In the past, those without a home in the USA were predominantly single adults. But over the past couple of years the number of homeless families has grown by 30%. In New York alone, there are around 8,200 families without a home and across the whole USA, schools reported over 956,000 of their students were homeless during the 2008-2009 school year, an increase of 20% over the previous year. The homeless are living in motels, in their cars or even sleeping on the streets. In 2009, almost 1.6 million people spent time in an emergency shelter.
Last month, the Obama administration produced a multi-agency strategy called ‘Opening Doors’ to tackle this huge national problem. The strategy has four goals; it aims to improve the situation for the long-term homeless and homeless veterans of Vietnam within five years. And within a decade, the government aims to tackle other types of homelessness and families with children who have no permanent home.
The plight of homeless children has been raised by a recent film made by the journalist and producer Alexandra Pelosi. She interviewed the children of families who are forced to live out of motel rooms in California. California has the highest population of homeless children in the USA and her documentary, ‘The Motel Kids of Orange County’, follows 50 of these children. The youngsters are filmed ferreting through garbage bins, sleeping in parks and going to soup kitchens because they don’t have enough food, living the kind of life that most people would associate with third-world countries.
In many cases, the producer found the basic problem wasn’t lack of employment. Often, the parents of these homeless children were working, but were not earning enough to put a roof over their head. When asked what they had to look forward to, their children answered “nothing at all”.
The Obama government has identified that any multi-agency effort must combine housing with social-services support. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the country needs a further 3.1 million low-rental accommodation units.
But it is not only the absence of affordable housing which needs to be tackled. In a recent report, Human Rights Watch identified a serious issue with the lack of support given to children who go through the foster system. The report looked at the situation in California, where the research concluded that around 20 per cent of youngsters leaving the care system end up homeless. Without proper preparation for adulthood and assistance when they turn eighteen, young people without any family backup find it especially hard to make the transition into becoming an independent adult.
Human Rights Watch have called on state organisations to do more in providing such vulnerable youngsters with ongoing help and support at this critical time in their lives. Otherwise, they can easily end up as one of the many homeless, whose numbers are already shocking such a wealthy nation.