Children experienced homelessness
on a single night in January 2018
More than a decade after she and her two daughters were displaced by Hurricane Katrina, Sarah Davis returned to New Orleans. Sarah found a job answering phones for a hotel chain, but she didn’t make enough to cover a security deposit to rent a home. She and her teenage daughters were homeless, only able to rent a small house after a local charity chipped in to cover the initial costs. The family now has a home, but half of Sarah’s wages still go toward housing. To make the rent every month, Sarah and her daughters have to make sacrifices: no vacations, no trips to the movies, no new school uniforms. “I have a lot of guilt because I can’t provide for them the way that I want to,” Sarah said.1
Sarah and her children are far from alone. Millions of American families like Sarah’s do not have access to affordable housing. The 2008 financial crisis set off a chain reaction that sparked a nationwide affordable housing crisis. The decimated housing market and subsequent foreclosures pushed millions of homeowners into the rental market; nine million new households entered the rental marketplace over the past decade.2 As more families sought rental housing, construction failed to keep pace with demand and what new units were built were mostly luxury units in big cities. Rents rose and fewer and fewer families could find adequate housing for a reasonable price. The problem of rising rents was exacerbated by the problem of stagnant working-class wages.3
By 2019, rents had risen so dramatically that a person like Sarah Davis working full-time, year-round at minimum wage could not afford the monthly Fair Market Rent for a two-bedroom rental unit in any state or the District of Columbia and still have enough money for food, utilities and other necessities (see Table 8). Families with children have been hit especially hard by the affordable housing crisis.
- Nearly 1 in 3 children (31 percent) live in households burdened by housing costs, meaning more than 30 percent of their family income goes toward housing.4 Sixty-one percent of children in low-income households are rent burdened.5
- 5.9 million children live in families with “worst-case housing needs” meaning they are extremely rent burdened, have low income and receive no housing assistance from the government.6
Federal housing assistance is extremely helpful for families that receive it, but these programs are woefully underfunded and do not come close to meeting the need.
- Although federal rental assistance can help reduce homelessness, housing instability and overcrowding, only 1 in 4 eligible households receive it.7
- Of those receiving federal rental assistance, 60 percent are people in families with children.8
- Housing vouchers, the most common form of housing assistance, can help families to move from areas of concentrated poverty to lower-poverty neighborhoods. Children who moved from concentrated poverty neighborhoods before age 13 have been shown to have higher earnings as 26-year-old adults when compared with those who did not leave the neighborhoods.9
- Vouchers for homeless families with children reduce foster care placements by more than half and also reduce school moves and other hardships.10
- The federal government spends about as much on tax subsidies for homeownership—which primarily go to families who are already financially stable—as on rental assistance.11
With so many families facing rising rents and so few receiving federal housing assistance, many children fall into homelessness.
- Children comprised 111,592—1 in 5—of the nearly 553,000 people experiencing homelessness on a single night in January 2018, when the annual assessment of homeless people was conducted for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s annual report to Congress.12 This annual report considers both sheltered and unsheltered, meaning these numbers represent people living in shelters, transitional housing and on the streets.
- Thirty-three percent of people experiencing homelessness lived in families with children and more than half of all homeless families with children lived in just four states: California, Florida, Massachusetts and New York. Family homelessness declined by 23 percent between 2007 and 2018.13
- In 2018, more than half of those individuals in homeless families were Black, including 54 percent of sheltered individuals in homeless families. Individuals in white families with children made up nearly 60 percent of those in homeless families who were unsheltered.14
- Nearly 1.3 million children under 6 were homeless in 2016.15
Almost 1.4 million children enrolled in public schools experienced homelessness during the 2016-2017 school year, excluding younger children and youth not enrolled in school—double the number at the start of the Great Recession (see Table 9).
- Seventy-six percent of homeless students during the 2016-2017 school year were living doubled-up with family or friends; 14 percent were in shelters or transitional housing and nearly seven percent were in hotels or motels. Nearly four percent were unsheltered, often living in abandoned buildings or cars.16
- Homeless children’s access to school is complicated by high mobility as well as the lack of school supplies and clothes, funds for transportation and necessary records to enroll in a new school. The trauma, poor physical and mental health, hunger and fatigue many experience continue to challenge them when they get to school.
According to a report by Voices of Youth Count, an initiative of Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, 4.2 million teens and young adults experienced homelessness over the course of a year.17 Black and Hispanic youth; poor youth and young adults; youth with less than a high school diploma or GED; unmarried young parents and LGBTQ youth were all at especially high risk of homelessness.
Having a safe, stable home is a basic need for all children. Homelessness, unstable housing and the lack of affordable housing have dire consequences for children’s health, education and future earning potential. We must increase the availability of affordable housing, expand access to living wage jobs and provide support for families who have experienced homelessness to help them meet their children’s needs going forward.
Immigrant Children are America’s Children: Housing
Under existing law, families with mixed immigration status are allowed to receive some federal housing assistance and still live together. These families currently pay higher rents to account for their mixed status and any family members who are ineligible for assistance.18
The Trump administration proposed to change this process and deny housing assistance to families with even a single undocumented member, regardless of whether that member is claiming or receiving any benefits.19 The consequence of this proposed change, by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s own analysis, would be devastating: More than 108,000 people could lose their homes, including 55,000 children.20
The administration claims the system must be changed to address the waitlist crisis faced by public housing authorities. But that obscures the real issue: the lack of sufficient funding to ensure that every family, regardless of immigration status, has access to a safe place to call home.