY, 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. When possible, educational field trips are 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 and Homeless Services