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Summertime

By Lauren Blundin

Not a Break for Homeless Families

   
Located in Cincinnati, Ohio, the Yellow Bus Summer Camp offers young homeless children living in shelters free meals each day as well as swimming gear, and offers many exciting, first-time learning experiences.

Summer 2015

Every June, kids acoss the United States are counting down to summer vacation. They cannot wait for the break—a time for family outings to beaches, parks, and museums, for riding bikes and going swimming.

Summer also brings a less welcome phenomenon—often called the “summer surge”—of increasing numbers of people, including families, needing shelter. There are many reasons for this increase, but at least one cause can be linked to the summer break itself; relatives and friends who have allowed homeless families to live with them during the school year are less patient with the situation once summer break has started and children are home all day.

For children experiencing homelessness, a break from school can mean a break from the one stable place in their lives. “School is a critical, normalizing part of life,” says Nan Roman, president and CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. “School is a time for being with peers, pursuing interests, and being out of the stressful situation of being homeless.”

Different Challenges and Barriers

Summer break often finds homeless students without a safe place to play and without opportunities for educational or cultural activities. Sadly, summertime for some kids also means having fewer positive interactions with caring adults.

Summer learning loss—the loss of academic knowledge and skills over the break—is a concern for all children. Homeless students in particular cannot afford to lose skills, as they are often already behind their peers academically.

With 1 child in 30 homeless every year, the public school system is the obvious choice for providing and funneling services and supports to homeless children and their families. Schools may provide free breakfasts and lunches (and less frequently, dinners), access to health care and dental care, food pantry programs, access to before- and after- school care, and enrichment activities. When the calendar flips to June, the need for food, quality educational activities, and other services does not just go away.

The Hunger Gap

“About 21 million students receive free and reduced price meals at school during the school year,” says Ross Fraser, director of national relations for Feeding America, which represents a nationwide network of member food banks. “Of those, about 10 million also get a free breakfast. So for a significant number of children there are one or two meals a day they receive free or at a reduced price.”

What happens during the summer break? There is a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) summer food service program, but it reaches only about one in eight, or 20 percent, of the children who receive free or reduced price meals during the school year. Lack of transportation to the summer meal sites is a common barrier for children, especially those in rural areas, resulting in a huge gap between the number of children eligible for food programs and the number of students accessing those programs.

Breaking Down Barriers to Food

Feeding America’s member food banks work with national donors to move food to 60,000 different programs. Special summer programs try to reach the other seven in eight children who still need food assistance. “A lot of our food banks are finding innovative ways to feed kids during the summer,” says Fraser. “Some have retrofitted school buses to drive around and stop at different trailer parks to feed kids. Some are partnering with the public library. Innovation is the name of the game—trying to find new ways to get food to children.”

In childhood hunger, the stakes are high. Inadequate nourishment can hinder intellectual, emotional, and physical development and set a child up for failure in school later on. Add to this the phenomenon of summer learning loss. Clearly, the need for summertime academic intervention and enrichment for children experiencing homelessness is an urgent one.

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