Tuesday, March 10, 2009

1 in 50 children in US is homeless

Ranks of homeless kids climb

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In and out of classrooms, sleeping in shelters, shielded by parents, homeless children can seem invisible to society at large.

A national study released Monday finds that one in 50 children in America is homeless. They're sharing housing because of economic hardship, living in motels, cars, abandoned buildings, parks, camping grounds or shelters, or waiting for foster care placement.

"That is something that I don't think most people intuitively believe to be true," said Ellen Bassuk, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and president of the National Center on Family Homelessness.

The national center last did such a report 10 years ago, and numbers of children without a permanent place to sleep are growing.

In Sacramento County, where debates over homeless issues have hit a pinnacle in recent months, school districts counted more than 6,000 children without stable housing during the last school year, a number that has been rising steadily since 2002.

The national center's study, "America's Youngest Outcasts," shows that California had 292,624 homeless children, the 10th largest population in the nation, during the time of its count, the 2005- 2006 school year. The group counted 1.5 million homeless kids across the country, about 200,000 more than the figure it reported a decade before.

Bassuk said family and child homelessness is a "relatively new problem," largely the result of more families splintering and becoming impoverished. "Many more of these families are headed by females, and are going to be more subject to market forces," she said. "They tend to be a lot poorer." She also cited a lack of affordable housing and a dearth of social programs geared toward families and children.

As the economy has wilted and foreclosures have soared since 2006, homeless numbers have almost certainly increased, researchers say.

In Sacramento County school districts, 6,165 youngsters, including those too young to attend classes, were without homes during the 2007-2008 school year, said Hilary Krogh, coordinator of the county Office of Education's Project TEACH program for homeless children.

The number has increased every year since 2002-2003, when area districts counted 3,773 homeless infants through high schoolers, Krogh said. She works with homeless liaisons within each school district to identify homeless children and help them get services.

Sacramento's rising numbers are mirrored throughout the state, Krogh said. The Folsom Cordova Unified School District counted 682 homeless youths within its boundaries last school year, a startling 31 percent increase over the previous year, said district liaison Charlene Hunt.

"We are not unique," said Hunt. "Our numbers are going up, and 2009 is going to be a particularly challenging year for everyone."

The National Center on Family Homelessness ranked all 50 states on their rates of homeless children, the health of the children and their educational achievements. It ranked California 40th overall, reflecting such factors as policy and planning efforts to deal with the issue as well as numbers of homeless children. Texas, ranked 50th, got the worst overall report card, while Connecticut got the best.

Joan Burke at Loaves & Fishes services for the homeless in Sacramento sees the plight of wayward children every day.

"These children really are, in many ways, the hidden homeless," Burke said. "They are doubling up with family members, staying with friends, living in hotels. It's very difficult to get an accurate count of them."

Twenty or more children attend school each day at Mustard Seed on the Loaves campus on North C Street.

Homelessness is "very, very difficult on children," said Burke. "They have lost their whole known world. They no longer have their neighborhood friends. They may have left a pet behind. Their parents are very stressed. They're in a new school. It's overwhelming for them."

School director Angela Hassell said children who find themselves homeless "don't trust easily," and often have trouble focusing on school work because they are consumed with the trials of daily living.

The national report makes a raft of recommendations for federal and state policy planners to deal with the issue. Among other things, it calls for programs that would give needy people better access to affordable housing, increases in nutrition programs for homeless youngsters, expanded health services for needy families, and improved access to early childhood education for homeless youngsters.

"The very first thing we need to do is make sure that people realize that we do have a problem, and focus more planning efforts on families and kids," said Bassuk.

Sacramento city and county leaders are working with churches, advocacy groups and others to improve services for homeless people, officials said.

They are discussing a legal tent city where the homeless could live without fear of being arrested and would have access to basic services such as garbage pickup and running water. Mayor Kevin Johnson, among other leaders, has expressed strong interest in the idea.

Oprah Winfrey's television show recently featured a sprawling tent city near the Blue Diamond almond processing plant in a show on the "new faces" of homelessness.

City Councilman Rob Fong, meanwhile, has launched a "Faith and Homeless Families Initiative," a pilot program in which local churches agree to "adopt" homeless families and provide rental assistance, financial management tools and mentoring. The program will serve families that, in better economic times, were employed and had permanent housing.

Also, the city and county are set to get nearly $5 million in federal stimulus funding for a variety of programs that serve the homeless.

"Maybe this report, along with a new president and a new mayor who seem willing to tackle tough issues, is reason for hope," said Burke of Loaves & Fishes. "Maybe people will start to realize that this is a problem all around the country, including right here in Sacramento."

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