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A winter of despair for homeless families

OPINION: In the absence of much-needed measures, the pandemic will make the cold days harder and more perilous among our most vulnerable population

Ellen Bassuk • knowable
Jan. 7, 2021 7 minSource

A winter of despair for homeless families

OPINION: In the absence of much-needed measures, the pandemic will make the cold days harder and more perilous among our most vulnerable population

1.7.2021

This winter, I am extremely worried about homeless families.

More than one-third of homeless people in the US are families with young children, but they’re often invisible. They’re not the people we typically see, who live on the streets, under bridges or in encampments. Instead, homeless families are generally unseen, subsisting in temporary housing, such as emergency shelters, motels or hotels, or squeezed in with other families into overcrowded apartments. But they all are transient, with no fixed address.

The issue is of major concern in Massachusetts, where I live, which has experienced the highest percentage increase in family homelessness of any state since 2007. Here, winters are especially hard, as the snow and ice render outdoor common areas inaccessible for play. Entire families shiver out the season in a small room, often not much bigger than a jail cell. And Covid-19 will make this year particularly hard.

Homelessness is not an unsolvable problem — there are many things officials can do to help families survive the Covid winter. But they have to act now.

“Entire families shiver out the season in a small room, often not much bigger than a jail cell.”

Typically, homeless families are headed by a young mother, with an average of two children. Most of the people in homeless families are children, the majority of whom are under the age of 6. They are disproportionately families of color. Most homeless mothers have experienced abuse at some point in their lives. They are scared and in despair about their circumstances. All of this makes it very difficult for them to be effective parents. Their children have often been exposed to violence, and have higher rates of physical and emotional difficulties compared with children who aren’t homeless.

The coronovirus pandemic has become a humanitarian crisis, and for homeless children — an estimated 2.5 million each year in the US alone (or 1 in every 30 children) — it has been devastating.

Given their cramped living quarters and lack of resources, it’s nearly impossible for homeless families to practice social distancing and other Covid safety measures. That puts them at risk, along with anyone they come in contact with.

Day-care and school settings are among the few places that offer homeless children reassuring routines, structure and safety, as well as an escape from their tiny, temporary homes. Not this year: In cities across the state and country, many preschool and elementary schools have closed, at least intermittently.

“Spending now to help homeless families weather the Covid winter will save us from crushing costs in the future.”

Virtual school is not easy, as parents everywhere can attest, no matter their circumstance. Imagine trying to help your child focus on schoolwork while supervising younger siblings and working or looking for work — all in the confines of a single room. And that’s assuming you even have access to a computer.

Many homeless students simply can’t keep up, and the setback won’t necessarily be temporary: Research shows that kids who are behind in reading by grade 3 are at higher risk of dropping out of school. The learning losses happening right now are almost certainly widening achievement gaps, and are likely to contribute to economic inequality with generational impacts.

We know what to do — we just need the political will to make it happen. One hopeful sign in my town: The Boston City Council plans on forming a special commission to end family homelessness in the city within five years. But right now, families need immediate relief.

Crashing in a friend’s living room, even temporarily, is a bad idea in the age of Covid. More shelters must be available that allow for social distancing and other public health standards. In Vermont, officials worked with local hotels to ensure that every homeless person had a bed at a safe distance from one another, and the state has reported only a handful of coronavirus cases — less than 1 percent — among its homeless population. In contrast, when the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tested more than 400 residents of a Boston homeless shelter for individuals in April, 147 of them (36 percent) were positive for the Covid-19 virus.

Officials need to work with local school systems and community health centers to identify children who lack permanent housing and address their needs. This may involve creating emergency responses, such as crisis response teams that engage the children, and advocating for resources to address their emotional needs and prevent them from falling even further behind.

Yes, all this will take a lot of money. But spending now to help homeless families weather the Covid winter will save us from crushing costs in the future: from enormous health care expenses to the societal damage that occurs when children carry their traumas into adulthood. That, to me, would be money well spent.

This article is part of Reset: The Science of Crisis & Recovery, an ongoing series exploring how the world is navigating the coronavirus pandemic, its consequences and the way forward. Reset is supported by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

This article originally appeared in Knowable Magazine, an independent journalistic endeavor from Annual Reviews. Sign up for the newsletter.

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