We've heard about successes: Dawn Loggins, homeless, makes her way to Harvard. Olympian Lolo Jones spent time homeless as a child. Marquise Brown, formerly homeless, is valedictorian of his graduating class.
These uplifting reports are a fraction of the story of American homelessness: Families make up about a third of our homeless population. One in 45 children is homeless, and about half of those kids are under the age of 6.
According to Dr. Ellen Bassuk, a psychiatrist and president of the National Center on Family Homelessness, prior to the mid-1980s, outside of events like the Great Depression, families were less than one percent of homeless groups. The number steadily grew, then spiked around 2007, and, according to the most recent report from the U.S. Department of Education, continues to increase.
"Being homeless is very, very stressful" on kids, Bassuk says. "They don't know what's going to happen. Kids don't know where they're going to sleep, they don't know when they're going to eat, they lose their possessions, they lose their pets, they lose their beds."
Even with estimates that 1.6 million children are homeless -- nearly three times the population of Washington, D.C. -- it's an invisible problem. The most important thing for people to know? "That there is such a thing," says Bassuk.
Homelessness isn't solely an urban issue. Under the struggling economy, the number of people staying in rural and suburban shelters increased by 57 percent. Says Amelia Parkes of S.A.F.E., Inc., a domestic violence organization in Tupelo, Miss.: "Sometimes families have to move three counties away to get shelter."
Signs of economic improvement don't mean the issue is going away.
"The economy is recovering, but slowly," says Nan Roman, president & CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, "and that means that many people with children have had to weather several years of unemployment, leaving their families just a crisis away from homelessness. While in some rural areas we've seen the number of homeless families decline, in others, the numbers have grown dramatically and as a result, the number of children experiencing homelessness is on the rise."
According to the National Alliance, one of the consequences of the economy is "doubling up," when someone stays with family members, friends, or extended family, often in crowded conditions. Department of Education data show 72 percent of homeless students doubled-up for the 2011 school year, compared to 66 percent in 2009.
In this economically fragile environment, it doesn't take much to create a crisis. Bassuk points out that you can't get a two-bedroom apartment on one minimum-wage income anywhere in the United States.
The housing collapse hasn't helped. With foreclosures on rental properties, research indicates that these higher-income renters are now competing with low-wage renters for affordable housing, worsening the affordable housing gap.
While vouchers help stabilize families, Dr. Ellen Bassuk says there aren't enough to meet the growing need. That lack means more work for emergency assistance groups like Families in Transition, but with less money. According Huyana Garcia, Resource Specialist, its budget is down 47 percent for the upcoming year; the decrease deals a massive blow to an organization that uses 95 percent of its funds in direct services to single mothers (60 percent), two-parent families (30 percent) and single fathers (10 percent).
While homeless children experience chaos, fear, hunger and increased risk of illness, "These kids are like any other kids. With appropriate supports, they should do well," says Bassuk. As Lolo Jones, Dawn Loggins and Marquise Brown prove, with appropriate supports, not only can homeless kids succeed, they can shine.