By Radiah Shabazz

The severity of America’s homeless epidemic is one that is often misunderstood and overlooked. Across the country, homelessness continues to plague communities, with an unprecedented increase in the number of children and families finding themselves without stable living conditions. Though there has been increasing attention to this issue much has been done in efforts to combat the rise of homelessness as an epidemic in America, there is still room to increase awareness, gather support, and offer solutions on how to end child and family homelessness.

Earlier this month the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) held a meeting with members of the Obama Administration to brainstorm ideas on how best to end homelessness among families. This meeting was followed by a blog post by USICH’s Executive Director, Barbara Poppe, where she highlights that families account for nearly 40 percent of the homeless population nationwide and lays out the steps that USICH has taken to alleviate the problem.

We applaud USICH for their efforts to bring awareness and take action to address the problem of family homelessness. First Focus Campaign for Children aims to build on these efforts by continuing our advocacy efforts to improve outcomes for homeless children, youth, and families. We recently updated and republished Child Homelessness: A Problem of Epic Proportions, in hopes to provide a greater level of understanding to lawmakers as to what causes homelessness for children, youth, and families how it can be prevented. It reveals that there are various levels of homelessness and multiple situations that contribute to one’s inability to maintain a stable living environment. In recent years, the economic recession has continued to be a major contributing factor to family and youth homelessness. Many families face homelessness as a result of foreclosures due to a nationwide lack of affordable housing, and youth are kicked out or leave home for various reasons (e.g. differences with parents, to escape abuse), and/or aging out of the foster care and/or juvenile justice systems.

There are several policy solutions to address the problem of family homelessness. The National Housing Trust Fund (NHTF), created in 2008 but never funded, would provide affordable housing to families who are affected by homelessness. The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Grants program, support homeless prevention programs and permanent supportive housing solutions for families facing homelessness but lacks the funding required to support all of the homeless families in need. With an economy that is still in the process of rebuilding, funding sources are limited, and alternative methods must be sought to defeat homelessness.

According to the Department of Education, there were nearly a million homeless children and youth enrolled in public school in the 2009-2010 school year. Yet many of these children are not able to receive HUD homeless assistance, for the current HUD definition of homelessness excludes people who are forced to live in other homeless situations, including people staying with others temporarily because they have nowhere to go (“doubled-up”), and people staying in motels.

Efforts are needed to align HUD’s definition of homelessness with the Department of Education’s by including children and youth who have been verified as homeless by federal program personnel. This would create a streamlined and efficient referral process for homeless children and youth to access HUD homeless services, and provide communities with the flexibility to serve and house this vulnerable population.

In addition, under the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008, states have the option to allow youth in the foster care system to remain in the system until age 21. All states should take up this option, which allows youth who are preparing to age out of the system to finish school and job programs, save money, secure stable housing, and prepare for independence.

Above all, anyone who is faced with the crisis of homelessness needs care and support. We must up the ante when it comes to ensuring that our nation’s homeless children, youth, and families have both. Though not easy, with continued work we can increase awareness of the gravity of homelessness and improve outcomes for our nation’s most vulnerable children, youth, and families.