Sharp Rise In Homeless Children, Study Says

The rate of homelessness among kids has seen a dramatic increase of 33 percent since 2007, according to a new report from the National Center on Family Homelessness. Host Michel Martin speaks with Dr. Ellen Bassuk, president of the organization, and Mike Pomi, who heads a group that provides services to at-risk children in Nevada.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, illegal immigration still sparks fierce political debates but recent reports suggest that illegal border crossings from Mexico to the U.S. have slowed down dramatically. We'll talk about why that might be in just a few minutes. But first, we want to take a closer look at the changing face of homelessness in America. A new report from the National Center on Family Homelessness shows that the rate of homelessness among children in the U.S. has increased nearly 33 percent since 2007.

This means roughly 1.6 million kids. The data was released as part of a report called "America's Youngest Outcasts 2010." We wanted to find out more about this so we've called upon Dr. Ellen Bassuk. She is the founder and president of the National Center on Family Homelessness. Also with us is Mike Pomi. He is the executive director of the Children's Cabinet. That is a nonprofit that provides services for homeless and other at risk children in Northern Nevada.

"America's Youngest Outcast" report ranked that state close to the bottom in the U.S. in providing adequate resources for homeless children. Thank you both so much for speaking with us today.

MIKE POMI: It's great to be here.

ELLEN BASSUK: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Dr. Bassuk, and I do want to say, you are a medical doctor. Your report is titled "America's Youngest Outcasts." That's a very provocative title. I want to ask you why you chose it in a minute, but just to set the table first, when you say homeless, it may seem like a simple question, but I do think it's important to establish this - what exactly do you mean?

BASSUK: It's not - it's actually not a simple question. The definition of homelessness has been debated. The HUD definition refers to literal homelessness. In this report we used the Department of Education definition, which is also used by various other programs such as the Runaway and Homeless Youth programs. The new (unintelligible) which has reauthorized McKinney-Vento uses a broader definition.

MARTIN: Okay. We don't know what McKinney-Vento is, so if you just tell us exactly what you mean. What is the definition?

BASSUK: Okay, McKinney-Vento is the legislation that funds most homelessness assistance programs.

MARTIN: Okay, what is the definition of homelessness? What exactly do you mean? Do you mean kids who...

BASSUK: It refers to kids who are literally homeless as well kids who are doubled up and precariously housed by reason of economic hardship.

And why do you call these kids outcasts?

They - because of their homelessness status, they have no routines. They have no bed to call their own each night. They're lost for the time being. They're not in the system in any regular way. They sometimes don't attend school and they reflect, I think, some of society's views of homeless people.

MARTIN: And Mike Pomi, we haven't forgotten about you. But Dr. Bassuk, just to tie a bow in this, what are the major factors that you've found driving up the number of homeless children, when you have to assume that the recession is a part of it, is a big part of it?

BASSUK: Yeah, during times of economic recession or depression, there's always an increase in homeless people, but the numbers of homeless families have increased steadily since the mid-'80s. In the mid-'80s only one percent of the overall homeless population were families. Now it's about a third, but the recession has caused a spike in the number of homeless families and that's what we're seeing right now.

MARTIN: Mike Pomi, the data on foreclosures released just today from the group RealtyTrac showed that Nevada had the highest foreclosure rate of any state. Is that a factor in what you're seeing in your state?

POMI: That's correct, it's a huge factor. What's happened is, is our families that worked in the construction trade, for example, Dad had a well paying job and Mom was working, both lose their employment, their children are displaced, and they're put on the streets basically without employment. So as we grew at the fastest rate in the country, we have declined at the fastest rate in the country and our foreclosures have lead to homelessness where we see it on the streets where they end up in the community assistance center or shelters or on the streets.

A lot of times there is so much stress in the home, our law enforcement saw an increase in domestic violence, where people are unemployed and they're fighting with each other and then eventually the outcome is the kids are removed either through the child welfare system or they're basically in some cases abandoned, where mom and dad just up and leave.

MARTIN: And we're talking again about this whole question of who exactly we're talking about here. Do the kids you serve - and when you talk about homelessness, are you talking about the same thing that Dr. Bassuk is talking about, which is not necessarily kids who have no shelter at all but whose circumstances are so precarious, you know, that they don't consider the home their home or that they're so doubled up to the point where they really don't feel that - it just isn't a place that really is a home.

Do you - is that what you are talking about as well?

POMI: That is what – her definition is accurate, although doubled up would seem like a luxury in my opinion. I've seen situations where 10 or more kids are in a single motel room without any other means, no kitchen or whatnot. So two people in a room would be what kind of ideal would be to keep them off the street, so we have seen it and her definition is accurate. They - a lot of our kids are displaced. They couch surf, is what we call it. Moving from home to home without a permanent place to call their own.

That happens quite often, and they're really a secretive and hidden population, difficult to count, at least in Nevada, because of the couch surfing and the ability to move from place to place. Parents don't ask what they're doing for a couple weeks, then they try to check in on them and they find another location. So our street population doesn't look like some of the other larger cities, but our hidden population is much larger and much more difficult for us to access.

MARTIN: You know, Dr. Bassuk was saying that this is a long term problem. This actually dates back longer than many people might believe that it does. So Mike, are you seeing a change in the types of families who were kids whom you - or the families whom you were serving, or the kids who you're trying to serve, their family circumstances - have you seen it changed over the time?

POMI: Well, just as we described, the housing and the recession, as the doctor noted, have been the key drivers for increasing our homeless population. In Nevada, for sure. And I've seen a difference in the tone of which kids come before us. Like you said, the parents were working. They had employment. The economy was rolling along and then all of a sudden you take away that ability to make your payments, and we know the result is they don't - there's(ph) a lot of times no family, friend, or neighbor to go to and they end up on the street.

So these people, we've seen an increase all the way through for our shelters, for food, clothing, basic needs. Here's an example. We do an adopt a family each year for Christmas for the nonprofit that I'm in, the Children's Cabinet, and we've increased each year the amount of youth and families we serve, and the things they ask for are not what a typical child would ask for - for toys. They ask for underwear, socks, t-shirts, pants.

The most extravagant thing for the child and family I adopted with my wife was a bike helmet, and so we're not seeing Nintendo's and X-Box. We're seeing basic survival. Mom and dad asked for pots and pans. So we're back to the old Maslow hierarchy of needs, of basic needs. We're trying to meet those needs.

MARTIN: And I also heard you say that, you know, there was no family or friends in the area or family particular - your extended family to call upon. Is that in part because many of the people who are - who moved to Nevada during the boom times were the first in their whole clan or family to get there, so there really isn't this same network? Is that kind of what you're telling me there?

POMI: Right, we're really a transient population based on the casino industry to begin with, and then with the construction trade it's a boom or bust town with mining and everything else that we do here. So we see peaks and valleys. And you're correct. They show up and they're just on their own as their family system. They're not in a large network of, you know, sustainable family members staying around them and they find themselves unable to get around. They lose their vehicles. They lose their ability for transportation. It's a wicked web of information that they have kind of thrust upon them to get things moving.

MARTIN: We've been talking about the rise in homelessness among American children, according to a new report. We're talking with Mike Pomi of the Children's Cabinet, a children's service provider in Nevada. That's who was talking just now.

Also with us, Dr. Ellen Bassuk, the president of the National Center on Family Homelessness, which released this report.

Dr. Bassuk, you're a psychiatrist. And I just would like to ask you - a couple of minutes that we have left is - what are some of the things that you think people should know about the effect on a child and a family of being homeless that people might not understand or think about at first? Obviously, you know, the sense of insecurity. I mean, anybody who's got a kid, you know, understands that kids crave stability. But what are some other things that you think we should know?

BASSUK: Well, I think one thing that we should know is that more than 40 percent of these kids are less than six years old, so there are a lot of youngsters whose actual development may be affected by being homeless.

In addition, the school-aged kids have a tremendous amount of difficulty learning in school. If you think about what Mike described, these kids are often sleeping in one room with lots of other kids each night and they don't sleep well. They're hungry. They come to school. It's hard to pay attention. It's hard to learn. It's very difficult when you go back to a shelter to do your homework.

And then, these kids don't do well in school. They get left back and they're seen as failures when, in fact, this is due to very difficult external circumstances.

So one of the things that all of us need to do is provide more supports in the schools so that these children are able to succeed.

MARTIN: And, Mike, a final thought from you, if you would. One of the things you were telling us earlier is that one of the traumas that homeless kids suffer is losing confidence in their parents' ability to provide for them. And I can understand, as a service provider yourself, you didn't want to reinforce that.

So, in just the minute that we have left, I'd like to ask you. It is the holiday season. Many people would probably like to help right now. What do you think people can do to be helpful without reinforcing this notion, you know, that the parents are not capable?

POMI: For our case, the donation of funds and money to keep people off the streets when it's below zero or freezing is the first basic need so they don't freeze to death. So we have the ability for people to give in that way. They can give of their time and assist. I think the doctor laid it out pretty well. These kids struggle academically and so, if you volunteered and read with a child or did math tutoring with a child, that would be of great benefit.

So you don't have to always give money. You can give food, shelter, clothing, if you have that ability. You can give through your church. But just don't lose sight of these kids and, like you said, it's a tragedy when you discover that 40 percent are six years and younger. We should all be ashamed if we don't help.

MARTIN: Mike Pomi is the executive director of the Children's Cabinet, which offers services to homeless and other at-risk children in Nevada. He was with us from KUNR in Reno.

Dr. Ellen Bassuk is the president of the National Center on Family Homelessness. She joined us from member station WGBH in Boston.

I have the feeling we'll be speaking again about this important story. I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

POMI: Thank you.

BASSUK: Thank you.

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