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Tonight in America, 200,000 children will go to sleep without a roof over their head. Last year, 1.6-million individual children were homeless for at least one night. How does this happen in the wealthiest nation the planet has ever seen?

homeless kid

Being homeless is a debilitating, soul-robbing challenge for most adults when we find ourselves in that situation, people like me who found themselves on the street because of a cascading series of unfortunate events that whooshed and swirled out of control. Until it happens – and may it not happen to you – it is impossible to fathom what it's like to be suddenly cut adrift. I cannot imagine what being homeless does to a kid.

"Jared is frightened all the time," Lavinia Swenson, a 24-year-old mother of a five-year-old boy, told me. She is in a suburb of the Twin Cities that, in a sadly ironic note, is close to where Garrison Keillor's idyllic Lake Woebegon is set. "He tries to hide it from me but I can see it in his eyes."

For a while, Swenson and her son lived in a motel paid for with county funds. But she left when she realized the place was being used by prostitutes and drug dealers. Now, Lavinia and Jared spend some nights in a shelter or live in her car.

"A 1993 Honda isn't the best place to sleep," she notes, "but the motel was too dangerous."

Broad Implications

Kids who experience homelessness aren't runaways and weren't abandoned by their family. These are youngsters who are with one or both of parents and would be playing with neighborhood friends if they had a neighborhood.

Homeless single parents – 76% of homeless women have children with them as do four out of 10 of men, according to The Campaign To End Child Homelessness – is both a national problem and disgrace. It is made worse by Republicans in Congress and state legislatures doing everything they can to deepen the misery from cutting unemployment benefits to tightening eligibility for food assistance, Medicaid and other aid. Yet homeless kids cost states and Washington a bundle.

homeless family

Homeless kids are sick four times more often than other children. They suffer four times more respiratory infections, twice as many ear infections and five times as many stomach and gastrointestinal problems as do children who have a home. So, lacking health insurance, a typical homeless child is usually treated at an emergency room.

Donny Falcon is the 33-year-old widower and father of nine-year-old twins, Mark and Howard. They've been homeless for more than a year after he was laid off when his job as a call center manager was outsourced, and the family house was foreclosed. Ever since then, he says the boys have had ongoing medical issues.

"It's been one thing after another," Falcon says. "They get a lot more stomachaches than they ever did, and the doctor said Howard has developed asthma."

He lost his health insurance when he was let go and couldn't afford to pay the premiums himself. The children are on Medicaid but Falcon says Florida has notified him that their eligibility will end soon.

"What do I do?" he asked. "Let them get sicker and sicker? We'll have to use the ER"

Beyond medical problems, homeless children are exposed to violence with terrifying regularity. By age 12, some 83% of homeless children have been exposed to at least one serious violent event and a quarter have seen violence in their family. They are more likely to exhibit aggressive and antisocial behavior, including increased fearfulness, higher levels of depression and anxiety, and use violence more often to resolve conflict.

"Sarah has had problems in school since we lost our home," states Louise, who doesn't want her last name or city mentioned. Sarah is 12. For the past eight months, Louise and her husband have lived with different relatives after spending 10 weeks living in their van. "She doesn't feel like she belongs anywhere so she acts out.

"She's terrified we'll be out on the street again sometime," Louise worries, "and she takes it out on anyone who pisses her off.

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In other words, we're helping ensure that Corrections Corporation of America – which brags that it's "America's Leader in Partnership Corrections," whatever that means – and other for-profit prison schemes and scams will be blessed with a stream of revenue-producing inmates extending well into the future.

School Dazed

Homeless children not only are robbed of their childhood but also suffer at school so their situation is likely to affect them the rest of their lives.

According to the American Psychological Assn. these children are under constant stress, affecting their concentration and memory which affects their ability to learn. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the dropout rate for homeless students is nearly five times greater than the rate of children from higher-income families, 8.7% versus 2%.

Minnesotan Louise Swenson sees it happening with her son, Jared.

"He always got good grades, mostly B's and a few A's," she insists. "When we became homeless, they went down to C's and D's."

Indeed, the problem is so pervasive that the National Association. for the Education of Homeless Children produced a series of videos for school kids featuring eight high school students explaining how they coped with being homeless.


No one should have to be homeless, especially not kids. My experience out here has scared me so I can only imagine the effect not having a home has on five year olds. It is likely to scar them for life in ways seen and unseen.

Every child is entitled to believe that their home is a safe place but how can they when it's taken away from them? How can a child concentrate in school when they don't know where they will sleep that night? How do children who see their parent's constantly frightened not grow up to be angry at the world?

It's bad enough that America tolerates adults not having a home. To put our most-vulnerable in that situation is inexcusable.

Charley James

Author and journalist Charley James’ next book is about his experience becoming homeless. When published, Charley will donate a percentage of his advance and royalties to homeless organizations.

More articles by Charley James

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Follow Charley on Twitter @SuddenlyHomeles.

Posted: Saturday, 30 June 2012