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Hardship in America, Part 3: Homelessness Growing Among Families with Children

November 22, 2011 at 4:15 PM

The number of homeless families has been growing in recent years, but major programs that have proven effective at helping families find stable housing will serve fewer of them next year because of limited funding.

Since the recession began in late 2007, the number of homeless families with children living in temporary shelters has risen by 28 percent, to nearly 170,000 families in 2010, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Roughly four times as many families are living "doubled-up" or in other unstable home situations, school enrollment data from the Department of Education data suggest.

11-22-11hous.jpgNumerous studies have documented the harmful long-term impact of housing instability on children. Compared to other kids, children whose families are homeless or living in unstable homes:

  • Perform less well in school, are more likely to repeat a grade, and are less likely to complete high school -- and the effects worsen with cumulative moves.
  • Experience higher rates of mental health problems and developmental delays.
  • Will more likely have physical health problems such as asthma or ear infections. (The Center for Housing Policy provides helpful summaries of the research here and here.)

Equally well-documented, housing assistance dramatically improves housing stability for low-income families that receive it. A recent study of families with children eligible for welfare assistance, for example, concluded that housing vouchers reduced the incidence of homelessness among these families by 75 percent. (Housing vouchers, which are federally funded, enable low-income households to rent modest housing in the private market at an affordable cost.)

Due to funding limitations, however, only about 1 in 4 eligible low-income families receives a housing voucher or other type of federal rental assistance.

Moreover, even fewer families will likely receive rental assistance in the future. Congress provided $1.5 billion for homelessness prevention in the 2009 Recovery Act, which likely averted an even sharper increase in family homelessness in 2010 (see graph), yet most local housing agencies will exhaust these funds well before the end of next year. Also, in HUD's fiscal year 2012 budget, total funding for programs will fall by $3.7 billion (9 percent) below the 2011 level. Hardest hit are public housing and programs that promote the production of affordable housing. But even programs that fared relatively well in the budget, such as the Housing Choice Voucher program, will likely serve fewer families next year due to inadequate funding.

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