The number of homeless children in the United States has surged in recent years to an all-time high, amounting to one child out of every 30, according to a comprehensive state-by-state report.
Titled "America's Youngest Outcasts," the report being issued Monday by the National Center on Family Homelessness (NCFH) calculates that nearly 2.5 million American children were homeless at some point in 2013. The number is based on the Department of Education's latest count of 1.3 million homeless children in public schools, supplemented by estimates of homeless pre-school children not counted by the DOE.
California's poor ranking did not surprise Shahera Hyatt, director of the California Homeless Youth Project.
The crux of the problem, she said, is the state's high cost of living, coupled with insufficient affordable housing.
"People think, 'Of course we are not letting children and families be homeless,' so there's a lot of disbelief," Hyatt said. "California has not invested in this issue."
Hyatt, who first became homeless when her parents were evicted, said terms like “couch surfing” and “doubled-up” often mask homeless teens "exchanging sex for a place to stay or staying someplace that does not feel safe because they are so mired in their day-to-day survival needs."
In mostly affluent Santa Barbara, the Transition House homeless shelter is kept busy with families unable to afford housing of their own. Executive director Kathleen Baushke said that even after her staff gives clients money for security deposits and rent, they go months without finding a place to live.
She said neither federal nor state housing assistance nor incentives for developers to create low-income housing have kept pace with demand.
Efforts to obtain more resources to combat child homelessness are complicated by debate over how to quantify it.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development conducts an annual one-day count of homeless people that encompasses shelters, as well as parks, underpasses, vacant lots and other locales. Its latest count, for a single night in January 2013, tallied 610,042 homeless people, including 130,515 children.
Defenders of HUD's method say it's useful in identifying the homeless people most in need of urgent assistance. Critics contend that HUD's method grossly underestimates the extent of child homelessness and results in inadequate resources for local governments to combat it. They prefer the Education Department method that includes homeless families who are staying in cheap motels or doubling up temporarily in the homes of friends or relatives.
"Fixing the problem starts with adopting an honest definition," said Bruce Lesley, president of the nonprofit First Focus Campaign for Children. "Right now, these kids are sort of left out there by themselves."
Lesley's group and some allies have endorsed a bill introduced in Congress, with bipartisan sponsorship, that would expand HUD's definition to correlate more closely with that used by the Education Department. However, the bill doesn't propose any new spending for the hundreds of thousands of children who would be added to the HUD tally.
Hyatt says most of the homeless schoolchildren in her state aren't living in shelters.
"It's often one family living in extreme poverty going to live with another family that was already in extreme poverty," she said. "Kids have slept in closets and kitchens and bathrooms and other parts of the house that have not been meant for sleeping."
The Associated Press