Many American children won’t have a safe, stable home this holiday season. Homelessness among families with children isn’t an intractable problem; federal rental assistance — like the Housing Choice Voucher program — is an effective solution. But funding is seriously inadequate and has faced significant cuts.
Here are the numbers. More than 1.2 million children attending public schools lack a home of their own, according to local school districts’ latest reports to the Department of Education. Most were “doubled-up”— that is, their families lived with relatives or friends — but nearly 1 in 5 were sleeping in homeless shelters or on the street (see graph). When you include children not enrolled in school, the total approaches 2.5 million, the National Center on Family Homelessness estimates.
While the number of families living on the street or in shelters is largely stable, it has grown alarmingly in some areas, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) finds. In Massachusetts and Washington, D.C., for example, the number of people in homeless families has more than doubled since 2007.
The stakes for these children are high. Children who experience homelessness or frequent family moves are more likely to develop cognitive, behavioral, and mental health problems, as well as physical health problems such as asthma, and they’re less likely to do well in school. Children in “doubled-up” families may lack appropriate space to do homework and experience higher stress that interferes with academic performance. Studies have found that children in crowded housing score lower on reading tests and complete less schooling than their peers.
Federal rental assistance, like Housing Choice Vouchers, enables families to get stable housing. In a rigorous experiment in which low-income families with children received vouchers, they reduced the share of families that lacked a home of their own by close to 80 percent.
Some communities have also made strides in identifying families at risk of becoming homeless and providing rental assistance or other help to prevent them from losing their homes in the first place.
Unfortunately, fewer than one in four families eligible for rental assistance receive it due to funding limitations. We noted recently that when five local housing authorities gave people a chance to get on their voucher waiting list, tens of thousands of families responded at each. In Charlotte, North Carolina, which awards roughly 400 vouchers a year, 32,000 families applied.
Last year’s sequestration cuts have made things worse by forcing housing agencies to help fewer families. Some 100,000 fewer families were using vouchers in July than before sequestration.
Thanks to a small funding boost, housing agencies are restoring some vouchers in the final months of 2014. Congress should support these efforts by funding vouchers at the levels proposed in the Senate’s 2015 HUD funding bill. Congress should also consider targeting some vouchers on families who are homeless or at risk of homelessness to ensure that limited funds go to moving more families into safe, stable housing.