Several days ago, I received an inquiry regarding the "… misconceptions of family homelessness."
Because I wasn’t altogether certain which misconceptions in particular the person was asking about, I let the matter be. There are, after all, quite a number of misconceived ideas regarding homeless families. As I continued to think about it however, there was one misconception which I thought I’d address: the availability of homeless support services for families.
First, it’s important to recognize one relevant fact: families are the fastest growing segment of the nation’s homeless population.
The National Coalition for the Homeless fact sheet, Homeless Families With Children, states:
"One of the fastest growing segments of the homeless population is families with children. In 2007, 23% of all homeless people were members of families with children. Research indicates that families, single mothers, and children make up the largest group of people who are homeless in rural areas.
Recent evidence confirms that homelessness among families is increasing. The rate of requests for emergency assistance by families rose faster than the rate for any other group between 2006 and 2007. In some cities, it rose by as much as 15%. 71% of cities surveyed reported an increase in the number of families with children seeking emergency assistance. Every single one of the 23 cities surveyed expected an increase in the number of families with children seeking assistance in 2008. While the average number of emergency shelter beds for homeless families with children increased by 8% in 2005, an average of 32% of requests for shelter by homeless families were denied in 2005 due to lack of resources."
The words which stand out most prominently – at least to me – are: "… lack of resources."
Perhaps the biggest fallacy is that homeless families have a better chance of acquiring assistance than do homeless singles. If anything, these families are at a greater disadvantage because the shelter system is primarily designed to provide services to single adult men. Even those shelters which attempt to assist homeless families are generally ill equipped to meet their needs.
As for government assistance – again, there is a noticeable "lack of resources."
Despite the surge in communities which are implementing multi-year plans to end homelessness, these plans will cater only to those individuals who can be classified as "chronically homeless."
A "chronically homeless" person is defined as "an unaccompanied homeless individual with a disabling condition who has either been continuously homeless for a year or more, or has had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years."
Because of the phrase, "… an unaccompanied homeless individual," homeless families will automatically be excluded from receiving assistance under these plans. Nor, does it seem that HUD will be altering its policies – at least not any time soon – in such a way to allow homeless families access to those services.
Even at the local levels, governments are not allocating resources to help families which find themselves homeless.
Personally I believe there are two reasons for this.
First, there is the assumption that a family which is facing homelessness has a place to go; that they can "double up" with other family members or with friends. Unfortunately, the declining economy, a record number of foreclosures and the rise in unemployment have made it more difficult for families to help one another by "taking them in."
Second, because there is a lack of awareness regarding the actual demographics of a community’s local homeless population, most communities still tend to believe that homelessness occurs only to single adult men. As a result, when funding and resources are allocated, they seldom take into account the needs of families.
I think it’s a good thing that there is a definite push to end chronic homelessness. However, I also believe that it is short sighted not to have a similar push to end family homelessness. If anything, I think it’s more vital that we address the latter.
You see – when a person becomes homeless, it happens only to that person; a single individual.
In contrast, when a family finds themselves homeless, it affects a minimum of two persons all at once.
If – for every one chronically homeless person helped off the streets – there is a family who becomes homeless, it turns into a "one step forward, two steps back" situation. Consequently, unless we begin providing the funding for adequate resources, the numbers of homeless will continue to rise, despite our best efforts.
Lack of awareness. Lack of resources.
I hope that these aren’t due to a lack of common sense…
… or compassion.