Hiding in the Shadows: Don't Forget About California's Homeless Children

11/24/2015 06:13 pm ET Updated Nov 24, 2016

An older African-American man seated in a wheelchair, his left leg amputated, a crudely worded sign propped up next to him: "Homeless Vet -- Support Your Troops." A blond-haired white woman with her head bowed holding a piece of cardboard that states: "Hungry & Homeless." The sign of the middle-aged Latino man outside the post office: "I used to be your neighbor."

We have grown accustomed to these images in communities across the country. We have often times become complacent in our response or our lack thereof. From Los Angeles to New York City, cities and states are grappling with ways to address the surge in their homeless populations. Hawaii's governor declared a state of emergency in October; the city and county of Los Angeles have authorized almost $200 million in recent spending to attack its homeless crisis; and homelessness in New York City is reportedly at its highest levels since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

While there are some reports of progress in curbing homelessness among veterans and chronically homeless individuals nationwide, there is one population in particular that continues to rise: homeless children. Approximately 2.5 million children experienced homelessness in this country in 2013, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education. This represents one in every 30 children in the U.S., a historic high.

The crisis of child homelessness is often hidden. While some families with children are sleeping on sidewalks, in cars or in shelters, millions of homeless children are invisible, "doubled up" with their families on the couch of a friend or hopping from motel to motel each week. In California, 86 percent of homeless students reported sharing the housing of others out of necessity during the 2012-13 school year.

Homelessness has harmful effects on everyone who experiences it, but the impact on children can be particularly devastating. Homelessness often leads to chronic stress and trauma that can have lasting effects, emotionally and cognitively damaging children. Consider these stark
:
  • By age 12, 83 percent of homeless children have been exposed to at least one serious violent event.
  • Approximately 47 percent of school-age homeless children have mental health problems requiring clinical evaluation compared to 18 percent of other school-age children.
  • One in nine homeless children has an asthma-related health condition.

Because homelessness is so prevalent, our society is too often immune to the homeless vet with one leg, the unemployed middle-aged man outside the post office and the young woman on the side the freeway. However, frequently, the homeless individuals that we encounter every day have children who are also suffering. In California, we have simply not done enough to protect them.

California has the largest population of homeless children in the country and twice the rate of homeless students as the national average. In 2013, there were 526,708 homeless children in California. And millions of California families with children are just one paycheck, illness, eviction or family crisis away from homelessness. California ranks at the bottom in their state policy and planning efforts to address this crisis of child homelessness.

It is simply unacceptable that in the rich state of California we allow so many of our children to fall into the pit of homelessness.

So where should we start? In order to create lasting solutions to end child homelessness in California we must begin by addressing child poverty. Poverty and the lack of affordable housing are the principal causes of family homelessness. In California, nearly 1 in 10 children live in deep poverty (i.e., earning less than approximately $10,000 per year for family of three).

Our groundbreaking report, Ending Child Poverty Now, details how the U.S. could substantially reduce child poverty immediately by investing an additional 2 percent of the federal budget to expand existing federal anti-poverty programs. The return on that investment would lift 60 percent of poor children across the country out of poverty.

In a companion brief, the Children's Defense Fund-California outlined specific, long-term and systemic solutions to child poverty and homelessness that California policymakers should enact immediately:

  1. Raise the state minimum wage to $15/hour and expand the new state Earned Income Tax Credit so working families have enough income to cover basic necessities.
  2. Increase CalWORKs basic needs benefits and eliminate the punitive Maximum Family Grant rule in CalWORKs that puts families with newborn babies at greater risk of homelessness.
  3. Invest in affordable housing for extremely low-income families. A recent study found that providing families with permanent housing subsidies not only reduced homelessness, but also improved child well-being by increasing school attendance, decreasing food insecurity and keeping families together.
  4. Expand the number of quality child care slots for low-income children so parents can work and children can thrive.

We must redouble our efforts to end the crisis through effective interventions. I am confident that if we simply end the rhetoric and focus on substantive reforms, we will hear more inspirational stories like that of Britany Lewis, one of Children's Defense Fund-California's 2011 Beat the Odds® honorees. As a child, Britany lived in a two-door Honda Prelude with her siblings and was forced to miss school for a year. Despite homelessness and physical abuse, Britany persevered and overcame the challenges that threatened to destroy her dreams. She recently graduated from the University of California at Berkeley and will be the alumni honoree at the 25th Annual Children's Defense Fund-California Beat the Odds gala on December 3rd.

There are countless children just like Britany. While Britany was one of the lucky ones, luck" is never a viable policy solution. The scale of this issue demands action at all levels -- city, county, state and federal -- as well as the philanthropic and corporate communities. The Children's Defense Fund-California looks forward to working with our leaders across the spectrum to end child homelessness in California.

We must act with vigor and boldness to address child poverty and homelessness through a comprehensive blend of smart policy and effective programs. If we do not, our children today are at a higher risk of becoming tomorrow's adults with signs that read: Hungry & Homeless.