More than 2.5 million children are homeless in the United States every year and yet most of us don’t see them. Temporarily housed in hotels or living out of their cars, these families are rendered invisible, even to the presidential candidates who neglect to address this level of poverty and our lack of affordable housing. Richard Schweid, author of Invisible Nation: Homeless Families in America, offers his insights based on his in-depth reporting from five major cities.
Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have expended a lot of breath talking about what can be done for those families that have fallen out of the middle class, but no attention whatsoever has been paid to the multitude of families that have fallen out of the lower class, and have slipped from poverty into extreme poverty and homelessness, carrying their children with them. Despite the fact that the number of homeless families has grown exponentially over the past decade, they are off the political radar.
We have a pair of presidential candidates who tout themselves as firm believers in “family values”, while every year more than 2.5 million American children are experiencing homelessness. The only chance many of these kids might have to hear the presidential debates is on the radio in the car where they are living with their families. An additional 200,000 people in families are in bare-bones emergency shelters every night. Hundreds of thousands more kids are packed into the homes of relatives or friends, or in cheap motel rooms—rooms that Hillary or Donald would not even consider fit for habitation, but where working mothers must try to raise their kids, night after night, month after month. It might seem that such a national shame would be high on the agendas of our presidential aspirants, yet during this long campaign season no mention has been made of these millions of children who year after year, through no fault of their own, are growing up in miserable conditions.
Fifty years ago, the word “homeless” signified dysfunctional individuals—mostly men–who drank heavily and slept rough. Now, it is more likely to mean a young single mother with small children and a minimum-wage job, working full-time with no benefits, or child care. In 1980, families with children made up only one percent of the nation’s homeless, and by 2015 that number was thirty-eight percent of the total and rising. Children experiencing homelessness are at greater risk of physical and mental illnesses than their housed peers, and live their daily lives with levels of toxic stress that should not be borne by kids.
The chronically homeless individuals we see on the streets are there for a number of reasons, but almost all homeless families are without shelter for one reason: money. They simply cannot afford to pay for housing in today’s rental markets. The fix for this is well known: a sufficient number of affordable rentals and a brief spell of rental assistance will house these families, and when the rent subsidy ends, studies show that most of them will keep themselves housed.
One potential remedy for family homelessness came on line this year: the National Housing Trust Fund (NHTF) to create affordable housing, which receives funding from a tiny fraction of the mortgage loans financed by federal lenders, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The funds are allotted to the states, which in turn provide the money to communities for affordable housing. Congressional Republicans attempted to eliminate the NHTF this year, but were unsuccessful.
As politicians, bureaucrats, social service workers, and policymakers spend years, and decades, debating about whether and how to help homeless families, the children in them grow up to adulthood, and are incorporated into our world. They move among us, many of them in poor health, scarred, scared, and emotionally stunted for life, growing into parents who will raise yet another generation of extremely poor children. Some few of these children, through hard work, focus, and good luck, will grow up to pull themselves out of poverty, while most will never have an opportunity to do so.
The number of children passing through homelessness will only shrink when communities decide to do everything in their power to eliminate family homelessness within their precincts. Some places like Fairfax, Virginia or Trenton, New Jersey are already doing so, putting “best practice” programs in place to prevent families from becoming homeless, and rapidly rehousing them if they do, but in most of our cities and towns the standard set by Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton—total silence on the subject—remains in place.
Richard Schweid is a journalist and documentary reporter. He is the author of nine nonfiction books, including Che’s Chevrolet, Fidel’s Oldsmobile: On the Road in Cuba, Hot Peppers: The Story of Cajuns and Capsicum, Consider the Eel: A Natural and Gastronomic History, and The Cockroach Papers: A Compendium of History and Lore. He has also produced or reported more than two dozen documentaries for Catalonian public television, including the Oscar-nominated Balseros.