On any given night, approximately 664,000 people—1 in 449.6 Americans—have to find a place to sleep. Some end up on the street, some sleep in their cars, some are in shelter beds. Included in this number are members of homeless families. If members of homeless families were grouped by themselves into one city it would be the size of St. Petersburg, Florida, population 248,500. There would be offices and stores, hospitals and courts, schools and strip malls, but no homes.
The most recent government report, the 2008 Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, delivered in July, 2009, found that while the number of homeless individuals had remained almost constant from 2007 to 2008, the number of homeless families seeking shelter increased 9% overall, and jumped by nearly 56% in suburban and rural areas.
Most of these families are comprised of single, young mothers with limited education and one or more young child, 42% of which are under the age of 6. Of the members of homeless families housed by American homeless shelters last year, 1 in 1.66 (60%) was a child. Of sheltered homeless adults in families, 1 in 1.24 (81%) was female, while only 1 in 5.21 was male. This stands in contrast to the 1 in 2.78 females and 1 in 1.56 males making up the general sheltered adult population.
Homelessness is traumatic for families, especially for the children in them. These kids often suffer a variety of residual effects both during and after their time without a roof. Though most families typically aren’t homeless for long, many children who experience homelessness show elevated levels of anxiety, depression, behavioral problems, and below-average academic performance.
The current economic crisis has forced states and municipalities to make many difficult choices. The surge in the homeless population comes as tax revenues have fallen and budgets are being slashed. Many localities are struggling to come up with innovative solutions. The state of California, confronting a deficit exceeding $40 billion, recently announced it would use federal stimulus dollars to provide services to homeless students.
In New York City, each homeless family costs the state about $36,000 per year. After the number of homeless sharply increased in the city, Mayor Michael Bloomberg initiated an aggressive campaign to locate family members willing to provide shelter, no matter where they were. Since 2007, more than 550 homeless families have been boarded onto buses and planes bound for Orlando, Paris, Johannesburg, and San Juan—anywhere they might have relatives to lean on while they get back on their feet. For each family, the Bloomberg Administration spent no more than $10,000.
Some critics argue the actions of the Bloomberg administration are merely transferring the problem of homelessness from one location to another. In response, New York City officials reported to the New York Times that so far none of the families shipped out of the city have applied to shelters in other states.