Frankie is nine years old. He has a rash all over his face and body -- stress-related said the doctor. He has trouble focusing on his homework and paying attention in school; he has fights in the schoolyard; he has serious mood swings; he has no friends. He lives with his mother and two sisters in one room in a homeless shelter. Frankie is one of our students.
The devastating impact of homelessness on children has become starkly clear from decades of study. While poverty alone creates health, developmental, behavioral, and educational problems for children, homelessness compounds these problems by adding additional stress, fear, anxiety and instability to children's lives. Can you imagine how hard it is to learn when you don't have a home? The statistics stacked against homeless students are staggering:
- More than 20 percent of homeless children do not attend school.
- Homeless children are -- on average -- four grade levels below their housed peers.
- Homeless children are nine times more likely to drop out of school altogether.
I have to remind myself constantly that a lot of people don't realize there are children who are without a home, without shelter every day in the United States. Lots of them -- over 1.6 million. What is even more astonishing is that this number does not represent all of the homeless children and youth in our society. There are also over one million unaccompanied homeless youth aged 16 to 22 living on their own on the streets or in temporary housing situations.
These are troubling times, especially for children. More and more children are falling through the cracks and facing hunger, homelessness and abuse. I'm not sure when the clichéd picture of homelessness will change, but the drug-addicted man with the cardboard sign panhandling on the streets does not represent the vast majority of homeless people in America. In fact, families are the fastest growing segment of the homeless population. According to the National Center on Family Homelessness, one out of every 50 children in this country faces homelessness each year. That's correct, one out of every 50.
Homelessness is extreme poverty. Lack of affordable housing, poverty, and unemployment -- the top three causes of family homelessness -- will not diminish any time soon. And when kids become homeless, their education suffers immensely. Coupled with huge cuts in education budgets, spineless politicians who worry more about the NRA than they do about children, our homeless children are less and less likely to get any kind of education. How can a seven-year-old child learn when she has not slept the night before because she's scared and hungry and doesn't know where she'll sleep that night? How can we expect a 15-year-old to care about graduating when he has to study in a closet because the shelter lights have been turned off?
What is more important for a child than learning? What is more important for a country than educated citizens? Our students persevere every day against seemingly insurmountable odds. Despite desperate living conditions, hunger and other unimaginable challenges, our students show us courage, resilience and determination in their pursuit of education. We should show them the same courage.
It's time we all reached out to kids like Frankie and showed them compassion and kindness instead of punishment and penalties for being poor.
This post is part of a series co-produced by The Huffington Post and Points of Light to honor Loreal Paris' Women of Worth initiative. Women of Worth honors incredible women who are making a beautiful difference through their dedication to philanthropy and their passion for improving the world. The 10 women being honored this year were selected from thousands of nominations. Each of the honorees received $10,000 for her charitable cause from L'Oreal Paris. To learn more about Women of Worth or to submit a nomination beginning April 2013, please visit womenofworth.com.