When I think of children living on the streets, images of bedraggled street kids looking like Oliver Twist come to mind. In my travels through Latin America and Africa, I have encountered unaccompanied youth younger than 12, as they beg in front of the train station or on the street corner. Their tattered clothes represent their tattered lives.
Here in America, these impoverished children are not as prevalent as they are in developing countries struggling with poverty.
Or so we think.
Take a look at our schools. During the 2011-2012 academic year, America’s schools had 1.2 million homeless students, a 10 percent increase from the year before.
I am baffled by this sad fact. How does our country allow more than one million school children to be homeless? And how many more children are homeless, and do not attend school at all?
How do these children live on the streets, in cars, or in shelters, and still make it to school?
Joey, who is living in a temporary shelter with his mom, is in fifth grade. If you were to see him walking to school, he would look just like any other student with his backpack and school uniform. But instead of going home at the end of each day, Joey walks to a nearby shelter.
Eating meals with 100 strangers, sharing bathrooms, and sleeping within earshot of dozens of other people is not really a home. It is just a roof over his head. Joey may not look like Oliver Twist, but his life sure resembles it.
If Joey and his family were living in New York City, he would be one of 21,000 homeless children that sleep in the city’s shelters.
So what should our country do?
Many very smart experts have studied the issue of family homelessness in America. They have written papers and spoken at national conferences. Their solutions are detailed, based on evidence, and address systemic barriers.
Take “rapid re-housing,” a practice through which we help families get back into apartments with security deposits and rental assistance. Getting families into apartments, rather than funneling them through a byzantine shelter system, just makes sense.
Or a coordinated entry system that provides families with a single, central location where they can access all the services and housing they need. Or taking steps to prevent families from becoming homeless in the first place.
These models are working.
All Joey wants is a home. We should strive to help every homeless family move into a simple apartment until they can get back on their feet.
That would end homelessness for Joey’s family, and for every other family too.