Monday, November 5, 2007

The Plight Of Children In Homeless Families

This month is Homeless Youth Awareness Month. Yesterday we noted that there are two types of homeless youth… kids who are homeless because their parents are homeless, and kids who run away or get thrown out of their families’ homes.
Today lets talk about the first type, children who spend their childhoods on the streets because their parents are homeless.
The typical homeless family consists of a single mother in her late twenties, and two or three children who are ages 6 and under. Keep in mind this is only typical… there are many two-parent families, single fathers, and older children, who are homeless.
Starting at the beginning, we may ask, how does a family become homeless in the first place? Certainly it doesn’t just happen overnight. Do families become homeless because lazy parents refuse to work?
Actually, although there may be a few families in the world who become homeless because the parents just don’t feel like trying to keep their family afloat, common sense would tell us that this is very rare! In reality, there are many factors that cause family homelessness.
A large one is lack of affordable housing. Imagine you and your spouse have three children under the age of seven. Both you and your spouse have minimum wage jobs, each making about $ 10,040 a year. You are living in an apartment in a slightly poor neighborhood… it isn’t the ghetto, exactly, but it is definitely run down. You have a two-bedroom apartment, in which all three of your children share the second bedroom. You’re paying what is a pretty low price for a two bedroom in your area, $950 a month. After you pay the rent each month, you have about $723 left. You spend about $250 a month on food, being very careful to watch your budget. This gives you $473 per month to spend on transportation costs, electricity and phone bills, clothing and supplies for you and the children, and anything else you may need. It doesn’t give you much room to build up any sort of savings, does it? Now imagine a crisis happening in your family. Your spouse loses her job, you get injured in a car wreck, one of your children becomes seriously ill, or just about anything happens that results in less money coming in but more expenses to be dealt with. How are you going to be able to keep your meager 2-bedroom apartment?
Other factors causing homelessness include natural disasters, unemployment or underemployment, health issues, domestic violence, teen pregnancy, mental health issues, and substance abuse. Often it may be several of these problems stacked on top of each other. For instance, because of underemployment, a family doesn’t have health insurance, so when the mother becomes ill, she waits to go to the doctor until her illness is very serious, and she then learns she has breast cancer. By this time the mother is so ill that she can no longer go to work, and medical bills pile up and pile up. Meanwhile the father is so stressed out by the fear of what will happen to his wife, the guilt about not being able to afford the best medical treatment for her, and the worries of all the bills, that he becomes seriously depressed and misses many days of work. Soon, the family gets evicted from their apartment!
When a family becomes homeless, children go through a lot of traumatizing experiences. First of all, just the experience of having to leave their home behind, with no place else to go to, is horrible. Families generally can’t bring all of their belongings with, so children may have to choose one or two special toys to keep with them, leaving their other things behind. Certainly pets have to be left behind! Neighborhood friends, favorite TV shows, and routines are all lost.
The event that caused the homelessness might have been traumatizing to children as well. For instance, 63% of homeless mothers were violently abused by their partners… and 25% of homeless children have witnessed violence in their homes.
Once they are homeless, children are at risk to witness even more violence, not necessarily in their families but in other places. Children may witness fights break out in the shelter they are staying in, for instance. They also have experiences such as being hungry and not having access to food, being sick and not having access to medical care, etc.
Children who stay in shelters with their families may never get a chance to feel “at home”. Many shelters have a limit for how long families can stay… Often it is 30 days. After that, if families haven’t been able to secure a place to live, they have to leave and find a different shelter. They may also experience staying temporarily with family friends or relatives, only to have to leave again because the host family can’t continue to put them up.
Sometimes, homeless families choose to or are forced to let children be put in foster homes, or send them to live with friends or relatives. The trauma of being separated from their parents and worrying about how their parents are doing, and sometimes even being separated from siblings, can take a lot out of children.
Tomorrow we will learn about some programs that are working to help homeless children, and some things that you, as an individual, can do to help these kids as well!

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