NEW YORK, NY — Children and homelessness are two words that should never be in the same sentence. Between exams, homework and even bullies, school can be challenging enough for America’s school children. But kids who experience traumatic events such as homelessness see disproportionately higher rates of underachievement in school, as well as mental and physical health problems later in life.
And a new report shows some places have more kids than others who know what it feels like to worry about where they’re going to lay their heads at night. That student homelessness rate ranges from as low as 51 students per 100,000 people in one city all the way up to 2,615 in another, according to an analysis by the addiction support service RiverOaksTreatment.com.
There were 552,830 people who experienced homelessness in America for at least one night in 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s annual homeless assessment report to Congress. About two-thirds of these people stayed in shelters, while the others were left unsheltered, living on the street, in abandoned buildings or in other uninhabitable places.
Notably, the overall number of families with kids who experienced homelessness fell 2 percent from 2017 and has fallen 23 percent since 2007.
It should be noted that the exact number of homeless children isn’t clear, and even varies depending on how you calculate it.
Ben Henwood, an associate professor at the University of Southern California’s Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, told Patch on Wednesday that the number depends on what government definition is used to calculate homlessness among children. The River Oaks analysis used Department of Education data, which is compiled by public school districts.
“In the world that I work in, which is the HUD-world definition, we don’t actually include a lot of what schools would include as homeless,” he said. “The Department of Education has a different definition. If you have families doubled up or couch-surfing, that’s not considered homeless for HUD. But for the Department of Education, it is.”
Each definition leads to “wildly different rates,” Henwood added In Los Angeles, for instance, the total homeless count last year was about 52,000. But county education data indicated there were more than 70,000 homeless students.
Below are the cities with the most homeless children, according to the study. The number reflects the rate of homeless students per 100,000 people.
Conversely, Phoenix and San Jose, California, had the lowest rates of homeless children at 51 per 100,000 people, followed by Birmingham, Alabama, and Scranton, Pennsylvania. Henwood noted it’s not surprising to see large disparities in homelessness across the country. Homelessess is driven largely by housing markets, he said, and that explains some of those gaps.
And no matter what the number is, homelessness has a clear effect on children. The Adverse Childhood Experiences study links traumatic events like abuse, neglect and homelessness to risky health behaviors, chronic health problems, low life potential and even early death.
“You can imagine it’s harder to do your homework if you don’t have a place to stay,” said Henwood. “There’s more energy put into into where you’re going to be. Your parents are going to be more stressed out. That makes it harder for them to parent and be empathetic and supportive. It’s kind of a cascading effect.”