There are more than 1.6 million homeless children living in the United States, says The National Center on Family Homelessness. That's one in every 45 American kids who goes to sleep at night without a bed to call their own. Families with young children now account for about one third of the homeless population. And in case you are wondering why, the recession caused a 50 percent jump in the number of students identified as homeless in school districts throughout the country.
Here are seven things about being a homeless kid that you probably didn't know:
1. Making friends is harder when you're homeless.
Carey Fuller, who lives in her car with her 11-year-old daughter Maggie Warner in the Pacific Northwest, said she "cringed" when she recently took Maggie out to play in a park. Things were going fine until "someone asked her where she lived," Fuller explained. It's the death knell question, the one that throws the wet blanket on the playdate and it's usually just a matter of seconds before the other kid takes off in the direction of someone else.
"Maggie smiled and I changed the subject and off they went to play until it was time to go just before sunset," said Fuller. A happy ending, this time. Yes, it has happened more than once. Not to state the obvious, but you can't have kids over to play or have a friend sleep over if your home is the car.
Fuller became homeless after losing her job in the financial services sector in Seattle. Initially, the family downsized to a smaller apartment, but when that still proved too costly, Fuller bought an RV and moved into it with her two daughters. Maggie was a toddler at the time. The family has since downsized to a minivan. Fuller, who takes whatever part-time work she can find, is well-known as an advocate for homeless kids and writes about her life as a homeless mother living in a van.
2. Birthdays can be disappointing for a homeless kid.
Forget having a big party with lots of friends coming over. Sure you can have a party in the park if it's a nice day. But who is going to pay for the pizza and cake and if people give you presents, where will you put them anyway?
This year Birthday Dreams brought over a cake and a gift when Maggie turned 11. For the past five years, Birthday Dreams has been providing birthday parties to homeless children in the Puget Sound area. A lot of homeless kids have never seen their names on a birthday cakes, notes the Birthday Dreams website. And yeah, they get pretty thrilled.
3. Canned food drives don't actually make much sense.
"Where are homeless people supposed to cook all those cans of food you collect?" asks Maggie Warner. Homeless people have no kitchens, she points out.
Gift cards or a credit to the grocery store where they can buy fresh fruit and pre-made meals makes more sense. But some donors are reluctant to do this because they think homeless people will use the money for beer or alcohol.
4. Homeless kids aren't as healthy as kids with homes.
The National Center on Family Homelessness says that homeless kids have four times as many respiratory infections, twice as many ear infections and five times more gastrointestinal problems. They are three times more likely to have emotional and behavioral problems than non-homeless children.
Being homeless is stressful and practicing good hygiene is harder when you don't have ready access to bathrooms, sinks and showers. Homeless kids are also exposed to the weather and elements. Homelessness is connected to poverty and when you are poor, you often must rely on free clinics for health care; seeing doctors is not a regular thing.
5. Homeless kids may try hard but are more likely to struggle in school.
Of homeless elementary students, only 21.5 percent are proficient in math and 24.4 percent in reading. It is even worse among high school students, where just 11.4 percent are proficient in math and 14.6 percent in reading.
Try as they might, getting good grades is just harder when you are a homeless kid. For one, your parents -- and statistically speaking, you likely live with just your mom -- are probably busy trying to find food and safe shelter each night. There's no dining room table around which to gather, spread out your books and notes and do homework together. A lot of homeless kids rely on the public library as the safe, warm place to do homework -- you can even use a computer there. But budget cuts have reduced library hours and, by extension, study time. You can't study if there are no lights on in your car. Not having a place to study matters a lot. If the teacher gives the class a project, you and your project partners will need to meet in the library or at their house. Same is true for study groups.
Agnes Stevens, a retired teacher, began tutoring homeless kids in a park in Santa Monica, Calif., encouraging them to stay in school and participate in school activities. In 1993, she founded School on Wheels, a program that tutors homeless kids in six Southern California counties. The organization also provides backpacks, school supplies and school uniforms for homeless kids and helps their parents navigate school resources. The group runs two learning centers too.
6. Homeless kids put up with a lot of daily indignities, small things that you probably don't realize.
They appreciate getting your used clothing donations, but once in a while they'd like to wear something without some other kid's name written in it. They also don't feel great sneaking in the school bathroom before class to brush their teeth, but it's often the only place available. Maybe there's a way to issue them a free lunch card that looks like the lunch card everyone else uses? If their family doesn't have a post office box, it's hard to mail home their report card. They don't want everyone to know if the PTA paid for them to go on the class field trip. School projects that involve a trip to the crafts store for supplies pose a special burden on their families who can't afford it. Participating in sports sounds great, but soccer cleats and baseball uniforms aren't exactly in the budget. A lost textbook is a problem for a regular kid; a lost textbook is a catastrophe for a homeless kid.
7. Homeless kids are a pretty resilient lot.
When The Huffington Post asked Maggie what she wanted to say to our readers, this is what she said: "Never give up and never stop hoping things will get better even when you feel like you're at the bottom."