Homelessness among children is more widespread than imagined, and the many problems faced by these children, from instability to personal safety, seriously impact their education. Yet federal housing policies undercut the ability of local organizations to implement proven solutions.
A recent study by Schoolhouse Washington, an education research initiative in Washington State, discovered that three out of four of the 41,000 homeless children in the state spend their nights “doubled-up or couch-surfing.”
The study found that “students experiencing homelessness who are doubled-up (staying with others due to loss of housing, economic hardship or a similar reason) have similarly poor academic outcomes as those living in hotels/motels, in shelters and unsheltered.”
Further, homeless children as a whole perform worse academically than low-income students who are housed, scoring 10 percentage points lower on Washington’s math and English tests than their housed low-income peers.
Given the negative impact of homelessness on student outcomes, it is shocking to find that federal housing policies work against local organizations that provide important assistance to children and their families who are homeless.
Federal housing policy is dictated by the so-called “Housing First” approach, which was developed for the chronically homeless, largely single men and single women, and which essentially warehouses these individuals in housing without any accountability requirements.
This federal policy discriminates against private non-profit organizations that seek to attack the root causes of homelessness, such as addiction, mental illness, and employment, through requiring sobriety, work, and similar accountability measures so as to truly transform the lives of homeless adults and their children.
The feds classify the programs of these organizations as “high barrier,” which prevent them from receiving federal funding.
The Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development also has a narrow definition of homelessness, which does not include families who live in their cars or are couch-surfing. Yet, as the education data prove, couch-surfing children have as poor educational outcomes as children who are unsheltered.
Earlier this year, a large group of these organizations co-signed a letter to HUD Secretary Dr. Ben Carson “urging [Carson and his agency] to prioritize children and families within the homelessness assistance programs, as well as programs that encourage accountability on the part of their participants/residents.”
“Collectively,” say the organizations, “our programs are working to address these root causes, and to successfully transform the lives of those experiencing deep poverty so that they are no longer reliant on government assistance.”
For example, the hugely successful Sacramento-based Saint John’s Program for Real Change is a shelter program for women and their children. “No sob stories. No excuses. Just a challenge,” says Saint John’s.
“Mothers dig down to the root causes of their homelessness and start making enormous life changes through comprehensive mental health services, GED attainment, and career education,” says the program.
“All the while,” according to Saint John’s, “their children also receive emotional and developmental support through our Children’s Program.”
Saint John’s has served 30,000 women and their children, yet, despite its success, HUD says Saint John’s cannot receive any funding because it requires accountability on the part of its participants.
Earlier this year, President Trump signed a poverty-reduction executive order, which seeks to “promote economic mobility, strong social networks, and accountability to the American taxpayers.”
The president’s order requires the HUD secretary to review programs that do not require work for the receipt of benefits, and encourages “entities that have demonstrated success in equipping participants with skills necessary to obtain employment that enables them to financially support themselves and their families.”
HUD should therefore prioritize, not discriminate against, programs that advance the president’s order.
We can address the problem of homeless children successfully, but government needs to focus on solutions that are working, not bureaucratic policies that are failing.