The Economics Of Homelessness: Defining Difficult Terms

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Child homelessness in the U.S. is on the rise, according to a report published last month by the National Center on Family Homelessness. The study showed that 2.5 million American children were homeless at some point in 2013 – one child in every 30, an all-time historical high for the United States.

The report’s findings were based on figures established by the US Department of Health, which counted 1.3 million homeless children in public schools last year. This number was supplemented with estimates of homeless children left uncounted by the department. Overall, the report found rises in child homelessness in 31 states and the District of Columbia, and ranked the states according to their current efficacy at tackling the problem. Alabama was given the worst score, while Minnesota came top, with just 17% of its households spending more than 50% of their monthly income on rent.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the NCFH’s study was widely publicized. National newspapers ran it as one of their biggest stories; even the British paper The Guardian produced an article on the report, noting the extreme disparities between states’ abilities to house their inhabitants.

Yet the findings of the study, entitled America’s Youngest Outcasts, stand in stark contrast to the conclusions drawn by a similar document – the 2014 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, drawn up by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). According to the HUD, homelessness actually fell by 2% between 2013 and 2014, and by 11% since 2007. This decline was observed across the four groups targeted by federal aid – homeless individuals, homeless families, homeless veterans and the so-called ‘chronically homeless’.

So, why the difference between the two reports? In an interview with the online magazine AV Club, American comedian Jimmy Kimmel jokingly observed, “My definition of cursing is probably different from what other people’s are.” The same principle applies here – except that it is the word ‘homeless’ that is being inconsistently interpreted, not the verb ‘cursing’.

The HUD understanding of the term is narrower than the one used by the Department of Education. It focuses largely on individuals living in places not fit for human habitation (sidewalks, stations, airports and so on). Though HUD figures include the sheltered homeless – those who have been given a roof for the night in designated emergency locations; those who have beds in state-controlled transitional apartments – the HUD does not define as homeless those who are staying with friends and relatives, often for free.

The HUD also relies heavily on its ‘Point in Time’ (PIT) counting method, whereby officials count the number of homeless people on one night in January. In this year’s study, PIT reported that 216,261 family members were homeless on a single night in January, with almost 60% of these children under the age of 18. Without doubt, PIT provides an invaluable snapshot of the housing situation in the US, in what is perhaps the hardest month of the year for the homeless. But it is still only suggestive of the general experience of the homeless over long stretches of time.

The NCFH report, by contrast, understands the term ‘homeless’ slightly differently, applying what is known as the McKinney-Vento definition, which has sway in a number of federal departments. Like the HUD definition, this word embraces those who lack a fixed nighttime residence– but it also applies to those who do not have the resources to reside in their current housing for more than 14 days, as well as to those who are staying with others (or ‘doubling-up’).

It is estimated that 75% of homeless children nationally live in doubled-up situations. Such arrangements tend to go unseen and unreported: Those hosting the homeless often have strong incentives not to disclose their activities to officials or outsiders, for fear of rendering themselves vulnerable to eviction due to lease violation. As a result, HUD figures on child homelessness leave hundreds of thousands of homeless youths uncounted and invisible to the American public and its policy-makers.

The literature on U.S. homelessness has vastly expanded since the 1980s, when the issue began to be a major national problem. While definitions of the term continue to be argued over, there is something approaching consensus on the traumatic impacts of homelessness itself, especially on child development. A recent study found that up to 26% of homeless pre-school children had mental health problems, which increased to up to 40% among homeless school-age children – two to four times the rate for poor children in a similar age bracket.

Jack Shonkoff, of the Center for the Developing Child at Harvard, argues that stress in childhood is “an important part of healthy development” that teaches the body how to deal with threat. Yet he warns that, “When these responses remain activated at high levels for significant periods of time without adequate caretaking and supportive relationships to help calm them, toxic stress results. This can impair the development of neural connections, especially in the areas of the brain dedicated to higher-order skills.”

Homeless children are considerably more likely to undergo toxic stress and early traumatic experiences, particularly those involving violent victimization. Such experiences can lead to altered brain size, permanently damaged cognitive skills, ill-functioning memory and difficulties with emotional self-regulation, amongst other problems.

Tax attorney Nikki Johnson-Huston Esq. experienced chronic homelessness herself from the age of nine. She has spoken of the devastating impact it had on her personal development. “I never discussed with people that I’d been homeless,” she said in October, when asked why she (temporarily) dropped out of college. “There are preconceived notions that you’re dirty, that you’re stupid, that there’s something wrong with you. I felt like I was an imposter. I had this double life where I pretended like I had a family, like I was normal, but I wasn’t.”

The NCFH report offers compelling evidence that child homelessness has reached epidemic proportions in the US. The reasons for this rise are complex – lack of affordable housing, the Great Recession, the challenges of single parenting, others. Yet if the problem is to be solved, and the federal government’s 2020 goal to eradicate homelessness achieved, there must first be agreement as to what child homelessness actually is.

There is every reason to expect that, once the scale of the problem is realised, the government will be sort it out. Opening Doors, a 2013 federal study on national homeless, reported a 15.7% reduction in the number of chronically homeless individuals between 2010-13, and a 24% decrease in homeless veterans in the same period. The Bush administration worked hard to combat chronic homelessness, while the Obama administration has concentrated on alleviating veteran homelessness. Manifestly, when the fed sets its mind to lifting specific social groups out of housing poverty, it often produces dramatic improvements.

As Shonkoff observed, “It is easier and less costly to form strong brain circuits during the early years than it is to intervene or ‘fix’ them later. Research on traumatic life experiences and their impact on the child’s developing brain make a strong case for the critical importance of prevention and early intervention in the lives of extremely poor and homeless children.”


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