Throughout the United States, there are homeless children in every state, city, and county. According to the American Institute for Research, around 2.5 million children are homeless each year — representing one in every 30 children.
Many of these children are dealing with trauma, hunger, neglect, abuse, or all of the above.
As Marian Wright Edelman said, “Homeless shelters, child hunger, and child suffering have become normalized in the richest nation on earth. It’s time to reset our moral compass and redefine how we measure success.”
This guide covers everything you need to know for those seeking resources to help with the challenges associated with child homelessness.
Statistics on Child Homelessness
Child homelessness is a growing crisis, and many are concerned it’s not getting the attention it requires. Rates are historically high compared to decades prior. For example, in 1988, families accounted for around 1% of people experiencing homelessness. That rate has now risen to about 36%.
One of the most significant reports released on child homelessness, America’s Youngest Outcasts, highlights that some demographics are more vulnerable than others.
- The typical family experiencing homelessness consists of an African-American mother under 27 years of age with two young children.
- Of the children experiencing homelessness, 51% are under the age of six.
- Abuse and violence are common among this group — 90% have experienced severe trauma.
Currently, the severity of child homelessness is often underestimated, and the effects can be long-lasting. Data shows that if families do not quickly find permanent housing and remain in the shelter system, 40% to 50% break up within five years. Children are often sent to relatives or placed in foster care. They are often trapped in a cycle of poverty and social disadvantages.
Homelessness and Seasonal Challenges
Depending on where someone lives, they will experience unique challenges with the changing seasons. Summer and winter are often the most problematic. However, no day on the street is an easy one.
For example, an average of 700 at-risk and homeless individuals are killed yearly because of hypothermia in the United States. This level of exposure can have devastating effects, including a short lifespan. Data shows that the average lifespan of someone on the streets is around 50 years — nearly 20 years lower than those housed.
In contrast, many think the summer months are easier, thanks to warmer temperatures. However, those on the street, who spend hours in the sun, face an increased risk of heat stroke, heat exhaustion, and severe dehydration. For those suffering from alcohol dependence, dehydration is especially dangerous.
Sadly, children are particularly vulnerable to the risk factors present during the coldest and hottest months. For example, children are more susceptible to frostbite compared to adults because they lose heat from their skin faster. The same is true concerning heat stroke. Children have a smaller body mass-to-surface ratio, making them more prone to heat-related mortality.
However, these months aren’t the only time when risks are elevated. For example, spring can be a particularly challenging time for the homeless. As the weather changes and more people spend time outdoors, the stark contrast between the homeless and those who are not is more apparent. This realization can create emotional turmoil. Also, this season often brings an influx of thunderstorms and possible tornados.
Resources for Individuals and Families Experiencing Homelessness
For those experiencing child homelessness, a little help can go a long way. For some, it’s the difference between life and death — not just for them but for their guardians. Data shows that from 2016 to 2020, people living without housing shot up by 77%. These figures are based on data collected from twenty U.S. urban areas. Of those studied, approximately 18,000 people died. However, experts say they estimate the total number of deaths is likely between 17,000 and 40,000 yearly.
The most significant risk factors include drug use, violence, traffic accidents, and premature death from treatable conditions. These deaths can create a trickle-down effect, leaving children without parents. For this reason, families with children must find the support they need as soon as possible.
One of the most pressing issues surrounding child homelessness is hunger and a lack of nutrition. Food insecurity and child homelessness go hand-in-hand. When looking at the stats, the data is shocking. Today, one in seven children in the U.S. lives with hunger. While not all of these children are on the street, many are. Some of these children attend school, where they can access school programs. However, 6 out of 7 hungry children don’t get the meals they need in the summer.
Sadly, a lack of food impacts a child’s physical and mental health and fuels the cycle of poverty and homelessness. This cause-and-effect relationship is based on how poor diet influences childhood development and education. Tooth decay, poor physical growth, lethargy, stomach issues, irritability, and anxiety are all effects of malnutrition brought into the classroom — that is, if a child has access to education. These effects reduce a child’s learning ability and can increase the risk of behavioral issues.
Food-related resources include:
- Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — This program is funded by the government and aims to provide nutrition benefits to families in need so they can purchase healthy foods.
- No Kid Hungry — As they say, “Food is the most important school supply,” which is why this national campaign remains committed to ending child hunger. School meals are at the heart of this initiative. However, they also provide grants and are involved in research, policy, and advocacy programs.
- The Summer Food Service Program — This program was designed to ensure low-income children receive the nutrition they need outside of school. It is federally funded and state-administered.
- HomelessShelterDirectory.org — This directory lists the thousands of shelters open across the country, allowing you to search for local soup kitchens, food banks, and related support.
There are shelters across the country that specifically help young children, families, and at-risk youth. Some shelters provide temporary emergency support, while others help families find a more permanent solution. These include the following:
- The Children’s Shelter — This organization helps over 2,000 children and youth in crisis each year. It provides a wide range of services, including the Treatment Foster Care Program and the Together & Safe Kinship Program.
- Atlanta Children’s Shelter — This organization in Metro Atlanta aims to break the cycle of poverty for families facing homelessness. It helps these individuals build pathways to long-term self-sufficiency while providing quality childhood education.
- Covenant House — For 50 years, Covenant House has opened its doors to over 1.5 million young people experiencing homelessness and trafficking. It now operates in 34 cities across six countries, meeting the immediate needs for food, clothing, safety, medical support, and mental health care.
Like food banks, clothing banks exist to help people living on the streets. A range of organizations also provides the number one clothing item the homeless need — socks. Most people don’t give socks a second thought. Putting them on in the morning is as habitual as brushing your teeth. However, those without a home often walk 10+ miles daily to find basic necessities. With nowhere to wash them, they are eventually thrown out. The Sock It To Em Sock Campaign is an excellent example of a non-profit making a significant difference.
Other resources include:
- Note in the Pocket — This organization, as they say, is all about “clothing children with love and dignity.” They work with school and social service agencies to provide children in need with two weeks’ worth of outfits. While they work out of Wake County, North Carolina, this non-profit exemplifies the nationwide support available in communities. Talk to your local Salvation Army to see which groups they are working with.
- Sharia’s Closet — This emergency clothing service is another example of a local group supporting families experiencing financial hardships. They also provide free diapers.
- Circle of Hope — Located in Needham, MA, this organization provides infants, children, and adults experiencing homelessness in Boston and Metro West with clothing and necessities.
Children living on the streets rarely access the same education as their peers, which can place them at an immediate disadvantage in life. However, many public schools in the United States provide academic assistance for homeless children. Here are some education-related resources.
- National Center for Homeless Education (NCHE) — NCHE operates the U.S. Department of Education’s technical assistance and information center for the federal Education for Homeless Children and Youth (EHCY) Program. Here are relevant parent resources.
- National Association for the Education for Homeless Children and Youth (NAEHCY) — NAEHCY is dedicated to ensuring educational equity and excellence for children and youth experiencing homelessness. It supports children and youth of all ages, including postsecondary education funding.
State-Specific Child Homelessness Resources
Depending on your location, you will have access to state-specific support. End Child Poverty is an excellent resource, offering localized recommendations.
For example, the Invest in Tomorrow Campaign aims to cut child poverty in half within a decade for those in Maine. In Ohio, Child Poverty Collaborative is dedicated to helping 10,000 families escape poverty in five years.