Sheltering America’s Children

October 19, 2012 at 2:10 pm

Washington Post columnist Petula Dvorak recently told the story of a homeless mother in the District of Columbia, unemployed due to serious health problems, who used subway trains and buses as overnight shelter for herself and her 2-year-old because they had nowhere else safe to stay.  D.C.’s waiting list for housing assistance is 20 years long and local shelters had no openings.

Across the country, there is simply not enough housing assistance to meet the need.  It’s time federal housing spending gave higher priority to ensuring that families don’t end up on the street.

A recent National Poverty Center study finds that the number of families with children living on less than $2 per person per day has more than doubled since 1996.  Yet only one in five desperately poor families receives housing assistance due to limited funding. And, for those fortunate enough to have a roof over their head, more than 2.7 million families with children without rental assistance pay more than half of their income on housing or have other severe housing needs.  That’s up 51 percent since 2001 (see chart) and part of a long-term trend of declining affordability.

Federal housing policy has largely ignored the unmet needs of lower-income renters and homeless families with children, focusing instead primarily on supporting homeownership — often among families who could afford a home even without help.  In fact, more than half of federal spending on housing (including tax breaks like the mortgage interest deduction) benefits households with incomes above $100,000.

A tax credit for very low-income renters would be an important step toward rebalancing federal housing policy.  If capped at an annual cost of $5 billion, it could enable about 1.2 million of the lowest-income households to afford housing.

Congress should also continue reforming existing rental assistance programs to make them more efficient and effective for the more than 4 million low-income families they help.

With waiting times for housing assistance continuing to grow around the country, changes to our nation’s housing policy are long overdue.  As Ms. Dvorak states, these children “won’t even be kids anymore by the time their parents get housing.”

That is simply too long to wait.

Print Friendly

More About Barbara Sard

Barbara Sard

Sard rejoined the Center as Vice President for Housing Policy in 2011 after 18 months as Senior Advisor on Rental Assistance to HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan.

Full bio | Blog Archive | Research archive at

3 Comments Add Yours ↓

Comments are listed in reverse chronological order.

  1. 1

    A question: since formal approved housing is in such short supply, is it time to recognize informal housing, such as RVs or group camps, as substandard but real housing? Not for a moment to say such housing shouldn’t be improved on. Just that, if RVs and group camps were recognized as a type of housing, it would be more difficult for police and city authorities to justify maintaining the residents in a state of continual fear about being moved on, cited, and/or deprived of their property. Among much else, it might call into question definitions of “homelessness” that cause children to be taken away from caring parents. Or why is a family in a well-kept RV “unsheltered” while a family in a dormitory or welfare hotel is “sheltered” or “housed”?

  2. Debi Quinonez #

    I continue to be appalled by the way America’s human beings, who are so entirely interested in their money and stocks, overlook the needy and homeless. It’s pathetic that our wealthy Americans would prefer to send assistance to foreign countries (granted… VERY much needed assistance), and “overlook” articles such as this one about homeless families and uninsured families, and continue to vote against any type of health care reform for this country. A pathetic group of humans… I am ashamed.

  3. 3

    A small correction to a fine post. The District did have shelter space for the homeless mother and her children. The Department of Human Services had decided to leave shelter units vacant. Here’s a brief explanation of the decision, written shortly before Ms. Dvorak’s column was published,

    DHS is still choosing to leave 118 units empty, even if that means denying shelter to homeless families who have no safe place to stay.

Your Comment

Comment Policy:

Thank you for joining the conversation about important policy issues. Comments are limited to 1,500 characters and are subject to approval and moderation. We reserve the right to remove comments that:

  • are injurious, defamatory, profane, off-topic or inappropriate;
  • contain personal attacks or racist, sexist, homophobic, or other slurs;
  • solicit and/or advertise for personal blogs and websites or to sell products or services;
  • may infringe the copyright or intellectual property rights of others or other applicable laws or regulations; or
  • are otherwise inconsistent with the goals of this blog.

Posted comments do not necessarily represent the views of the CBPP and do not constitute official endorsement by CBPP. Please note that comments will be approved during the Center's business hours. If you have questions, please contact

4 × = four

 characters available