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Homelessness deprives kids of normal childhood, affects development

New report says number of homeless American children is at an all-time high, leaving many susceptible to harm

THE BRONX, New York — One in 30 American children is homeless, according to a report published Monday by the National Center on Family Homelessness — an all-time high for the United States. The finding portends an epidemic of emotional, developmental and even physical harm among the nation’s youth.

The report, titled “America’s Youngest Outcasts,” states that about 2.5 million American children experienced homelessness at some point in 2013 — an increase of 8 percent nationally from the previous year.

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Though most U.S. cities provide various forms of shelter for homeless families, not all who apply are accepted, since programs are often underfunded and understaffed. And even if there is space, most programs are ill-equipped to give kids a normal childhood experience.

The New York City Department of Homeless Services (DHS), for example, provides shelter in the South Bronx to pregnant women and families with children, but the entrance to the temporary housing unit looks more like a juvenile detention center than a welcoming home.

There are no signs of children, no drawings on the walls, no toys or playgrounds and no sounds of play. Security guards strictly monitor anyone going in and out. Visitors are not allowed. 

Michael Bethea and his 3-year old son, Jaziah, have been living in the Bronx shelter since April, when he was forced to leave Florida abruptly because of his wife's erratic behavior. Bethea told Al Jazeera about life in the shelter on their way to a grocery store to pick up food for the week, as a smiling Jaziah skipped over rain puddles.

Bethea said the process of getting accepted into the program was not easy and that at first the DHS rejected his application. The department has a specific set of requirements to determine whether a families are eligible for temporary housing, according its website. If they’re found eligible, the shelter is obligated to provide them with shelter. After his rejection, Bethea sued the center to demand an explanation, and eventually he and his son were accepted.

When asked if he had any complaints about the housing, he said that he did not but that other residents had “plenty.” Among their grievances are housing units that lacked basic necessities, such as kitchens.

The DHS has said it is committed to making families feel comfortable and safe in their surroundings. To that end, all children under 18 are required to attend school, the shelter sometimes offers help with transportation, and staffers often coordinate special events throughout the year for children to enjoy.

But homeless advocates say the bare decor and lack of comfort in shelters is often intentional, springing from the idea that people experiencing homelessness should not get too comfortable or else they will have no reason to change their situation. Complementing that notion is the growing criminalization of homeless Americans. One law, on the books in 21 U.S. cities, makes it illegal for people to feed the homeless.

“So many public agencies nationwide are behind the times and are treating homeless families like they did something wrong and operate with ‘tough love’ and the idea that they shouldn’t make people too comfortable,” Jamila Larson, executive director of the Playtime Project, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that brings fun and games to children living in shelters across the city.

She said that while homeless demographics are quickly shifting from individuals to increasing numbers of families, public policy is lagging. She added that the inhospitable environment offered by many shelters that may upset adults can cause even more damage to children, many of whom have already gone through traumatic experiences.

“We really need a major philosophical shift and to make a commitment to helping families heal and start creating therapeutic environments … Instead lots of cities are worried about them getting too comfortable,” Larson said.

Predictability, consistency and routine are necessary for healthy childhood development, she said, and so is play.

“Children learn best through play, and it also helps to alleviate trauma,” she said. “When children are stressed, their cortisol levels go up, and they remain in a fight-or-flight survival mode that can be harmful to childhood development.”

Children experiencing homelessness are more likely to exhibit emotional and behavioral problems, experience delayed development and have learning disabilities, she said. The Playtime Project aims to counter these effects through fun and games.

The idea for the Playtime Project came from one of Larson’s first trips to visit a homeless shelter after she moved to Washington to work for the Children’s Defense Fund, a policy organization.

Time spent at a large shelter less than a mile from the Capitol left her shocked. The few toys it had were locked in a closet “so the children didn’t make a mess,” she said. Half-dressed kids wandered the hallways, the windows had no screens, and she heard that one of the children recently discovered a dead person in a bathroom.

Realizing that simply donating toys to the shelters was not enough, she and others began volunteering their time and energy and eventually launched the Playtime Project.

Today the project hosts 13 weekly events at five D.C. shelters. Volunteers provide games, arts and crafts, movement and imaginative play, one-on-one attention and caring adult supervision. Since the project began in 2003, Larson has seen positive transformations in children the organization has worked with.

“We met a 17-year-old in a shelter a couple years ago who had been homeless with his family since he was 12 years old … He never saw himself smartening up or being able to go to college,” she said. Through Playtime’s tutoring program for older children, volunteers knew he was a whiz at math and science. They helped the teenager look up college programs, study for and take the SAT and apply for a scholarship at a local college, which he was awarded.

“This child who has been through some really bad experiences and never saw himself escaping that cycle now has the opportunity to go to college and have the opportunity to improve his situation as an adult,” Larson said.

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series being published by Al Jazeera America to highlight different aspects of the Homeless Bill of Rights and the plight of those living on the streets in the U.S.

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