The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

December 14, 2012

There’s little Christmas joy for homeless without help

Point Blank

By John Blankenship
Columnist

— Most of us are gearing up for the Christmas holidays.

But many families aren’t so lucky. One out of every 45 children — some 1.6 million — in the United States is homeless.

And according to a report released by the National Center on Family Homelessness (NCFH), the majority of the children are under age 7.

Without a bed to call their own, these children have lost safety, privacy and the comforts of home, as well as their friends, possessions and pets. Children experiencing homelessness also tend to struggle with hunger, poor health and missed educational opportunities. A majority of homeless children have limited proficiency in math and reading, according to the report.

Since 2007, the homeless child population in 15 states has increased by more than 50 percent. States with the highest percentages of homeless children were generally located in the South and Southwest, reflecting the higher levels of poverty in those states. States with the lowest percentages were generally located in the North and Northeast, where there is less poverty and stronger safety nets for children.

West Virginia, meanwhile, ranks among the top 15 states in child homelessness, with more than 8,300 of the state’s children experiencing homelessness each year. And of the 69,000 children living in poverty in the state, seven out of every 100 (7 percent) are homeless.

The factors that can lead to child homelessness, such as extreme poverty and worst-case housing needs, have worsened with the current economic recession, even though the total housing capacity for families increased by more than 15,000 units in the past six years.

And homelessness among America’s youth can have far-reaching consequences.

Compared with their housed counterparts, homeless children, in general, exhibit twice as many illnesses, such as respiratory infections. They are sick four times more often than other children. They have four times as many respiratory infections; twice as many ear infections; five times more gastrointestinal problems and are four times more likely to have asthma.

Homeless children have three times the rate of emotional and behavioral problems compared to non-homeless children.

What’s more, children experiencing homelessness are four times more likely to show delayed development and twice as likely to have learning disabilities as other children.

According to the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH), 1.2 million are homeless on any given night. Supporting this figure are estimates from the U.S. Department of Education that report almost 400,000 homeless children were served by the nation’s public schools last year.

Within a single year, approximately 97 percent of homeless children move, many up to three times. More than 30 percent are evicted from their housing and 22 percent are separated from their family to be put in foster care or sent to live with a relative.

Families, meanwhile, are the fastest growing segment of the homeless population, now accounting for almost 40 percent of the nation’s homeless. More than 85 percent of homeless families are headed by single mothers, with the average homeless family comprised of a young mother and her two young children.

Immediate action must be taken by the federal and state governments to end the current epidemic of family homelessness.

Homeless children can end up making a positive contribution to society. These kids are no different than your kids or my kids. They have every potential to thrive and participate in building the nation’s workforce. But without adequate programs to curb homelessness, they’re a victim of their own circumstances. And that’s not right.

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Top o’ the morning!

— Blankenship is a columnist for The Register-Herald. E-mail: jabbb@suddenlink.net