The 2019 Point in Time (PIT) Count in D.C. revealed a welcome drop in the number of homeless families — a nearly 45 percent decline since its 2016 count. Unfortunately, this count grossly underreports the numbers of women and children experiencing homelessness.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development mandates that every community receiving HUD funding perform a count of its homeless at least every two years. But, because of HUD’s narrow and unrealistic definition of a homeless family, a significant number of single-mother-led families — representing more than 80 percent of homeless families — are not being counted.
On its surface, HUD’s definition of a homeless family is seemingly benign. It’s what the definition leaves out that grossly obscures the homelessness reality D.C. is facing.
HUD does not consider a family who is “couch surfing,” “floor surfing” or sleeping in a friend’s garage to be homeless, which is often the way single-mother-led families survive until they can get their family into an appropriate shelter or housing. Also excluded from HUD’s definition are families paying for their own motel room. Using a government voucher to pay for a hotel room qualifies a family as homeless.
The federal Education Department employs a more sensible definition of a homeless family to count homeless children in the K-12 system. And its numbers substantiate a frightening reality. The number of homeless children in D.C. rose from 6,260 in the 2015-2016 school year to nearly 7,450 students in the 2017-2018 school year — a 19 percent increase. According to people within the department, there were no signs of this trend slowing pre-coronavirus, and certainly not post-.
That’s quite a different picture than D.C. elected leaders are painting.
Undercounting these families means that children are not receiving the desperately needed shelter and social service connections to help them through the crisis their families are facing. The impact of this failure is profound.
According to data provided by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Agency and the Institute for Children, Poverty & Homelessness, by the time a homeless child is 8 years old, 1 in 3 has a major mental disorder.
Homeless children have twice the rate of learning disabilities and three times the rate of emotional and behavioral problems, all of which make homeless students twice as likely to repeat a grade compared with non-homeless children.
Homeless children perform worse academically than children categorized as low-income — not lower than the overall average in academics but worse than the average of low-income families. A study of students in Washington state found that homeless children scored 10 percentage points lower on the state math and English tests than low-income students who were not homeless.
Homeless children are sick at twice the rate of other children. They have five times the rate of diarrhea and stomach problems, which is not surprising given that homeless children are twice as likely to go hungry. Half of homeless children experience anxiety, depression or withdrawal. As a consequence, it is not surprising that homeless children have great difficulty learning in school.
Without appropriate interventions, it is obvious how a homeless child beset with a wide array of overwhelming life challenges becomes an addicted, mentally ill and seemingly “unemployable” homeless adult living on the streets. Unfortunately, data show this is now happening at an increasingly alarming rate.
Recent research published in the Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved underscores this. Among researchers’ findings, homeless adults in Santa Clara County reported severely traumatic childhoods: Seventy-eight percent grew up in a household with a person with drug or alcohol dependence; 64 percent endured psychological abuse as a child; and 37 percent experienced homelessness as children.
It’s time for D.C. policymakers to accurately define the homeless issue and recognize all of those suffering in the nation’s capital. When considering policy, they must recognize each homeless individual’s and family’s unique reality and need and prioritize funding to ensure all, especially children, receive the help they need to reverse this ravaging trend.