By Ralph da Costa Nunez
President, Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness
There appears to be no end to the mounting pressures on America’s poorest families in the areas of income, housing, and employment. They face stagnant wages, rising rents, and jobs that do not pay a livable wage. As such, it is no surprise that the latest stats from the U.S. Department of Education identified 1.36 million homeless children in schools from every community across the country. For more than three decades, parents and their children have turned to relatives and friends for help, found themselves in shelter, and even resorted to living as poverty nomads: sleeping in cars, in tent cities, and even on the streets. It’s no secret that these experiences affect children in profound ways, but there has been frustratingly little focus on how we can align public policy to best address their unique needs.
The Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness has just released a new edition of the American Almanac of Family Homelessness that aims to do just that: it uses state-level data to assess how effective government funded programs have been in connecting homeless students to the services they are entitled to, as well as examines what policies states have in place to prevent family homelessness in the first place. Specifically, this 2015 edition incorporates 10 indicators to rank each state’s relative performance in the areas of pre-K through college education, housing, income supports, and domestic violence.
The Almanac’s rankings are not meant to be a report card but rather a gauge on how states are doing compared to each other. Clearly every locality, school district, and community across the country can and should be doing better and every incremental improvement counts. The Almanac recognizes that what works in one state may not work in another, but at the very least states can begin to discuss best practices and leading examples. Dedicated policymakers, service providers, advocates, and funders can use the indicators that comprise the rankings to review, enhance, or bolster the work they are doing to help homeless children and families.
The Almanac offers five indicators that address the needs of children who are most often the invisible and silent victims of homelessness. Unless they are seen, heard, and identified by public agencies they most often fall through the cracks and thus stand little chance of being connected to resources and supports. Identifying the educational needs of homeless children is key to reviewing and revising policy and funding priorities. This starts with indicators that measure their participation in pre-school all the way through to tracking the number of college-bound homeless youth who receive the help they need to access financial aid.
Measuring the social and economic impact of public services has become increasingly important as policymakers seek to reduce the number of families who return to homelessness again and again, thus cutting costs and allowing government to do more with less. The Almanac examines SNAP benefits, childcare subsidies, and domestic violence protections which can all have multiplier effects if they are made more accessible to homeless families on the road to housing and employment. Supports to working families with incomes at minimum wage levels or living in areas with limited low-income housing can reduce their vulnerability to repeat or first-time homelessness.
For the first time, the 2015 American Almanac of Family Homelessness arms government and service providers with the critical information they need to address the housing, social, financial, and educational instability that families experience across the country. States can examine how effective early education programs are in getting homeless children the tools they need to be ready for school, how they are identifying students living doubled up and connecting them to services, and what they are doing to reduce homeless families’ barriers to accessing child care. Rather than bracing for the next surge in homeless families, this data points to immediate and actionable steps to connect families with supports they need.
Thoughtful and relevant data analysis is the cornerstone of effective public policy. Data driven solutions can alert policymakers to emerging problems, evaluate strategies for addressing long-term issues, and helping government remain accountable to results. With this report, we hope to push the highest ranked states to do better, and encourage those on the lower levels of the rankings to engage proactively. But most importantly, we hope to further the conversation about what it will take to reduce or prevent family homelessness. Only then can we reduce the negative effects of instability on children, families, communities, and the public’s coffers.